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Accelerating public transport with smartphone innovation
personRich McEachran eventSep 19, 2018

Accelerating public transport with smartphone innovation

Patience may be a virtue, but it’s not a virtue that people want to exercise when commuting. Thankfully, a combination of smartphone innovation and data insights can help improve public transport systems and make journeying to and from work a smoother experience. Here are some examples.

Getting about on the London Underground can be both tricky and sticky, overcrowded and unbearably hot. At the end of 2016, Transport for London (TfL) carried out a WiFi tracking trial to collect depersonalised data and gain an understanding of how people navigate the Underground network and, ultimately, how WiFi data could be used to reduce crowding.

During the month-long pilot, 5.6m devices, accounting for roughly 42m journeys, made around 509m WiFi connection requests. The TfL was able to anonymously track specific smartphone users on certain trains as they moved between stations and along the network. It was also able to see how users moved within stations, by monitoring their movements between WiFi hotspots.

The data collated could be used to create heatmaps showing which stations are busy at certain times and then this knowledge used to help change passenger behaviour. If a commuter knew that the next tube after the one that’s about to arrive isn’t as packed, they might be inclined to wait an extra few minutes.

It’s not just the London Underground network that could benefit from streams of data flowing from smartphones. From June to early September, TfL carried out a three month-long trial of automatic passenger counting on buses. As well as the collection of depersonalised WiFi connection data, techniques for facilitating an accurate count of passengers included observing the footsteps of passengers getting on and off buses via cameras aimed at the floor and analysing changes in the weight and air pressure of vehicles.

According to TfL’s head of surface technology and data, Simon Reed, while ticketing data from Oyster cards can inform the operator of how commuters travel across the city and between stops, one thing it can’t measure in real time is the number of people on a given bus.

Source: Adobe Stock

The hopes for the trial are that it could lead to commuters being able to access real-time information on available spaces and plan their journeys better.

There’s no timeline for when either trial will be rolled out across the network in its entirety and WiFi connections tracked continuously. But the challenge for the TfL will be how it will disseminate information and display it to commuters in a way that is both digestible and actionable.  

A frictionless transaction

Tapping into the capabilities of smartphones makes sense. Devices are almost always in pockets and, even if people aren’t using them at the time, they’re usually switched on and ‘live’.

Another method of wireless data transfer is near field communication (NFC). Smartphones enabled with the technology have chips that can read NFC tags embedded in products, digital signage and pay points. NFC mobile payments have been around for a few years, but the next big step in the technology for the transport sector is likely to be host card emulation (HCE), a software architecture that enables a smartphone to emulate a contactless card.

“It will make commuting smooth and frictionless. Passengers will simply purchase tickets via an app and therefore won’t have to queue or fumble around for a card. It’ll also be more convenient for transport operators as they can reduce their costs by not having to issue paper tickets or invest in upgrading ticket machines,” says Russell McCullagh, vice president and general manager of Rambus Ticketing, a firm providing a range of mobile and smart ticketing solutions.

A recent report by Juniper Research predicted that there will have been more than 14bn mobile and wearable (think Apple Watch and the recently launched Samsung Watch) ticket purchases by the end of the year, accounting for 54% of total digital ticket sales.

Meanwhile, wearable ticketing trials, involving the distribution of temporary wristbands, have previously been run in Singapore and also in Lille to ease overcrowding during the Euro 2016 football tournament.

Making data open

Creating a frictionless public transport experience is one of the priorities for many countries as they slowly progress towards becoming fully connected. A good public transport service means people can move freely and are able to participate in city life and take advantage of the opportunities on offer.

However, some cities have unreliable public transport systems and can only provide residents with static information, such as timetables, at best.

Source: Adobe Stock

“Commuters have to make decisions in a vacuum of information, so they might not take the quickest route or one that is optimal in terms of cost,” says Justin Coetzee, CEO and founder of GoMetro, a Cape Town-based startup that is committed to improving the way South Africans move, through better public transit experiences.

A popular mode of transport in South Africa is an informal network of minibus taxis. Commuters aren’t always sure of where to wait to get on or where a particular route is stopping and heading. Unknown routes, unknown fares and unknown progress all mean commuters can leave home each day not knowing what awaits them on their way to work or on their way back.

Since 2012, GoMetro has used crowdsourced data – first through encouraging user participation by means of posting on social media and then through a smartphone app – to fill the information gap. In 2017, the company launched an open API that will eventually have transport-related data for every city and town in the country.

Coetzee believes that crowdsourcing data and making data collated open and accessible for other companies and organisations to benefit from will help cities respond to the challenge of improving public transport infrastructure.  

“The crowdsourcing and dissemination of data seems to dislodge urban planning from the inertia it sometimes gets stuck in,” he says. “It impels civic leaders to recognise the challenge and be forward-thinking.”

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