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Public Transport

Woman using smart bus stop to call CAV

What does the growth in CAVs mean for the future of mass transport?

By | CAV, Feature, Infrastructure, Multimodal transport, Public Transport, Smart transport | One Comment

How things change. Just a decade ago, the majority of people wouldn’t even know what a ‘Connected vehicle’ was. The past few years, however, have seen several transport technologies shift from the realm of fantastical to entirely possible.

The rapid pace of technological development has brought us to a point where an entirely connected transport infrastructure is not just possible, it’s becoming a reality as we speak. Likewise, the growth of data-sharing devices and AI has given rise to a new form of transport; the Connected and Autonomous Vehicle (CAV). These AI-driven, data-guided vehicles represent an opportunity to improve safety, reduce congestion and revolutionise travel as we know it.

What are CAVs?

The term CAVs actually covers a broad range of vehicle types. Some of these are already on our roads, while some (despite what excitable tech bosses might tell you) are still several years away from commercial deployment.

‘Connected vehicles’ refers to vehicles with the capability to ‘talk’ to each other and to the infrastructure around them. These vehicles communicate through onboard devices that connect to the internet, which then send information to other vehicles containing the same technology. These devices usually take the form of a dynamic onboard router, but they can also be GPS units, tachographs, or even a smartphone hooked up to an onboard computer. Connected vehicles have also been in use for several years. Features like automated emergency braking and lane assist technology are already included as standard in many new vehicles.

Fully automated vehicles, where the vehicle can navigate without the need for a human driver, however, are still in their tertiary stages. Although there have been some highly publicised test cases, we’re still several years away from seeing them overtake the human-driven car.

Why now?

Transport is in dire need of change. Cities can no longer continue to permit any and all vehicles on the road. Ageing infrastructure, increasing car ownership and dwindling public transport ridership are contributing to record levels of congestion and dangerously poor air quality.

Governments are responding to the demand for more sustainable travel initiatives by integrating technologies like big data, the Internet-of-Things and AI to usher in an era where CAVs are increasingly seen as the most viable option for transport networks.

In Edinburgh, where the government is set to trial it’s first autonomous buses, MSP Michael Matheson said: “The deployment of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles has the potential to bring transformative change to people’s lives, not just in how we travel, but in how we work; where we live; how we can achieve an environment with fewer emissions; and travel more safely.” The potential for CAVs to usher in a new age of clean, efficient transport is clear.

Reducing congestion through demand-responsive bus services

Growth

CAVs can help countries achieve a greater level of sustainability while encouraging greater economic growth and creating a more inclusive society. The market for CAVs in the UK (specifically, for road vehicles with CAV technologies) is estimated to be worth £28bn in 2035, capturing 3% of the £907bn global market. Simultaneously, UK jobs in the manufacture and assembly of CAVs could reach 27,400 in 2035, according to a study commissioned by the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV).

It’s not just the potential industrial benefits that should push cities to invest more heavily in CAVs, however. Streamlined urban transport allows passengers to get where they need to be faster. With the total cumulative cost of congestion in the UK estimated to be £307 billion from 2013 to 2030, these improvements couldn’t come soon enough.

Besides the benefits to the economy, using CAVs in mass transit can help entice car users back to public transport. This, in turn, enables more research into new technologies, which allows transport networks to grow and develop. It’s a cycle that, when implemented correctly, rewards everyone.

Queue of despondent people waiting at bus stop

Passenger experience

A streamlined service gives passengers more control over their day. When commuters know exactly when their journey will start and end, they can make informed decisions about other aspects of their routine. CAVs, with connected technologies optimising every journey, mean more reliability, leading to improved passenger satisfaction and increased patronage.

Onboard connectivity also allows passengers to create their own entertainment during the journey. Passenger WiFi enables commuters to browse socials, check emails or catch up on the headlines. With onboard entertainment, meanwhile, passengers can sit back and pass their journey with the latest TV, movies and music.

