When a passenger recently tweeted @My_Metro to ask abut a service delay, the operator was concerned. “Have there been no announcements?” they asked. “I don’t know,” came the response. “I’ve got my headphones on.” The expectations of consumers increasingly involve spontaneous technical solutions, not simply in communication but in all aspects of travel. Our connected and flexible world is causing rapid shifts in our transport needs. The discussion at April’s Sphere Network event highlighted both the challenges and the changes that are taking place.
We have moved from a hub-and-spoke pattern of behaviour to more networked and flexible needs. Our public transport infrastructure reflects old habits of commuting to work in a central location, and travelling to town centre retail and leisure outlets. We were used to minimising the cost and maximising the convenience of these journeys by investing in season tickets. Now, though, we work flexible hours in diverse locations and spend our leisure time in out-of-town complexes. We prefer spontaneous, cashless journeys to the rigidity of forward planning: season ticket sales are in rapid decline. Crucially, the hub-and-spoke pattern no longer suits our lifestyle. We need convenient end-to-end journeys without having to think about interchanges and connections from our new-built suburbs. How can public transport providers serve the Uber generation?
Individual vehicles are not a sustainable urban travel option, whether driven or autonomous. Traffic capacity cannot be stretched much further, so it is essential to persuade people to switch to other options. In large urban settings, apps such as CityMapper enable smooth end-to-end journey planning across all public transport options, but the economic viability of these falls in line with population density. This raised a question among attendees of a social risk: transport exclusion through digital exclusion. If travel provision is poor in remote or small communities, will they lose physical access to things the rest of the world takes for granted?
“Connected” meant several things to those in the room. In a physical sense, we connect road, rail, air and maritime transport (as well as the more prosaic links between bus and metro). In a social sense, we connect with eachother. In a business context, there must be connection to and for the consumer. All of these are relevant to a truly connected transport strategy delivering a quality experience to consumers. The incoming 5G technology will deliver a substantial increase in the amount of data public systems can handle, and this opens the way for truly innovative thinking.
There is huge potential given the data at our fingertips. A public transport vehicle could become a multimedia hub, improving productivity by reducing collaboration downtime. A car driver or biker could receive augmented reality content in their eyeline as they travel, avoiding jams and improving safety. Autonomous vehicles and AI assisted driving, both in private vehicles and public transport, will rely on fast real-time data for safety and security. There are caveats, of course. Autonomous vehicles face dangers from unpredictable human drivers and from malicious hacking, and drivers with information overload from multimedia and AR risk inattention. Mixing the two driving options is risky but there is unlikely to be an overnight switch, especially as rural connectivity is not yet sufficient to cope. We are most likely to see autonomous vehicles arriving first in our city centres as public shuttles in pedestrianised settings, and rolling out gradually as data connections allow. In the future, will we need our own cars?
What else could you do with real-time data? Could providers influence commuter behaviour, persuading people to switch to the most appropriate option for the prevailing conditions? At an even more basic level, could you push pedestrian behaviour in real time using existing sensors combined with targeted apps and marketing to reduce congestion in urban centres, for instance after matches and events. Learning from data is also vital, crowdsourcing in the same way as apps such as Waze. A note of caution was sounded here, however: how can we be sure that our personal data is protected? There is a danger that heavy regulation may stifle innovation in the connected world.
In summary, then, public transport providers are already working to meet the challenges of a changing world, and technology is rapidly developing to meet them half way. We are all keen to see where this takes us, and how our journeys will change.