People are on the move again with the easing of pandemic restrictions, and they have greater expectations now that public transport providers will help them stay safe and healthy in transit. Digital technologies give operators the capability to fulfill their new role as protectors of public health and help them grow ridership even beyond pre-pandemic levels.

As people return to public spaces, offices and schools, they are more critical in the assessment of their travel options.  Weighing up the impact their choice might have on their health, happiness and productivity. For the first time, passengers surveyed for BAI Communications’ annual Connectivity outlook report prioritised safety and cleanliness over reliability and timeliness. This represents an opportunity for public transport authorities to bounce back from the decline in ridership due to lockdowns. 51% of respondents said they would use public transport more if it were safer. Almost as many (44%) said they would use it more if they knew vehicles and stations were cleaned or sanitised regularly. The impact of COVID on public opinions is clear in responses with 43% of passengers saying that they would increase their use of public transport thanks to safety and public health technologies.

Giving people reasons to feel safe and secure benefits those already committed to taking public transport and may help win back riders who are thinking about other ways of getting around in the pandemic’s wake.

83 percent passengers expert transport to be safe and clean

Digital solutions are key to meeting the needs of passengers in post-pandemic travel

Passengers are looking to stay better connected and be empowered to make informed decisions about their travel. That includes the ability to avoid overcrowded (or under-crowded) cars and platforms, understand and avoid hazards on their route and to share their whereabouts with loved ones.

Three particular network-based digital solutions can provide that kind of situational awareness and control: presence analytics and location-based services, crowd safety analytics and, for a frictionless and hygienic experience, touchless technologies.

Presence and location services can be delivered in many ways. A mobile device with network connectivity along the transit route and underground can allow anyone to stay in touch with family or friends while waiting for a late-night subway train. And while transport authorities have long used CCTV video feeds to keep watch on facilities, new sensor technologies such as LIDAR make that kind of real-time safety supervision possible without visually identifying individuals, allaying potential concerns about privacy. This data can be fed directly to other public health authorities and first responders, enabling rich data analytics to support incident responses.

With crowd safety analytics, public transport operators can monitor traffic flows and crowd levels and actively redirect traffic as needed or alert passengers about stations or train cars that are (or aren’t) crowded. They can also keep better track of which buses or trains have carried the most people on a shift and prioritise the busiest ones for cleaning first. This makes operations more efficient and supports the critical priorities of safety and cleanliness while also optimising.

Centralising and automating these controls not only create greater operational efficiency but helps to bolster public perception of public transport as a preferred option. 90% of public transport users said that they would feel safer if they knew that capacity and availability of seating were being controlled by a central hub to ensure compliance with COVID-19 distancing guidelines. All these solutions need to feed directly back to the passenger and 91% are comfortable with their data being used to deliver these kinds of customised alerts about service changes, disruptions, or delays.

Introduction of touchless technologies makes the system safer by reducing the spread of germs and viruses. With digital solutions and connected technologies, riders can buy tickets, enter platforms, and board trains with no contact. Not having to handle cash or to hand over their card to staff is a priority for returning travellers with over half (52%) saying that contactless payment options have inspired them to increase their use of public transport.

Bringing connected safety to all

These and other safety and cleanliness-enhancing applications depend on system-wide connectivity. Public transport cannot afford to stay a blind spot in the digital world, especially on issues of public health. It needs to evolve to become a digital lifeline for cities and contribute to the overwhelming demand (91% of respondents) for all world-class cities to have universal coverage above and below ground. Cities and transport operators need to ride the demand for spending and upgrade their communications infrastructure. Only then can real-time solutions like those above be deployed effectively.

The challenge for many operators is to deploy that connectivity within tight operational budgets. Neutral hosting offers a cost-effective solution by partnering the transport authority with  network operators to build a high-quality connectivity infrastructure for use by an entire ecosystem. Transport providers can use the network and the data it collects to enable a better experience, MNOs can offer their services on a world-class network they didn’t have to build, and passengers get to enjoy full connectivity throughout their journeys.

For operators wondering where to start, the answer really is, ‘From wherever you’re at today’. If a public transport provider has no connectivity currently deployed, they can start networking platforms in high-traffic stations, for example. If their platforms are already connected, they can start extending the network through tunnels or along street routes for greater connectivity. Once the entire system is networked, the possibilities are endless.

At BAI, we believe the goal should be for all passengers to be connected on the go, and for transport authorities to use ubiquitous connectivity to make their operations safer, cleaner, and more efficient. A neutrally hosted network supports this kind of broad inclusiveness and marks a significant step toward achieving many cities’ broader smart community goals.

To learn more about how connectivity in public transport is evolving, download our 2021 Connectivity Outlook report: Smarter transport, smarter communities. And look out for the rest of our blog series.

This blog is part of a series on key findings from our 2021 Connectivity outlook report and what they mean for transport authorities, mobile network operators (MNOs), cities, municipalities and connected citizens worldwide.