Perhaps most importantly, CAV’s will be vital to a future in which ‘Mobility as a Service’ (MaaS) is the standard transport model. MaaS means unifying myriad forms of public transport (train, buses, taxis, bicycles) to give commuters access to on-demand transport. MaaS offers the most economically and environmentally efficient solution to urban travel, but it’s only possible with connected vehicles. This form of multimodal travel is also the most convenient, which increases the chances passengers will use it.

Women using smartphones on a bus

Drivers

Whilst fully automated vehicles would render the human driver obsolete, that doesn’t mean vehicles would be completely unstaffed. Operators that have already trialled autonomous buses have so far retained human drivers in the event of unforeseen circumstances. Even with the AI handling navigation, onboarding and interaction with external infrastructure, passengers will invariably expect a human presence.

Of course, the shift from human to AI driver will inevitably lead to a reduction in drivers. Indeed, that’s one of the biggest attractions to transport operators; allowing them to save on wages while improving efficiency. But, at least for the first generation of CAVs, it looks like drivers will still be a required element.

For drivers of public transport today, it’s the ‘connected’ element of CAVs that offer the most opportunity. With connected vehicles, buses can ‘talk’ to every element of connected infrastructure. Other vehicles, traffic lights, road signs, even the roads themselves can provide information inform driver decisions. This helps to reduce congestion and coordinate journeys to reduce travel times.

Driverless CAV vehicle computer rendering

Safety

Reducing road dangers, for pedestrians and passengers, is of utmost importance to every transport operator. A major advantage of CAVs is they remove the margin for human error. Automated vehicles will never be too tired, drunk, or just distracted, to responsibly control a vehicle.

This improvement in safety, however, may not be obvious to passengers. Those already using public transport do so because they trust the driver to deliver them safely to their destination. This confidence doesn’t necessarily extend to new technologies.

A recent survey on public attitudes to driverless cars revealed just 17% of people would feel safe in an autonomous vehicle, compared with 61% in a human-controlled vehicle. This is partly the result of a general mistrust of new, (relatively) unproven technologies. But public reticence also stems from high-profile incidents in which AI failed to anticipate the most unpredictable of all variables; human behaviour. These behaviours; for instance, hand signals from traffic police, are key to maintaining safety on the roads. For now, at least, human driver behaviour is beyond the understanding of even the most advanced autonomous vehicles.

As Google’s Chris Urmson (co-founder of Aurora, an autonomous vehicle start-up) explained, self-driving vehicles are only safe in a vacuum; they can’t guarantee safety as long as there are other humans driving on the same road.

Environment

The transport sector is now the biggest contributor to CO2 emissions in the UK. The latest government figures show CO2 emissions from transport decreased by just 2%, meaning it now accounts for 26% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. For the UK to achieve it’s carbon reduction targets, the transport industry must push measures to reduce emissions now. Public transport, and CAVs, in particular, will be at the forefront of these efforts.

As more cities introduce Clean Air Zones (CAZs) in a bid to improve air quality, public transport must adapt with it. Part of this change requires introducing technologies that reduce congestion and optimise traffic flows. CAVs will play a key role in this change.

At its heart, connected transport is about creating a genuinely open ecosystem. CAVs only function in a cohesive and connected world; a world in which data informs every aspect of the journey. The rapid growth of the IoT sector is a testament to how much faith cities are placing in the power of data. Data from public transport can inform every stage of the commuter journey, and reduce fuel consumption in the process.

Red bus driving through London with Gherkin obscured in background

So far, autonomous transport technology has focused on the individual. Much more important is investment in mass transport options to draw people away from car travel. It’s only through encouraging greater use of the current transport infrastructure that we can hope to develop new services that truly appeal to the needs of passengers.

