New Yorkers always look like they know where they're going, barreling down avenues, cell phone in hand. The secret is that they don't, or rather they haven't—until now. In fact, they may not actually be talking on those cell phones anymore, but instead using a relatively new service called HopStop, a MapQuest-like offering that uses mass transit and walking directions to get users from Point A to Point B in the five boroughs of New York. No more wasting time peering at bus or subway maps; natives and visitors alike can ask HopStop—via computer, PDA, or other mobile device—the best way to reach their destination.
Users of HopStop plug in their start address and destination, whether they happen to be street addresses, intersections, or popular locations such as a museum or restaurant. They choose a transportation mode (bus only, subway only, bus and subway, or walking only); walking/transfer preference (less street walking/more transfers or more street walking/fewer transfers); and time and day of travel. Other options include language choices (English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Greek, Italian, Russian, and Swahili). The list of geo-coded popular locations is currently at approximately 15,000 and growing.
HopStop was born out of the frustration of a new New Yorker. Chinedu Echeruo, a native Nigerian who first came to the United States at age 16, found the labyrinth of subway lines and buses overwhelming and confusing. So Echeruo set about creating the first HopStop prototype back in 2001, though he discovered that the problem (like NYC's transit system) was even more complicated than it first seemed. Echeruo points out that when it comes to mass transit, it's not just a question of how to get from Point A to Point B, but also: Should I wait for a train? Walk for a bit? Take a bus?
The final version of HopStop then launched in November of 2004 with the goal of solving two problems for travelers: Where is an address located? And, what is the best way to get there? HopStop remains a work in progress, with additional transit changes added as necessary. For example, when the MTA recently purchased privately-owned bus lines, HopStop was quick to add the new service routes. HopStop also offers a suggestion box, which has already proven its worth with users. Users complained that text messages were too long, so HopStop has truncated messages as much as possible to use fewer characters.
By around June, HopStop will also expand to Boston, with future projects planned for Washington D.C. and New Jersey. While focusing on intra-city travel, the satellite projects will also offer opportunities for inter-city travel tie-ins. Advertising from companies such as Amtrak could offer a more full-service site for visitors.
The goal is that down the line, visitors could use HopStop to plan a trip from New York to Boston along the following lines: mass transit directions from your apartment to Penn Station including the closest place to grab a coffee on the way, links to Amtrak to buy a train ticket, directions from the station to your friend's apartment in Boston, and links to a restaurant in the neighborhood to make dinner reservations.
In May, HopStop launched a call service that users can dial to ask location-based questions and receive answers via text message or automated responses. This move to "integrate location-specific information with a call service" will, according to Echeruo, "open the addressable market much more." The impetus for the call service was the same as for the mobile service: to get information to people where they need it. And the voice service would be available even for those who use pay phones (there still are a few!) and others who can not receive text messages. The business model for the call service was unclear at press time, but likely will be either a paid service or ad-supported by local advertisers.
The call service also is unearthing additional business opportunities for Echeruo, who declines to comment on the company's current financial outlook. HopStop "will look for partners to make the voice application an ecommerce or mcommerce platform," says Echeruo. Users in Times Square, for example, could call HopStop, and the service could direct them to press 1 to connect to a Broadway ticket office, press 2 to make dinner reservations in the area, etc. "People talk about local advertising—this is the ultimate in local advertising."