15 Oct 2020

Are you prepared for the fourth era of public transport?

Philippe Vappereau, Chairman, Calypso Networks Association (CNA)
Are you prepared for the fourth era of public transport?

It’s impossible to ignore the crushing impact of the global Covid-19 pandemic on the use of public transport. What many of us may have not considered, however, is how this has prompted the most significant travel transformation in a generation.

The worldwide pandemic has acted as a catalyst in driving forwards a reaction from the transport industry. Things will not – and cannot – be the same again.

I believe we are now entering the fourth era of public transport. This new era will use technology for: essential crowd management; reducing unnecessary interactions; minimising contact points; supporting micromobility transport options; improving passenger flow; and encouraging travel at times when the system is quieter, for example by pushing notifications to customers.

The Journey so far

Travelling through the first three eras took little over 100 years: first came the electrical age, enabling underground networks and tramways; second came autopilot systems and automated ticketing to cope with mass transit; and third came passenger information services that helped to make public transport attractive and equipped to adapt supply to demand.

Ticketing has transformed phenomenally too, with contactless cards simplifying payments and granting easier and faster access to networks. Now, almost overnight, we have been pushed towards the fourth age and must seize the opportunity it presents.

Adapting to the new normal

Public transport today faces a cruel paradox: operating the capacity to handle mass passenger flows when needed, while helping facilitate social distancing to keep people safe if the pandemic persists or returns.

Transport operators need to face up to this reality and adapt to it. It’s unlikely that a technological breakthrough will arrive overnight to solve all our challenges, but we can assess what technology we have available right now, improve it, optimise it, and revaluate whether there are any untapped possibilities within it.

I’m not suggesting that transport ticketing technologies are the sole solution, but they can help reduce costs, find customers again, and significantly support social distancing measures. Here are what I believe are the three crucial priorities for PTAs and PTOs today:

1. Minimising crowding hotspots

The speed of contactless NFC ticketing allows a rapid flow of passengers at network entry points, helping avoid crowds of passengers forming. Widespread internet availability today also enables simple, distance selling solutions, as well as card reloading, helping customers avoid hotspots (ATMs and ticket counters).

2. Optimising mobile devices

Travel cards stored on NFC-capable mobile phones will become more widespread as social distancing behaviours become habit. We should also anticipate more people using such devices as a reader to reload their own physical transport card with funds, again helping reduce unnecessary contact points.

This requires cards with ‘microprocessor’ functionality – essentially a smart computer chip – which can offer more purchase options to users in-person and remotely.

Most travel cards for frequent users contain this chip, but more occasional travellers tend to buy contactless tickets that use simpler memory components incapable of handling remote reloading. These tickets typically require expensive booths and vending equipment to process purchases, and contribute to crowds at stations. Operators should now look to phase them out, handing control to the customer and helping to keep them safe.

3. Controlling spiralling costs

Operators and authorities are facing their nightmare scenario: an unexpected collapse in passenger numbers which in the UK dropped to as little as 4% of its average – while having to manage significant costs to ensure essential services can continue.

One major issue for public transport providers is that they are tied into expensive, proprietary ticketing software. Solutions that appear to be economically interesting because of their low purchase cost often have a very high long-term cost, with a very poor economic return on investment for local authorities later down the line.

Flexibility through open standards

Now is most definitely not the time for operators and authorities to lock themselves into an inflexible transport setup. So much uncertainty remains in the sector in the months and years ahead.

Networks that have already taken this route are already beginning to feel trapped. From the promise of an offered system, they are being moved to a revenue sharing obligation, and in a very weak position to negotiate on equal terms. If there is one thing that this year has taught us, it’s that operators need to be more agile and collaborate to cope with unexpected challenges.

Open standards give transport authorities and operators far greater control of their ticketing network, and reassurance that they are on a sustainable framework that can evolve and support new technical trends and business requirements in a cost-effective way.

PTAs and PTOs must stay vigilant about the true costs of their systems, and above all make sure that they keep control of their solutions rather than leaving it in the hands of big external players. Passengers will not forgive operators and authorities for a poor public service and are unlikely to turn their frustrations on financial institutions or other external players tying their hands behind them.

Transport authorities and operators need sustainable ticketing technologies, capable of meeting their expectations in the long term, but also of adapting quickly to new and evolving situations, such as we are now experiencing. We may not yet know the “new normal”, but we know we need to be ready for change quicker than ever before.

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