Even with major investment, rural areas could be shut out of the connected vehicle revolution. The majority of government grants will go to the largest national and municipal transport bodies. Simultaneously, most independent operators aren’t in a position to invest in autonomous vehicles. Sadly, while autonomous public transport could become a reality within the next ten years, it’s still just a dot on the horizon for the majority of transport companies.

Get in touch with Sygnal to for help on integrating onboard technologies into your own vehicles.

Could demand-responsive bus services save passenger transport?

By | Accessibility, Feature, Public Transport | No Comments

Cities across the world are facing a quandary. The very nature of travel has undergone a massive rethink in recent years, but urban infrastructure has not. As a result, public transport ridership is in freefall, congestion is at an all-time high and satisfaction with transport is at it’s lowest level in years.

Despite this, buses remain the most used form of public transport in Britain – accounting for 59% of all public transport journeys in 2016-17. Simultaneously, technology driven by the ubiquity of the smartphone has given people the power to create their own journey. Ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft enable commuters to travel as and when they’d like, but they’ve also contributed to the rise in congestion in urban areas.

So could the solution lie in combining the two disparate worlds of public transport and private hire? How would it work? And, perhaps most importantly, what do demand-responsive transport (DRT) services mean for the future of public transport?

How does DRT work?

Modern demand-responsive bus services function much like ride-hailing apps like Uber or Lyft. Passengers register their request for a service via an app, which then uses algorithms to match them with vehicles travelling in the same direction. Drivers are then routed according to the information provided by passenger requests through the app to find the optimal route for their trip.

Journeys are calculated according to the fastest route (fed by real-time data on traffic and city infrastructural disruptions like construction, accidents, weather hazards, etc.). Journeys are allocated a guaranteed fare, time of departure and arrival, based on this real-time information.

Although there are a limited number of test cases, it’s clear that demand-responsive bus services work. Arriva, one of the largest transport operators in the world, launched ArrivaClick in 2018. The service currently operates only in Liverpool, but it has proven to be a major success. Arriva claims that, of those surveyed using the service, more than half of customers switched from using private cars to ArrivaClick, while 43% adopted the service for their daily commute.

Changing attitudes

The rise of ride-hailing apps points to a change in how people perceive transport. It’s no longer a service around which the passenger constructs their schedule; it’s a service that should work to fit around the passenger’s schedule. Passengers want something that is quick, simple and flexible to their own needs.

App-based transport services offer a key element of the modern travel experience – personalisation. While public transport networks are working to introduce new technologies, they’re still playing catch-up to the private ride-hailing companies. A demand-responsive bus network combined with a mobile app, however, could hold the key. A mobile app enables passengers to save specific journeys, track arrivals and follow their progress when on board.

There are many who would argue that demand-responsive bus services are just another attempt to reinvent a service that, if given sufficient investment, would work fine in its current form. But this misses the point – public transport is suffering not just because of underinvestment (although that is definitely a key reason). Previous efforts to increase ridership of mass transit focused on changing the commuter, rather than the amenity. In this context, DRT could be seen as the logical response to changing commuter requirements.

Using onboard WiFi on demand-responsive bus services

Public vs private

DRT is not a new concept. The idea has existed in some form for decades. Indeed, experimental flexi-route, dial-a-ride and community car and bus schemes have existed in some form as early as the ‘60s. But it was the rise in ride-hailing apps that sparked the latest push for user-oriented on-demand transport.

Simultaneously, when people opt for the private ‘ride-hailing’ bus, publicly run services suffer. This, in turn, means less money to expand services, which ensures public DRT remains a niche service. This has already happened in Bristol, where the local microtransit scheme recently announced it would no longer continue to operate, citing increased competition from other ride-sharing services.

Oxford trialled an on-demand bus service last year, part government-funded, run in conjunction with a local transport operator (Oxford Bus Company, owned by national transport provider Go-Ahead Group). Transport for London, meanwhile, announced last year that it was exploring the introducing a demand-responsive bus service as a means of complementing the existing bus network. In all of these cases, the local transport authorities have partnered with local transport operators to supply the vehicles. In this way, public transport isn’t completely shut out and passengers can choose the best option for their travel needs.

