Population growth and rapid urbanisation, combined with the rise of the digital economy, has changed our patterns of work and play. Simultaneously, advances in data gathering and analytics has made ‘mass personalisation’ a reality.

This has notable implications for the provision of infrastructure, utilities and services like public transport. Significantly, it is now possible to integrate digital information into physical operations. For example, using mobile apps and live data feeds to provide personalised services.

Demand for public transport is growing – and changing

As urban populations expand, demand for public transport is growing. For example, Infrastructure Australia has predicted that, in Melbourne, daily trips on public transport will more than double from 2018 to 2030, while by 2031 containerised freight will grow some 165% from 2015 levels.

But this isn’t the whole story. Set against this population growth are digital trends that are changing the way populations work and move. These include telecommuting, working from home, teleconferencing, virtual teams, telepresence and more. Technologies enablers allow workers to communicate and collaborate without being physically together at a location.

Further, the growth of services like media streaming and online shopping is changing commuting patterns. Finally, the emergence of ride-sharing transport apps is also impacting the way we work, live and travel. Yet, rather than reducing the demand on public transport systems, use of such services in fact makes people more likely to connect with and use public transport.

It’s clear that these two strands are impacting public transport systems. Population growth is driving increased demand. On the other hand the digital economy is shifting the nature of that demand.

In response, a new model is emerging: seamless connectivity between different transport modes and systems, orchestrated by public transit authorities.

The future of public transport is integrated and intermodal

In this model, public transit authorities act as service providers and coordinators. A traveller simply enters their desired destination into an app, which then coordinates all necessary connections.

It might specify, say, a train journey to a local station. Then, at the station waits an on demand taxi ready to take the traveller to their destination. It might also route them to the mini bus transfer meeting place. Or the nearest bus stop that can get them to the ferry terminal.

The focus, therefore, need not only be on mass transit and the infrastructure it requires. It could also incorporate smaller-scale services, with mass personalisation the goal.

It’s an approach that’s already being trialled in cities across the globe, including:

  • Sydney, Australia: has trialled on-demand public transit using an app to connect travellers with mini-buses charging fixed fares and picking up from local stops or even residences.
  • Arlington, Texas: has replaced local bus services with on-demand ride-sharing (in partnership with provider Via) in commuter vans for a fixed fee or via a weekly pass.
  • Nice, France: is trialling a partnership linking trams to Uber rides for ‘last-mile’ evening trips after connecting bus services cease (the buses run until 8pm, the trams until 2.30am).

Only public transit authorities have the scale, infrastructure and ‘backbone’ operations (like rail, bus, tram and ferry routes) to make such endeavours feasible. Operators must decide how best to integrate their services and continue facilitating passenger movements, regardless of mode.

Connectivity and culture are the keys

Deploying and upgrading reliable, redundant and secure communications infrastructure is a necessary first step towards such a future. Transit authorities should continue transforming and digitising, gathering and analysing data in real-time. This can go a long way to improve transport network performance and to identify long-term trends.

But perhaps most importantly of all, transit authorities can also evolve their approach to the services they provide. Opening their systems, ‘thinking digitally’ and atomising their customer base into individuals rather than regarding them as mass traffic flows are necessary ‘next steps’.

There is considerable work to be done yet the benefits are potentially enormous, including reduced traffic congestion, air pollution and road deaths. Globally, McKinsey has estimated that by 2030, a rapid transition to advanced mobility systems could result in societal benefits worth around USD$600 billion. Siemens has similarly estimated that investing in public transport to bring systems to ‘best in class’ standards brings significant economic benefits to the broader economy – if adopted by all cities larger than 750,000, up to an additional 1% of global GDP.

We believe that with the right technology partners, any transport authority can bring these benefits to their citizens. A truly connected transport network that extends beyond its physical infrastructure will contribute to a future where transport is safe, secure, personalised and cost-efficient.