3 min read

๐ŸšŒ Public transportation is boring? Think again.

๐ŸšŒ Public transportation is boring? Think again.
Photo by Kat Sazonova / Unsplash

When you work with startups, you sometimes get the impression that everyone is chasing dumb pizza-delivery businesses that will make them rich overnight or investing in improbable moonshot technologies where quantum computing will cure cancer. The boring but important daily stuff? No one really cares about it.

If you want to find a field that can be as unattractive as possible for startups, public transportation is certainly top of the list. Dealing with transport authorities' red tape, antiquated tech stacks, citizens' risk-aversion, and local politics in general, is a big no-no for any reasonable startup team.

As it happens, sometimes, boring is good. I present you Optibus, a newly minted unicorn working on the boring side of public transportation ๐Ÿค˜

Optibus nabs $100M for AI-based mass transit ops platform โ€“ TechCrunch
Optibus, which uses AI to help public transportation bodies and their mass transit partners plan and operate their networks, has raised $100 million.

What is remarkable about Optibus is that they didn't chase the hype train trying to sell grandiose MaaS projects. They stubbornly focused on updating the underlying tech of regular mass transportation.

Here's a boring demo of their key technology: optimized Gantt planning โคต๏ธ

The mother of all boring demos: optimizing bus routes! 

What is not boring though? This:

When you're solving market problems and showing your ROI... 

A perfect example of โ€“ whether you sell mobility-as-a-service, smart city, or whatever will be the next hype train โ€“ a clear focus on solving real problems and delivering concrete value.

As such, Optibus is a remarkable example of the Israeli startup ecosystem playbook that I discovered two years ago while benchmarking different international foodtech ecosystems. It's essentially a three steps approaches:

  1. Build a best-in-class first technology stack; don't go overboard, and certainly don't try to solve everything yet. ย 
  2. Focus on finding a large enough beachhead market abroad to understand what will scale and design a roadmap.
  3. Stay practical, adapt to market demand, and push onward relentlessly.

As I was reporting at the time, for most Israeli startups, exporting is a day one priority:

[for Israeli startups] Export is step one of the business plan. It's better to scale abroad early on and demonstrate potential global market leadership when the regional market is too small to do so anyway. Not to mention that while scaling abroad, you'll have access to both local and foreign investors, fuleing recognition and growth even faster.

But being practical is also key. Since its launch, Optibus only focused on optimizing buses, trams, and metros in large enough agglomerations. The first tech layer was simply planning tools to deal with peak hours (and more recently the impact of covid and social distancing rules). From there they made the real-time data available to customer-facing services without making a fuss about beating Google at their own game:

Transport agencies understand that most of the world uses apps like Google Maps so the first focus is to make sure that the data is super accurate for those. - Amos Haggiag, CEO Optibus

From there, Optibus is expanding step-by-step with an analytics engine connecting other transportation systems and services, and this summer they'll add an operation stack for end-to-end drivers and employee management with live-report on traffic incidents โ€“ clearly to deal with the current drivers' shortage. You say boring? I say practical.

And a few years from now? Who knows? This boring startup might just end up delivering on the promise of the Smart City.