The congestion question

As cities begin to seriously consider how to reduce urban congestion and improve air quality, local transport authorities have turned to DRT as a solution. But questions remain about just how effective these services would be in reducing congestion. For instance, would these buses be allowed to use bus lanes?

Using them in areas underserved by current public transit services could help alleviate issues of accessibility, but they don’t go the whole way to reducing the number of cars on the road. For one, current demand-responsive bus services tend to use smaller vehicles than a standard public bus. So although there might be fewer vehicles on the road, there will still be more vehicles than if passengers were to utilise large capacity public transport.

Simultaneously, for DRT to offer a genuinely environmentally sustainable service, vehicles must come equipped with low emissions technology. While some cities have made this a key component of their on-demand bus service, that’s not necessarily the case for private ride-sharing services.

Reducing congestion through demand-responsive bus services

Potential pitfalls

It’s not all rosy in the world of DRT, however. Experts have warned that demand-responsive services shouldn’t be used as a replacement for traditional services. In 2016, Transport Focus produced a review of demand responsive transport that said: “Introduction of DRT tends to result in even less frequent services, shorter time at destination and restricted destinations. This limits social and leisure activities of passengers.”

Simultaneously, arrival times for DRT tend to be less concrete because they depend largely on the level of demand at that moment. Subsequently, routes are less optimised as the on-demand bus must alter its journey according to who needs to be picked up and from where. In the same vein, limited vehicle numbers can restrict passengers who try to book a journey during peak hours.

There’s also a danger that the ‘smartphone-first’ approach could leave less tech-savvy commuters out in the cold. This is a particular issue for elderly passengers, who make up a significant portion of public transport passengers.

Using mobile ticketing service on public transport

While they offer a valuable alternative for elderly and disabled people, DRT services can only succeed when they are fully integrated with local public transport networks. When integrated with other sustainable transport, they can increase accessibility, reduce congestion and improve air quality in urban areas.

Using onboard analytics to track impact of weather patterns

5 achievable steps to bring passengers back to public transport

By | Infrastructure, Multimodal transport, Public Transport | One Comment

Ridership of public transport is in freefall. In the UK, local bus passenger journeys outside London decreased by 63 million (2.9%) in 2018. And despite holding steadier numbers than the rest of the country, London is not immune to this downward trend. Statistics for bus journeys in the capital show a 5% decrease since the 2014-15 fiscal year. Likewise, the London Underground reported a drop of 19m, or 1.4% in the number of Tube journeys in 2018 compared to the previous year.

The same is true in cities around the world, where the rise in on-demand services, changes in working patterns and wider demographic and economic shifts have drawn commuters away from public transit. So what can transport networks do to win back the public? It won’t be easy, but as cities around the world finally push to improve urban air quality, it’s essential we act now to restore faith in local transport.

1. Convenience is king

The success of any civic amenity hangs on one simple reality, it’s all about convenience. The past ten years have seen a major increase in the number of private hire journeys precisely because they offer a simpler, more personalised service. Why would a commuter choose to walk to a bus stop, wait on a bus (often delayed), then disembark and walk yet further to their office, when they could hail a private vehicle to pick them up from their house and take them directly to their workplace, at a time of their choosing?

Public transport networks need to begin integrating features that emphasise the convenience of public transport over private commuting. Personalisation is key to making passengers feel like more than just another number. And what’s the key ingredient to personalisation?

Using onboard analytics to identify peak times

2. Embrace new technologies

Take advantage of modern technologies to improve the passenger experience. mTicketing, for instance, does away with arbitrary ticket pricing and the need for cumbersome change (for drivers and passengers both). A mobile app with vehicle-tracking provides visibility to passengers waiting outside. If a service is delayed, commuters deserve to know in advance so they can make an informed decision about whether to wait. Similarly, if services have been re-routed or cancelled, a mobile app means commuters can be notified instantly through their personal devices.

