It’s no secret that public transport is critical to urban mobility and environmental sustainability. As cities take steps to become smart and future-ready, many are beginning to realise the vital role public transport also plays in social equity, especially when combined with the connected technologies that underpin smart city ambitions.

Public transport has vast potential to equalise access to jobs, healthcare services and social activities for everyone in a city: women and men, workers and visitors, people from lower-income households, those with disabilities and from all ethnocultural backgrounds. It can, and in some places already does, also reach beyond the boundaries of densely populated urban areas to serve rural communities as well.

That important societal role means public transport decisions are about more than just route planning and infrastructure. They’re about enabling the life of the community by connecting people to where they want to go with as few barriers as possible. Just as the vision for a smart, connected city should be holistic, so should be the vision for a smart, connected public transport system within it: functional and inclusive, socially equitable, sustainable, and supportive of economic growth.

Going where public transport has not gone before

Many traditional public transport systems have first mile/last mile gaps, the stretches that get riders into and out of the system. Smart, connected transport can bridge those and make it much easier for people to access the transportation they need, or to feel safe travelling late at night. Pilot projects around the world are demonstrating the use of small, low-speed driverless shuttles, especially in relatively controlled campus environments. Driverless vehicles can also bring public transport into areas where it hasn’t been available before.

While science-fiction visions of completely autonomous cars zipping around are still a long way off, advances in ultra-low latency networks and high-speed, highly advanced artificial intelligence bring them closer to reality. In the near term, more and more low-speed autonomous vehicles will augment public transport options.

The data dilemma

One of the most powerful tools for improving the connected public transport experience is data. Consumer apps, for example, can offer tailored trip updates, personalised route information, enhanced security and more.

Yet here again is a social equity consideration. Users are often asked to give these kinds of apps access to their personal data without a full and clear explanation of how it will be used, how it will benefit them or how it will be protected from misuse. As a result, some may unknowingly share data that could be used against them.

What many don’t know however is that the use of data is just as beneficial when anonymised. Those who choose not to share their data may be left unable to benefit from enhanced services, while their opting-out also weakens the overall data set and makes it harder for transport authorities to plan services effectively – but would this desire change if they knew their details were kept anonymous? Given public transport’s role as a public good essential to social equity, transport authorities and app developers have a clear responsibility to ensure full transparency into the use of data, to promote its sharing in the right ways, and to invest time and effort in raising awareness of what can be gained when this anonymised data is harnessed effectively.

How to pay for connectivity for all

Realising the potential of smart public transport to be a societal leveller and opportunity enhancer depends of course, on ubiquitous connectivity. Whether that connectivity is used for data-driven rider apps, optimised public transport operations or future use cases such as autonomous vehicles, it requires significant investment.

Fare increases can provide some of the needed funds, but there’s a critical trade-off to weigh. Pricing is among the most important tools for encouraging people to take public transport, and it’s a key element of social equity. Setting prices too high puts both goals at risk.

Given the importance of a functional, inclusive and accessible public transport system, governments have a key part to play by providing funding and policies to support both basic and connectivity-enhanced public transport services, and citizens want them to. Our 2021 Connectivity outlook report found 93% of respondents are in favour of government funding for wireless and fibre networks in public transport. But there are trade-offs here too, with many competing demands on public funds.

A neutral host model can provide the last piece, serving as a third-party partner with the financial resources to support long-term investment. This can ease the burden on cities while enabling them to meet their connectivity goals. With system-wide connectivity, public transport networks can become key pieces of smart city infrastructure, providing the foundation for fair services everywhere.

Check out our previous blog, ‘Getting riders back on board’ to find out more about how the right connectivity can help build public transport ridership, and hear more from Susan Shaheen, a renowned researcher and thought leader on the future of mobility at the University of California, Berkeley, in our Smart communities podcast series.