Are we entering the fourth era of public transport?

The seismic impact of the global Covid-19 pandemic on public transport has prompted the most significant travel transformation in a generation. Almost overnight, we have been ushered into a new era, which requires using 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.


Are we entering the fourth era of public transport?

This may seem a bold claim, but the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic has acted as a catalyst in driving forwards a fast-paced reaction from the transport industry. It is clear that things will not – indeed, cannot – be the same again.

We have travelled through the first three eras in little over 100 years: first, the electrical age, enabling underground networks and tramways; second, autopilot systems and automated ticketing to cope with mass transit; and third, passenger information services helping to make public transport attractive and adapt supply to demand.

Ticketing, too, has transformed, with contactless cards simplifying payments and granting easier and faster access to networks. Now, almost overnight, we enter the fourth age of public transport.

This new era is using technology for essential crowd management, reducing unnecessary interactions, minimising contact points, micromobility transport options, improving passenger flow, and encouraging travel at times when the system is quieter, for example by pushing notifications to customers.

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 Covid-19 persists or returns.

Transport operators need to live with this reality and adapt to it. An overnight technological breakthrough solving all our challenges is unlikely, but we can assess what technology we have available right now, and improve it, optimise it, and revaluate whether there are any untapped possibilities within it.

While transport ticketing technologies are not the sole solution, they can help reduce costs, find customers again, and significantly support social distancing measures.

True contactless for safer distancing

  • Minimising crowding hotspots

The speed of contactless NFC ticketing today allows a rapid flow of passengers at network entry points and thus helps avoids creating crowds of passengers.

ATMs and counters are typically places most prone to crowding, which must now be reduced to a minimum. Widespread internet availability today enables simple, distance selling solutions, as well as card reloading, helping customers avoid crowded areas.

  • Optimising mobile devices

Expect travel cards stored on NFC-capable mobile phones to be more popular with passengers in this new normal. We should also anticipate more people using such devices as a reader to reload their own physical transport card with funds. This requires cards with ‘microprocessor’ functionality – essentially a smart computer chip – which is capable of offering more purchase options to users, both in person and remotely.

Most travel cards for frequent users contain this chip, but more occasional travellers tend to purchase contactless tickets that use far simpler memory components, which cannot handle remote reloading. These tickets often require expensive booths and vending equipment to process purchases, and can contribute to crowds at stations. Operators should now look to phase them out, handing control to the customer and helping to keep them safe during the pandemic.

  • Controlling spiralling costs

Operators and authorities currently face a nightmare scenario: an unexpected collapse in passenger numbers 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 can often have a very high long-term cost, with a very poor economic return on investment for local authorities later down the line.

Consider, for example, the London Underground, operated by TfL. Five years ago, it implemented an Open Payment option, where customers tap their bank-issued card to pay for travel. Very convenient for occasional users, certainly, but it’s also expensive to run, particularly alongside other legacy offerings like an exorbitantly expensive magnetic sales and validation system, now handling increasingly fewer travellers.

Flexibility through open standards

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

Networks that have already taken this route are beginning to feel trapped, switching from the promise of an offered system to a revenue sharing obligation in which they are in a weak position to negotiate on equal terms. If there is one thing the pandemic has shown, it is that operators need to be more agile and collaborate to cope with unexpected challenges.

Open standards give transport authorities and operators 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.

Transport authorities and operators must remain vigilant about the reality of the costs of their systems, and above all make sure that they keep control of their solutions and do not leave it in the hands of big external players. Passengers will not forgive operators and authorities for a poor public service, though they are unlikely to turn their frustrations on the financial institutions or other external players tying their hands behind them. And do not forget the issue of sovereignty for the networks and for the public authorities, since ticketing systems must remain an instrument, under their control, for the development of mobility.

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.