Meanwhile, Passenger Information Systems (PIS) add clarity to new journeys, notifying passengers to upcoming stops. Integrating a PIS that offers both visual and audio information also makes transport more accessible to passengers with sight or hearing problems.

Adding onboard WiFi, meanwhile, opens up a new realm of connected entertainment for passengers. Now they can start their day before they even reach work, catch up on their social channels and unwind after a long day with their own content. These new technologies represent an opportunity some operators may not have considered. Onboard WiFi can incentivise commuters to swap the car for a relaxing bus journey, but it also offers an additional source of revenue through the promotion of partner businesses. This means operators can offset the cost of their WiFi connection and simultaneously develop connections with local businesses.

Women using smartphones on a bus

3. Incorporate data

Although it’s been used for decades, it’s only in the past few years that transport authorities have begun to truly harness the power of data. Fuelled by the rise in connected devices, metrics from open data initiatives are transforming the way we move around urban areas.

The value of data in gaining a detailed overview of highly complex transport infrastructure has made it an essential element of modern travel. In fact, the growth of MaaS models, where commuters can combine multiple modes of transport to reach their destination, hinges on the availability of accessible data (but more on that later).

Likewise, data can help reduce congestion and optimise journeys. Using city-wide data collection points, traffic lights can track buses and manage routes to reduce waiting times between stops. Coupled with a mobile app, this data can also be used to quickly and efficiently inform commuters about changes to services.

Of course, data doesn’t have to play a merely reactive role. It can also predict future requirements, providing local authorities with the quantitative foundations to develop new services. From these foundations, cities can begin to add features that respond to the changing nature of urban travel, including Passenger Information Systems and priority bus lanes. As Andrew Small said in a recent piece for CityLab, “When buses get priority, riders prioritize the bus.”

Using onboard analytics to improve services in coach hire

4. Increase intermodality

Despite the overall downward trend, several cities across the UK have reported an increase in public transport use. Every city has its own unique requirements, so pinning down exactly why some areas are bucking the trend isn’t easy. That being said, there are some common factors that could point to a solution, and chief among them is multimodal travel.

For the uninitiated, multimodal travel refers to the integration of multiple forms of transport to offer a more seamless travel experience. For a traveller arriving in a multimodal city by rail, their train ticket can also be used to board a metro service, ride the local bus, or even hire a bicycle.

For services to move to a manageable collaboration between the transit system and external organizations, there must be a mutual benefit. This presents a conundrum for public transport authorities, who cannot be seen to be favouring private transport companies. Transport authorities can remedy this by offering public tender contracts for the different transport modes. Similarly, apps like Citymapper are working to link public transport networks with local cab companies to cover first-mile/last-mile, with public transport making up the bulk of the journey. While this encourages commuters to leave the car at home, it still requires small-capacity private vehicles on the road.

But how do cities create a cohesive network that responds to the needs of every citizen? The solution can be found in cities already pioneering the multimodal model. Columbus, Ohio, was awarded the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Smart Cities challenge for its work in developing a connected travel solution for commuters. Through extensive research, the city identified residents’ requirements and drew up a proposal that encompassed the use of real-time integrated data, priority bus lanes and mobile apps to connect visitors and citizens.

Incorporating multimodal technologies into public transport

5. Go green

The environmental benefits of public transport over private car travel are already well documented. A fully loaded bus has an 83% less environmental impact per passenger mile than a single-occupancy passenger vehicle. Simultaneously, increased sustainability is not only environmentally beneficial, it’s also an opportunity to lower operating costs.

With these savings, transport authorities can begin to invest in more energy efficient vehicles, while existing vehicles can be retrofitted with Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) emission control units to reduce NOx and NO₂ outputs.

Even with these features, however, transport networks need to make drastic changes in their approach to environmental issues. The future lies in developing a sustainable network with the smallest carbon footprint possible, and that means introducing fully energy-efficient vehicles.

