With public transport ridership falling by 80 percent or more in some parts of the world because of COVID-19, refilling trains and buses is a business imperative for transport authorities. It’s also essential to meeting cities’ long-term sustainability goals. According to BAI Communications’ connectivity outlook report, advanced networks play a big role in getting riders back on board.

Part of the ‘bring them back’ challenge is that different riders have different needs. What appeals to one group may not be a priority for others. We can broadly separate types of public transport users into two categories: ‘choice’ and ‘dependent’ riders. For ‘dependent riders’ who rely on public transport as their primary mode of transit, fundamental factors such as cleanliness and safety are a top priority. With 83 percent of public transport users surveyed in BAI’s Connectivity outlook report ranking safety and cleanliness higher even than reliability and timeliness.

Those who have the option to choose other modes of transportation (‘choice riders’) are more likely to be swayed by better experiences onboard and at the station. That may be why an overwhelming 93 percent of public transport users said what appeals to them is seamless connectivity above and below ground.

The good news for transport authorities is that a single advanced communications network can meet the needs of both segments.

A platform for peace of mind

Safety is of paramount importance in getting passengers back on to public transport. Network connectivity contributes directly to individual safety by giving riders the reliable coverage they need to stay in touch with friends and family. This can be incredibly reassuring when public transport is someone’s only, or preferred, option for getting around.

Reliable coverage also allows transport authorities to embrace digital solutions which enhance rider experience. Mobile apps can push up-to-date information about conditions such as crowding on platforms and trains, empowering people to travel when and where they feel safest. Touchless ticketing and gating offer protection against the spread of germs and diseases. While operational technologies can let transport authorities monitor vehicle and facility conditions so they can base sanitisation protocols on real-world requirements.

Delivering a compelling public transport experience

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, municipalities had been adopting a range of tactics to attract more people to public transport. London, for example, established ‘congestion charge zones’ for inner-city drivers, aiming to shift more commuters into the public transport-dependent category. But beyond imposing negative consequences on drivers, transport authorities also have an opportunity to attract riders by highlighting the compelling benefits public transport uniquely offers.

During the pandemic, people working remotely have gotten used to longer, more productive days. Without a commute, they can start earlier, work a little later and get more done. Connected public transport makes that productive time available for those who do return to the workplace, something other transport modes can’t provide.

Connected technologies can also enhance transport-related services such as real-time schedule updates that allow riders to optimise their transfers between lines and plan their journeys accurately. Having riders on a dedicated network also makes it possible to provide a whole range of personalised digital services on the go.

If you build it, they will ride

Technology can deliver information, services and experiences that build the confidence of the travelling public and draw them back to public transport. Transport authorities that listen to what people want and deliver a great, connected service stand to significantly increase the number of riders who return to frequent use. Ultimately enabling sustainable and resilient public transport systems.

What’s critical is ensuring that the information and services offered are available to everyone equally. Including those who may not have high-bandwidth mobile service or personal devices of their own. Authorities need to be asking questions about how different riders experience public transport, including women, people with disabilities, those with low incomes, members of racialized communities and others. By ensuring these views are represented, the social equity of public transport can become richer and broader.

Learn more on these topics in our two-part podcast featuring Susan Shaheen, a renowned researcher and thought leader on the future of mobility at the University of California, Berkeley.