Connectivity is transforming public transport. As urban areas expand, and as demands for ‘anywhere, anytime’ data connections grow, digital infrastructure is being rolled out alongside physical infrastructure. This ensures commuters can connect to the internet and that transport operators can access reliable, real-time data about their services. But that’s just the beginning; the full implications and possibilities are transformative.

Urban landscapes are being re-shaped

In 2007, for the first time in human history the world’s urban population outnumbered the rural population. The trend is expected to continue; the UN estimates that by 2050 more than two-thirds (68%) of humanity will live in urban areas.

Transport infrastructure – railway lines, arterial roads and waterways – play a critical role in shaping the growing urban landscape. It facilitates the movement of goods and services, workers and residents; benefits include fuelling economic growth, improving public safety, saving citizens’ money, reducing overall fuel consumption and carbon footprint, and enhancing citizens’ lives by enabling free movement.

Increased urbanisation clearly means increased demand for public transport. But in the digital age, this involves more than building new roads and rail lines, buying more rolling stock and employing more staff. It now includes rolling out digital infrastructure, to enable rapid communication, data gathering and service planning.

Moving people means moving data

The growth of the internet and the near-ubiquity of mobile devices has helped create the digital economy. This goes beyond online shopping and social media; it has also created new business models, company structures and market opportunities.

Public transport authorities are continuing to respond to these changes. They have built new physical infrastructure to service areas where populations have grown, and digital infrastructure in old and new areas alike. This enables them to gather better data about their networks and provide better services and amenities to their customers.

This has opened new commercial possibilities for transport authorities to take advantage of their infrastructure. Physically, authorities can use their real estate to host advertising and retailers, as well as infrastructure for fibre and wireless service providers. Digitally, they can integrate their data networks with other carriers’ and access further services.

‘Bare bones’ infrastructure is no longer enough

Such possibilities only scratch the surface. Expanded digital infrastructure brings considerable benefits. For example, a 2018 study of UK rail users found that:

  • 90% of passengers said they would benefit from an improved mobile signal while travelling.
  • 61% said it would reduce their stress levels.
  • 75% said it would improve their journey satisfaction.
  • Nearly half said they would likely take more train journeys if mobile reception was consistent.

This is because high-quality connectivity means passengers can use their time in transport productively, whether to work, study or organise activities for friends and family. Transport authorities can use real-time data gathered by internet-connected sensors to provide live scheduling updates, which improves the customer’s experience by providing greater clarity about transport services.

Better still, transport authorities can combine the data they gather about passenger behaviour and the transport network’s performance with other data sets – for example, weather, public events, time of day and time of year– to optimise services, schedule maintenance and manage day-to-day operations.

They can also use ‘big data’ techniques to perform high-level data analysis. This can inform strategic decision-making about managing demographic changes, population movements, infrastructure planning and integration with other services, both public and private.

Connectivity is the key

It’s clear that the potential benefits of digital connectivity, for transport authorities and passengers alike, are enormous. As local and global economies become more and more digital, service providers of all types – digital and terrestrial– will be able to connect with the underlying digital infrastructure and enhance their offerings.

For transport authorities, this means not only building new infrastructure but also adopting the systems and protocols needed to fully harness its potential. Doing so will ensure they remain vital and valuable contributors to social and economic growth.

Continuous connectivity research

Early in 2019, BAI Communications surveyed over 2,500 rail users in five global cities (Hong Kong, London, New York, Sydney and Toronto) about their expectations around transport and connectivity.

The findings tell us that public transport systems must look to provide continuous connectivity. This will allow citizens and employers alike to fully participate in the digital economy — which is now shaping the physical, as well as the social and economic geography of the world around us.