New vehicles, however, are only possible with increased investment, which is itself only possible if we can reverse the decline in passenger transport use. It’s a vicious cycle that threatens the future of mass transit, right at the time when we need it most. To improve the environmental impact of our transport networks, cities must first establish new channels of revenue. To that end, cities must begin to expand Clean Air Zones (CAZ’s) and increase taxes on private vehicles in urban areas. Likewise, transport authorities can take advantage of government subsidies and innovation funding for projects that improve the local environment.

Red bus driving through London with Gherkin obscured in background

Of course, the issue of decreasing public transport usage goes beyond mere investment; after all, spending heavily rarely means spending wisely. But investment is essential to create a scalable, future-ready model that can adapt to the changing needs of citizens and the surrounding environment. Councils must be ready to invest not just in new vehicles, but in the entire infrastructure of their city. After all, if transport authorities really want to restore trust in public transport, they must be ready to prove that they have faith in it first.

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Using your mobile smartphone device on public transport

Integrating mobile ticketing on your transport service

By | Passenger Wifi, Public Transport, Sygnal Bites, Technology | No Comments

Mobile tickets, otherwise known as mTickets, are fast becoming a popular onboard technology for transport networks. But what are the benefits of switching to mobile ticketing, and can they be integrated into your network without disrupting services?

What does it mean for payments?

Payment systems can be set up easily through online payment platforms like Stripe, Braintree or Paypal. The cost of payments to transport companies is minimal, and can actually reduce overall costs. Additionally,  companies can centralise their revenues and better track how variant factors like national holidays, sporting events and even weather conditions can affect takings.

Providing all revenues go through a secure platform, online payments can reduce the risk of passengers underpaying or providing outdated and obsolete currency.

Onboard WiFi for mobile ticketing

Of course, passengers won’t use WiFi to load their ticket before they board, largely because WiFi becomes available when they board and waiting for everyone to load their tickets would add too much time to the boarding process.

However, the mobile ticketing machine can connect to the Sygnal server, which in turn communicates with a database back at the bus HQ to ensure all passenger information is up-to-date.

That’s why more transport companies today opt for an app, in which new tickets can be activated and cached beforehand. In this way, passengers can download their latest ticket before leaving the house, ready to show to the driver or scan through an m-ticketing machine.

For passengers, downloading tickets in advance enables them to check times and avoid using data. The same app can be used onboard (using Sygnal onboard WiFi, of course) for anything from real-time journey information to the latest ticket deals.

Using mobile ticketing service on public transport

Using mobile ticketing to reduce costs and drive revenues

Of course, adding m-Ticketing can be a daunting prospect to bus and coach companies, but it doesn’t have to be a disruptive addition. Many transport companies have opted to retain the ‘ticket on sight’ system, whereby passengers simply show the driver their ticket. Providing tickets are purchased through an app system, this won’t prevent companies from gathering data on the type of tickets purchased, at what time and by whom.

When a company does integrate mTicketing into their business, the rewards can be significant. Companies use less paper without the need to print tickets onboard. Less fuel is wasted as people don’t have to look for cash, which also benefits the environment.

With the addition of a mobile app, transport networks can more easily keep track of who’s using their services and offer personalised deals. For instance, if a bus company sees that someone commutes every morning and night, they can target that customer directly through the app with a special weekly ticket offer.

Streamlining your coach service

Not only can mTicketing reduce overheads, it can also streamline other aspects of the service. Because mobile ticketing reduces waiting times, services become more punctual, encouraging more people to use the transport. Passengers can be updated on new developments, including delays to services, changes to routes and new offers.

As national transport networks shift to multimodal travel services, mobile ticketing will be an essential element of this cross-transport technology. Integrations with other forms of transport such as ride-sharing and metro services become simpler when all the required access tools are centralised. For a passenger arriving by train in a new city, a transport service that functions on the same platform as their train ticket will be infinitely more attractive than one that does not.

