By Nathan Cornish Director, Product Development Transit, BAI Communications

Transport and technology have always been inextricably linked. From horses and carriages to horseless carriages, from the steam train to the bullet train, and from traffic lights to real-time traffic updates. They have combined to help move and connect people and places for centuries.

Ultimately, public transport is all about commuters and ensuring their journeys are not only reliable and safe, but also pleasant and convenient. As connected devices continue to infiltrate our daily lives, commuter expectations of continuous connectivity are increasing.

BAI Communications recently surveyed 2,538 rail commuters in Hong Kong, London, New York, Sydney and Toronto about their transport needs and expectations. We wanted to confirm our hypothesis that continuous connectivity enriches citizens and cities, and to uncover any unexpected findings or data points, which we have documented in the resulting Continuous connectivity report.

What we saw was that commuters don’t merely want connectivity: they expect transport networks to provide smart services that make use of live data to improve their safety, reliability and comfort. Being connected is just the beginning.

Smart cities: more than just connected

A ‘smart’ city is a city that uses technology and data to improve the lives of the citizens and businesses that are its inhabitants. Connectivity alone is not enough to make a city ‘smart’.

Many cities around the world already have plenty of network-connected sensors and devices providing information about machine or utility maintenance and performance. This is efficient.

To make a city ‘smart’, the network-connected devices need to have a common network. This way, they share information that, in turn, can be interpreted and harvested to derive intelligent insights and predictive capability, identifying ‘change that adds value’, a simple definition of innovation.

So, you could say that: smart cities are powered by informed technology.

To illustrate the difference, consider a railway station with sensors on its escalators providing information that notifies maintenance staff when an escalator breaks down so that it can be repaired quickly. When this information is monitored in isolation it is efficient, but not ‘smart’.

‘Smart escalators’, however, connect to other data streams such as service schedules and passenger flows. Algorithms using the amalgamated data make sense of what’s happening everywhere at once, then offer predictions, such as an impending outage, as well as recommendations, such as the least disruptive time to undertake maintenance that’s needed. Thus, this type of connectivity contributes to smart outcomes and innovation.

Passengers already ask for this kind of innovation from public transport. In fact, 99% of survey respondents expect public transport to do more than just take them from ‘A to B’, and 83% said ‘innovative transport systems’ are a key feature of a smart city.

Connectivity + smarts = safety + reliability

Survey respondents also expect public transport to be safe and reliable: 79% and 78% respectively were the top two responses when asked what they want from public transport.

We agree. Safety is paramount. Digital connectivity combined with informed technology helps improve safety and makes rescue measures more effective. Combining live service data with security systems and emergency services alerts leads to outcomes where parents can be reunited with a child who has wandered into another railway carriage, or paramedics are ready and waiting at the next station to assist a passenger experiencing a medical emergency.

In 2017, the Toronto Transit Commission launched the SafeTTC app, which is supported by BAI’s network and enables users to report harassment and send images to authorities silently, improving security while reducing unnecessary use of alarms on trains and the resulting service disruptions.

Improvements to reliability are brought about by the ‘countdown clocks’ that show commuters how long before their next service arrives, indicating unexpected delays or high passenger flows around a platform. Commuters can plan accordingly and alert friends and family to any changes to their commute. In New York, these clocks were deployed throughout the entire subway by Transit Wireless, a majority-owned BAI Communications company, on behalf of the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

In time, transport authorities will have access to informed technology that connects security systems, thermometers, weather reports and vehicles, and feeds algorithms that predict variations to ideal transport conditions, understand the causes, and adjust service schedules promptly to resolve a problem before it escalates while the actual cause is also being addressed. Adjustments include diverting passengers onto alternative services or even adding more services without delay to ensure travel is as stress-free as possible.

The added benefits of an ‘evolved’ commute

We believe that a city’s public transport can improve the lives of its citizens – and our survey respondents agree.

A majority, 92%, of respondents said that they would benefit personally from an ‘evolved’ commute in a range of ways, such as arriving at work feeling happy and relaxed, enjoying some ‘me time’ while travelling or spending time on hobbies. They also identified a further range of benefits, including changes to working hours (56%), career improvement (46%) or location and housing changes (45%).

There are many more ways connectivity can make rail journeys more pleasant. Intelligent insights and predictive capability can facilitate the innovation that makes inter-modal transfers more efficient: buses, ferries, and train services, even taxis and ride-share cars can similarly be alerted, and schedules adjusted, in real-time. This makes public transport safer and more reliable (as well as more efficient), with potential to take more private vehicles off the road

Similarly, as new rail lines are constructed, they open new ‘corridors’ for development and new economic opportunities for real estate, retail and other operators. Good data connectivity along these corridors is essential – it’s become a utility like water or electricity, supporting the new economic growth.

Thus, as transport and technology provide these smart city benefits, government bodies and private organisations around the world will be further enabled to offer citizens access to a greater range of attractive transit, work and housing options, triggering greater freedom to create a lifestyle that suits their (and their families’) needs.