A Californian startup has set out to optimise people’s daily commute on public transport in the San Francisco area by providing personalised ‘lifestyle’ and concierge services accessible via a mobile app.

Public transport: Blinq looks to optimise commuting

Paradoxically San Francisco, a city which has come to symbolise the cutting edge of modern technology, is hardly a shining example when it comes to public transportation. Uber, Lyft, Chariot or Google shuttles offer alternatives, but there are still hundreds of thousands of people who commute into San Francisco to their workplace and drive home again in the evening, or vice versa. This is quite a long journey and some people of course prefer to take the train – Caltrain – or the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) elevated and subway system.
In order to take advantage of time spent aboard trains, which people tend to see as dead time, Blinq, a startup that already operates in China and launched its US arm in November, is looking to redefine the daily commuter experience by offering local personalised services through an app. So on the train – where there is certainly no WiFi connection but 3G coverage is available more or less everywhere, you can do your shopping online via Instacart and then pick it up in the evening directly at the Blinq ‘pod’ in the station.

Mapping journeys of over 30 miles, from San Francisco to other counties (Source: under the raedar)

Optimising the commute and breathing new life into subway stations

In addition to traditional ‘concierge’ services such as shopping, dry cleaning, and, for example, putting in the time needed to recharge the batteries of your electronic devices – you can also obtain information about pop-up style events – such as concerts and exhibitions – taking place at the various pods. Blinq wants its pods to become real pop-up stores that attract the attention of passers-by. ‟We’re hoping to make public transportation more pleasant, enabling people to spend perhaps only five minutes of their journey time carrying out everyday tasks which are a bit stressful. The Blinq concept is also about bringing together brands and their fans on the same platform at a specific time, linking online and offline,” explains Blinq Marketing Director Saf Elmansour.

L'application et les pods de Blinq

On the left, Blinq’s mobile interface. On the right, a model of one of the Blinq ‘pods’ set up in some of the BART stations in San Francisco

Blinq intends to make its name as a platform for connecting local businesses with passengers, thus making public transport that bit more fun. In fact the ‘pods’ could potentially also be turned into meeting places. ‟American football is very popular here. We could envisage forging partnerships with the stadiums and the local teams to distribute free goodies at our pods on match day. The Blinq hub then becomes a meeting point – basically a warm, friendly place – where you can get together with your friends before going to the match,” suggests Saf Elmansour.

Here you can find the interview with Saf Elmansour on L'Atelier Numérique (L'Atelier Digital) on 20 February

This initiative reminds us somewhat of the benefits of the self-driving cars of the future which promise to ensure that part of their journey time of those (non-)drivers will be transformed into productive or leisure time. The project also sounds like a good opportunity for public transportation companies such as Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) – with whom Blinq has signed an exclusive partnership – to breathe new life into the stations, transforming them from walk-through spaces to pleasant and useful areas.

"Qorner Quatre Épingles" in the Paris metro

In May 2014 in France Promométro, a subsidiary of state-owned public transport operator RATP, joined forces with the municipality of Montrouge in south Paris to launch a similar personalised services pod in the Mairie de Montrouge metro station. At Montrouge there is however no app: everything is done online via a website. And the ‘pod’ merely serves as a relay point for dropping off clothes to be dry-cleaned or picking up your shoes after their soles have been repaired. On 11 February, RATP launched a one-year pilot project, extending the trial run at Montrouge. In addition to the ‘Opera’ station, a total of sixteen ‘personal services 3.0 pods’ will be set up during 2016. In the same way that BART linked up with Blinq, RATP has teamed up with French startup Quatre Epingles, which specialises in concierge services such as laundry, dry cleaning, ironing, apparel alterations and shoe repairs.

Blinq offers a wider range of services, probably due to the power of the on-demand economy prevalent in San Francisco. However, in both Paris and San Francisco, logistics remains a grey area for these personalised service companies which are integrated into suburban transport networks. In fact the service really catches on and achieves mass adoption, the question might then arise as to whether a smallish startup will have the ability to manage the necessary product stocks in a space the size of a kiosk.

By Pauline Canteneur