Passengers on public transport

Issues

Of course, with the introduction of any new technology, there will be challenges. It’s true that not everyone has a mobile, or access to the technology to regularly download tickets.

Some critics have suggested the introduction of mTicketing shuts out poorer people in society. However, mobile usage is roughly the same across all social groups, and the proliferation of WiFi in public spaces has made the connection required to download tickets more accessible than ever.

For those without a smartphone or whose smartphone breaks or runs out of battery, presenting a ticket can become more challenging. That’s why many companies retain some kind of paper or ‘flash pass’ ticketing system.

So while there may be some initial kinks to be ironed out introducing mobile ticketing, the long-term rewards make it worthwhile.

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Public transport vs. ride-sharing in London

How can public transport survive in the ride-sharing generation?

By | Feature, Public Transport, Ride-sharing, Transport | No Comments

After a recent study found ride-hailing apps are leading to increased in congestion in our cities, public transport networks have begun to examine how to get passengers back onboard. The problem is, nobody knows exactly how to respond to the changing needs of the ride-hailing generation.

First, the obvious truth; as people inject more cash into ride-hailing businesses, less money goes into public transport. In turn, transport fares increase, services are weakened and more people are tempted to move over to ride-sharing. Add in the increased congestion resulting from more cars on the road and public transport becomes slower, more expensive and less reliable. It’s a vicious cycle that has already seen 70 million fewer bus journeys in England in 2017 as compared with the previous year and a 45% increase in private-hire cars on the road in the US.

So what can be done to support mobility in our cities while encouraging a return to public transport? There’s no silver bullet solution, but there are measures that could help redress the balance, providing councils and transport authorities are ready to change.

Using smart road technology to manage traffic jams London

Embrace technology

In this hyper-connected, mobile-first world, travellers no longer want to rely on timetables, frequent stops and space-sharing. The growth of ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft have fed an appetite for ultimate transport convenience, where you decide the time, location and your passengers.

The past decade has seen a tidal wave of new technologies sweep the transport sector. Of course, this includes ride-hailing apps, but there’s also a vast array of innovations that, when properly harnessed, could revitalise public transport networks for a new generation.

Principal among these new technologies is data. Transport networks are beginning to move toward integrating data into their daily operations, but progress has been slow and sporadic.

“By embracing a more quantified approach to route management, scheduling and fleet-tracking, public transport networks can streamline services, better regulate fuel consumption and enhance the overall passenger experience.”

It’s not only onboard technology that needs a boost, however. Smart traffic signalization – where the timing of traffic lights change based on traffic patterns – has already been trialled in several cities, with Pittsburgh reporting a 30% reduction in congestion as a result. The result? A more reliable service, less fuel wasted and happier passengers all-round.

Calling an Uber over public transport

Integrate and update city transport networks

For many commuters, public transport falls short of their daily travel requirements simply because their journey isn’t adequately covered by one service. That’s why the proliferation of inter-linked services, where one ticket covers multiple forms of transport, is so important.

Three years after the introduction of the Oyster Card in London, for instance, the capital saw a 38% reduction in traffic. In fact, every city that has introduced some kind of ‘Smart Card’ option, has seen an increase in the number of people using public transport, but it still struggles to match the convenience of ride-sharing, with its home-to-destination service and flexible pick-up times.

So what can public transport systems do to stem the flow of commuters to the ride-hailing corporations? Some cities have already made moves to block ride-sharing, such as in the case of Uber in London – although this was due to questions around their corporate practice – while others are looking at means to integrate the two disparate transport technologies together.

“The truth is, private and public transport can complement each other providing public transport can catch up in terms of technology.”

Cities across the UK and US have begun to partner with ride-sharing companies to create ‘on-demand public transport’ in a bid to remain relevant. In Atlanta, GA, for example, the local transport app is linked with the Uber app to allow commuters to hail a ride direct from their end public transit destinations. In Nashville, Tenn., meanwhile, the civic transit agency is working with TransLoc Inc on their own on-demand van service that takes riders crosstown.

