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Ideas We Should Steal: An Everything Transportation App

It is unnecessarily hard to figure out the best public transit route to get around the Philly area — one reason people default to driving. Can we take a lesson from Berlin?

Ideas We Should Steal: An Everything Transportation App

It is unnecessarily hard to figure out the best public transit route to get around the Philly area — one reason people default to driving. Can we take a lesson from Berlin?

Imagine stepping out of your German town apartment. As you walk down the stairs, you pull your mobile from your pocket. In only a few simple steps you check train schedules for the first leg of your journey, bus schedules for the second. From there, things get a bit more complicated — a quick bike share, then grabbing an e-scooter to get to a subway stop, ride for a couple miles, and finally rent a car.

It’s an unnecessarily convoluted path, but hey, life is about the journey. Most importantly, you are able to make all these travel arrangements through a single app. Check schedules, make reservations, pay for everything all in one place. The hardest thing about this trip would be tracking down a great Currywurst to eat along the way.

“We all believe that the mobility revolution can only be achieved together,” says BVG’s Kremmin.

This may seem like a fictitious scenario (it’s certainly not Philly), but such a place does exist in the faraway land of “Berlin.” The city’s “everything transportation app” Jelbi is a German idea that Philadelphia really should steal.

Jelbi is a collaborative project between major transportation companies and the city of Berlin. Because the full weight of the government is pushing the app, barriers, redundancies and annoyances for riders have largely been dissolved away. Take the S-Bahn (city train), then transfer to the subway or bus. Rent a bike, scooter or car. Rent a van for a move, even. Reserve and pay for it all through Jelbi.

“In Berlin, we pronounce yellow ‘Jelb,’” writes Nils Kremmin of Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe (BVG). “Jelbi is connected to our yellow corporate color, but also reflects the dialect and cooperation in Berlin.”

As a non-Berliner, I ask Kremmin to explain BVG, the agency that oversees Jelbi.

“We are a public company commissioned in 1928 by the Berlin Senate,” he writes back. “BVG is the German expression for the operator of local public transport.”

Achieving … together

Five years ago, BVG sat down with public and private transportation companies including bikes, e-scooters and car-sharing — anything short of renting out a pair of sneakers — and created Jelbi. All the agencies agreed to offer their services under one umbrella because, as Kremmin puts it, “we all believe that the mobility revolution can only be achieved together.”

A bit kumbaya-sounding, but they convinced corporate and government leaders to buy into the revolution. Riders also seem convinced. Jelbi boasts an impressive 1 million subscribers, roughly one in every 3.5 Berliners.

“Subscribing is completely free,” Kremmin tells me. “We do have an identity verification process. A government issued ID-card is required (the European Union version of a U.S. passport). And we verify drivers licenses if you want to rent a scooter or car. Enter your payment information and you are ready to use Jelbi.”

How convenient would it be in Philly to open a single transportation app and reserve (and pay for) a seat on Regional Rail, transfer to a SEPTA bus, grab an Indego bike, push off on a Lime e-scooter (when they’re legalized) and then hail a Lyft? No reason in the world to do all that unless you’re trying to shake an FBI tail, but with a Philly version of Jelbi, you’d have that option.

As any public transportationist in the city knows, that option doesn’t currently exist here. Attempts have been made to streamline processes — free transfers, the SEPTA Key employer pass, (limited) mobile ticketing. There’s even a web survey out there soliciting public feedback ahead of a SEPTA Key 2.0 launch.

But some hurdles to creating a Philly version of Jelbi are baked into the system itself. Third-party providers can’t access SEPTA Key’s travel wallet — the baffling name for the system’s metro card — so forget a single app to pay for everything. Multiple, unique ticketing systems would have to be demolished. Other services and agencies like Indego’s bike-sharing or nearby NJ Transit would have to be brought to the table in a meaningful way.

And because SEPTA is tied in knots with its current contracts, the agency is a steamliner not easily maneuvered. All of these roadblocks mean getting from point A to point B in Philly, over multiple modes of transportation, is a more complicated, headache-inducing process than it needs to be.

