As transport companies increasingly embrace big data, passengers around the world can expect to enjoy more reliable, more integrated and greener public transport.
Waiting for a bus can be a forlorn experience, especially when bad weather or heavy traffic renders the timetable irrelevant. In the era of social distancing, it can be even more stressful with buses taking far fewer passengers than before, meaning longer waits even with fewer commuters overall.
The good news is that transport tech companies are providing dynamic planning solutions to public transport firms, meaning less time wasted at bus stops for the rest of us. The even better news? They’re also focused on making public transport more efficient and more sustainable over the long term, so we can all enjoy faster trips and greener cities.
Meeting challenges caused by Covid-19
As in many sectors, the pandemic has accelerated innovation and digital transformation in public transport, says Brian O’Rourke, CEO of Irish firm CitySwift, which uses big data and machine learning to help bus companies increase network performance, service reliability and passenger satisfaction.
“Historically, public transport companies would have made decisions based on information from the previous month. With things changing so quickly in 2020, those reports were way too late. Decision-makers needed information in real time and we were able to help them. Decisions and integrations that would have taken months before have been happening very quickly.”
CitySwift has responded to the challenge of limited capacity due to social distancing by enabling bus companies to offer passengers a capacity checker. This uses artificial intelligence (AI) to generate dynamic predictions of which buses are likely to be quiet or busy on a stop-by-stop basis, so people can check up to two weeks ahead of their journey to find the best time to travel.
The Go-Ahead Group in the UK rolled out this app (branded as When2Travel) across 20 cities in the UK since June and more than 70,000 people are already using it.
Responding to changing public transport needs
Not only do public transport companies need to react to immediate needs, but they also need to plan for a much different future than they would have expected, says O’Rourke.
“Most commuters use weekly, monthly or annual travel card tickets. If they end up working at home two or three days a week, they might not need to commute 200 days a year, but they might use public transport more for leisure.”
AI-powered transport technology can enable bus companies to rework their network and schedules to offer more express services with fewer buses. “Companies would have tried to do this before, but now it’s a science and rather than an art. Instead of people guessing and manually counting people at bus stops, they can work with the data,” he says.
“Before CitySwift, bus companies were generating a lot of data, such as ticket transactions and a real-time GPS location ping from every bus every 30 seconds, but they weren’t able to analyse it. Now they can use it to make operational efficiencies and introduce better services for passengers.”
Focusing on sustainability and reducing emissions
Real-time information, together with smart ticketing, scheduling and journey planning, is the foundation of the next wave of digitalisation, which will focus on reducing both emissions and congestion, says O’Rourke.
With the climate emergency becoming acute, cities around the world are transitioning to emission-free electric buses, but these need to be charged a few times a day. Diesel buses, by comparison, only need refuelling once every 24 hours, which can be done at a depot, so companies don’t need to find a place on the road to do it.
The upside, however, is that electric buses are smarter, which helps the companies to plan both scheduling and charging. “Smart sensors can assess the weight on the bus axles to understand how full it is. Sensors on the doors can count how many passengers are getting on and off. Now the bus company can understand that buses are too full approaching a certain area. They can send more buses and can also keep passengers informed.”
Passengers who get clear and accurate information are less likely to get frustrated and switch to travelling by car, for example. Furthermore, air quality sensors on buses can give policymakers real-time accurate information so they can implement measures to improve air quality.
Introducing ‘Mobility as a Service’
Stressful as the Covid-19 lockdowns have been, they have also shown city-dwellers and policymakers how much more pleasant cities can be when they’re not congested.
“Our solution is around making public and shared transport more dynamic and demand-responsive,” says O’Rourke, “but we also want to see public transport integrated with cycling and other micromobility modes.
“The idea of ‘mobility as a service’ is to make transport seamless. Say I live in Berlin or London or Singapore. Each month, I might go between trains, trams, buses, scooters, cars or bicycles. With this type of service, I would pay a subscription and all my transport services would be supplied to me on demand. We have the technology and the data to do this now — it’s just about putting it all together.”
Some Nordic cities are already piloting similar models, he says, and have found they can spread peak demand periods by offering peak and offpeak subscriptions. With the widespread shift to remote working also likely to help spread those peak periods, it’s starting to look like rush hour might become a thing of the past.