The daily commuter needs convenience. Ride-sharing companies tapped into this with their simple, mobile-first approach. For public transport to truly compete, they need to be ready to shift to a similar model. By introducing a mobile app, with timetables, routes and real-time updates, commercial transit networks can position themselves as a relevant, viable means of transport for the masses.

Double decker bus public transport in the UK

Invest more in sustainable transport

Just last month, fifteen of the world’s leading transport and technology companies met to discuss their response to the findings by researchers from the Institute of Transportation at the University of California, Davis. The researchers published a paper late last year arguing the use of transportation modes that would reduce air pollution have declined in cities with heavy usage of the ride-sharing apps.

The transportation companies, which included representatives from Uber, Lyft, Didi and Zipcar, signed a list of ‘Shared Mobility Principles’ to “Prioritize people over vehicles, promote equity, transition to a zero-emission future and encourage data sharing.” While these are admirable aspirations, they ignore the role their companies have had in depleting revenues from public transport.

“The only suitable response from the public transport networks is to move to invest in even more sustainable technology for their own vehicles.”

Developing more sustainable means of public transport improves the air quality of a city and simultaneously saves transport operators money, which can be invested in improving services. The issue is, however, that sustainable transport initiatives are relatively new and, as a result, costly – an expense few public transport networks outside of London can afford right now.

Instead, companies need to look at ways to integrate eco-technologies that don’t require expensive vehicle overhauls. Managing routes through data to lower fuel consumption and switching to paperless ticketing can reduce expenditure while limiting the environmental impact of the service.

Using your mobile smartphone device on public transport

Beat them at their own game

When they first came on the scene, ride-hailing companies like Uber were touted as a means of reducing congestion in urban areas by reducing the need for personal vehicles. People assumed, as a cheaper and more effective means of mass transit, public transport was in no danger of being dethroned by the likes of Uber and Lyft. We’re now seeing the evidence for how incorrect this assumption was. The economist Justin Wolfers argued that “Uber is wildly unprofitable, [which] suggests that prices will rise once they’ve succeeded at monopolising the industry.”

Others have pointed to partnerships between public transport and TNCs [transportation network companies] as being a one-sided pairing in which the TNC opts only to provide services on the most profitable routes. This is detrimental to public transport because it drains resources that would otherwise be directed to less connected, and less economically advanced areas. Greg Lindsay, Senior Fellow for mobility at the NewCities think tank, argued: “Uber and other TNCs… have always been about disrupting public transport, about privatising the pieces of public transport that they found profitable and leaving the rest to wither.”

“Public transport is still usually the cheapest option, but they also tend to be less accessible.”

So it seems clear – if public transport can’t outdo this new wave of rideshare convenience, it needs to focus on shifting towards a “mobility-as-a-service” model. This could take the form of a monthly transport subscription to gain access to multiple transport modes simultaneously. If cities can offer car-sharing, bike-sharing and public transport as one, they just might be able to build a truly connected network for the masses and tempt commuters back to public transport.

Otherwise, local transport networks and the big ride-sharing companies will have to learn to coordinate their services to work alongside each other, providing there are conditions in place to ensure the TNCs don’t simply cover the same routes as public transport, at the same time. Developing a connected service, where commuters can use both public and private commercial transport according to need, may sound like a pipe dream, but with proper coordination and regulation, it could 

Passengers onboard public transport

Even with all the potential updates and new routes, the majority of public transport networks around the world are chronically underfunded, and if transport authorities want to see fewer cars on our roads, investment must precede anything else. Features like bus lanes can cut down on delays for public transport, but they’re just a stopgap solution to the real problem. Only through integration, diversification and, most importantly, innovation, can public transport hope to ensure its relevance in an ever-more connected world.

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