Philly’s business-business solution

I ask Will Sanderson, co-founder of JAWNT, for his take on this. He hesitates when answering if Jelbi is possible here.

Cleverly-named JAWNT does share some similarities with BVG. The Philly-based enterprise software company tries to make public transport better and easier for riders. And they both hold to the ideal that a city is only as healthy as its public transportation systems.

But a notable difference between the two is how riders receive benefits.

“At JAWNT, we partner with local transit providers like SEPTA, Indego, Amtrak and others to provide discounted services to employees through their employers,” Sanderson says.

This is a “B-to-B-to-R” model (business to business to rider), rather than BVG’s direct-to-rider system. In Berlin, if you have an ID card and payment information, you can take advantage of Jelbi. The business-to-business model (think SEPTA’s Key Advantage) requires employment with a participating company.

This is partly why Sanderson hesitates when I ask about a City-sponsored direct-to-rider model in Philly. Currently, the B-to-B system gives you the most bang for your buck. The alternative, as seen in Berlin, would require massive collaboration between political and corporate leaders.

“Working with large institutions is challenging,” Sanderson says. “There would be a lot of technological obstacles to creating a Jelbi system here.”

He pauses again, allowing for a characteristic ray of optimism. “The good news is there are only about five transit agencies, so it’s not an … insurmountable challenge.”

These agencies could squeeze themselves under the umbrella of something like the Transit app, which may be the closest thing we have to Jelbi in the U.S. right now. In some cities (Atlanta, Boston, San Diego, New York City), In some cities (Atlanta, Boston, San Diego, New York City), Transit is successfully collating multiple commuter agencies into one app, allowing travelers to plan their trips, and coordinate schedules among several different transit modes. Unfortunately, Transit doesn’t allow users to buy their tickets or reserve their car shares from the app (at least not yet). Elevating Transit to work like Jelbi in Philadelphia would require a significant tearing down of contractual walls and, frankly, a whole new mindset for how open and cooperative our public agencies should be.

Glimmers of hope for a Philly transportation app

Last year, former Councilmember (and now mayoral candidate) Helen Gym introduced an amendment to the City’s code that would require companies employing more than 50 people to help provide public transportation to their employees.

Through a slate of tax benefits and group discounts, City Council declared the amendment would “result in hundreds of dollars of annual savings for employees, while decreasing traffic congestion and emissions to provide safer city streets.”

It’s not a commission from the City to create a Philly Verkehrsbetriebe and accompanying “all-in-one transportation app,” but it’s a step in the right direction. And in a city as complex and enmeshed as Philadelphia, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

It’s also worth noting that we exist in a unique moment, one where change might be more possible than ever before. During the pandemic, public transportation took a major hit — losing upwards of 50 percent ridership. Employers have been searching out ways to entice workers back to the office. We care more about city congestion and environmental harm than at any time in the city’s history. The momentum for a better, more user-friendly public transportation system does exist.

Perhaps then, Berlin is less an idea we can — right now — steal, and more a constellation to set our course towards. Because in a city where everyone has access to dependable, convenient mobility, officials can look to higher initiatives like electrifying their fleets (BVG is on track for full zero-emission public transport by 2030) or creating an integrated smart city (Jelbi is the “Swiss Army Knife” around which everything revolves).

Hell, you can even move on to fun things like audio branding! BVG is so focused on customer satisfaction (and apparently has enough time on their hands) that they went out and created an acoustic brand identity. Their new “sound” starts with “gongs and signal tones moving on to our market-researched audio logo, which combines the natural soundscape of Berlin with an instrument that comes closest to the human voice: the bass clarinet.”

“Visit the Jelbi website,” Kremmin prods me. “You’ll hear our new sound for yourself. You can even download a ringtone featuring our brand music.”

So much to unpack there, but just imagine for a minute, Philly, that our public transportation was so beloved — such a source of local, personal pride — that people actually wanted a custom ringtone made by SEPTA.

A guy can dream.


SEPTA's Market-Frankford El. Photo by Theo Wyss-Flamm.

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