The Future of Public Transport

IoT helping organizations monitor, control, and make the right decisions

By now, everyone in developing countries knows what the idea behind a public transport system is, regardless if they have access to it or not. As the name suggests, this is a type of transport, for group travel available for use by the general public. It is typically managed on a schedule, runs along fixed routes with set embarkation/disembarkation points, charges a posted fee for each trip, and follows a prearranged timetable.

There are a lot of factors that play a role in the use and extent of public transport around the world – geographical, historical, economic, and even cultural. These lead to distinct differences in urban public transport across Europe, Asia, and North America. In North America, mass transit operations are most commonly run by municipal transit authorities. On the other hand, in Asia, profit-driven, privately owned and publicly traded mass transit and real estate conglomerates predominantly operate public transit systems. As for Europe, a kind of balance is found as both private companies and state-operated ones manage mass transit systems.

For financing, there also are a few options. Public transport services can be funded by government subsidies, where flat fares are charged to each passenger, or by using pay-by-the-distance fares, the services can be profit-driven. The truth is that a good public transport system can be profitable and self-financing through high-usership numbers and high farebox recovery ratios. It can also be regulated and possibly subsidized from local or national tax revenue and even made free for the public.

IoT in Public Transport

History of public transport

The idea of a service that offers transportation of passengers in exchange for money is quite old.

The earliest known form of public transport was water transport. That makes ferries the first vehicles that offered conveyances for public hire. Testimony of that can be found in Greek mythology in the form of the legend of the ferryman Charon, who took the souls of the dead to the Underworld, helping them cross the five rivers of Hell for a fee.

Sometime in the early 17th century appeared other forms of public transport like horse-drawn boats traveling the European canals, carrying paying passengers, and stagecoaches tracking a fixed route between coaching inns. In 1662, in Paris, France the first organized public transit system within a city – the omnibus, was invented. Although the inventor died short after and the project was terminated, the omnibus appeared again in France in 1826 and spread around the world.

The first passenger horse-drawn railway opened in 1806: it ran between Swansea and Mumbles in southwest Wales in the United Kingdom. The first public steam railway in the world – the Locomotion, was built in 1825 by George Stephenson for the Stockton and Darlington Railway in northeast England.

The need of carrying heavier passenger loads led to the first successful electric streetcar, built for the Union Passenger Railway in 1888. This innovation reduced fares and stimulated greater transit use. Electric streetcars also paved the way for the first subway system, eliminating the problem with smoke underground if steam locomotives were to be used.

In the late 19th – early 20th-century, public transportation systems in various forms had a presence in every major city.

Public Transport

The difference between the two pictures is about a hundred years, more or less. The idea is still the same, but the execution almost can’t be compared. Technology helps improve every aspect of public transportation, design, accessibility, comfort, safety, everything.

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Types of public transportation and infrastructure required

There are a lot of options when choosing a transportation mode. Let’s take a look at the most common ones.

  • Airline – The sole representative of air travel, it provides scheduled service with aircraft between airports. It offers high speeds but incurs long waiting times before and after travel. This type of transport is only feasible over longer distances or in areas where a lack of ground infrastructure makes other modes of transport impossible. It requires the construction of big-scale infrastructure both in sheer size and cost.
  • Bus and Coach - Bus services use conventional roads to carry passengers on shorter journeys. Buses operate with low capacity (compared with trams or trains) and are relatively inexpensive, with frequent stops. They are commonly used in smaller cities, towns, and rural areas, and for shuttle services supplementing other means of transit in large cities. Coaches (long-distance buses) are used for longer-distance transportation. The vehicles are normally equipped with more comfortable seating, a separate luggage compartment, video, and possibly also a toilet. However, they follow a limited stopping pattern.
  • Train - Passenger rail transport is the conveyance of passengers utilizing wheeled vehicles specially designed to run on railways. Trains allow high capacity on short or long distances but require track, signaling, infrastructure, and stations to be built and maintained. Urban rail transit includes commuter rail, intercity rail, high-speed rail, rapid transit (also called a metro, underground, or subway), trams, and light rail.
  • Personal rapid transit – This is an uncommon mode of transportation due to the complexity of automation required. One might compare PRT to a taxi or paratransit modes of transportation in their use method. It is an automated cab service that runs on rails or a guideway, like the most common form of PRT - elevators. A solution in this direction is providing most of the convenience of individual automobiles with the efficiency of public transit. The vehicles carry just a few passengers, turn off the guideway to pick up passengers (permitting other PRT vehicles to continue at full speed) and drop them off at the location of their choice. PRT is a work in progress.
  • Cable-propelled transit - This is a transit technology that moves people in motor-less, engine-less vehicles that are propelled by a steel cable. There are two sub-groups – gondola lifts and cable cars. The former is supported and propelled by cables from above, whereas the latter is supported and propelled from below. Usually associated with ski resorts and mountain parks, gondola lifts are gradually finding increased consumption and utilization in many urban areas, built specifically for mass transit.
  • Ferry – The tool to carry passengers, and sometimes other vehicles, across a body of water. Ferries are a part of the public transport systems of many waterside cities and islands. They allow direct transit between points at a capital cost much lower than bridges or tunnels, though at a slower speed.

In dense areas with mixed-land, limiting motorized vehicles is a must, so, reliable and affordable public transport services are needed. Urban space is a precious commodity and public transport helps to utilize it more efficiently. Inefficient land use and poor planning lead to a decrease in accessibility to jobs, education, cultural and sports events, health care, and much more. Public transport planning must be at the core of urban planning, so the cities are built more compactly. This will lead to the creation of efficient feeds into the stations and stops of transport. At the same time, it will allow the creation of centers around the hubs, serving passengers' daily commercial needs and public services. This approach significantly reduces urban sprawl. With the land prices booming, state and regional organizations have a difficult job and big responsibility for planning and improving public transportation roads and routes.

Choosing the right type of transport to be implemented in the urban environment depends on a variety of factors like terrain, population density, budget, and so on. In the majority of cases, a combination of 2 or more types of transport is required for a good solution to be achieved.

IoT in Public Transport

Things to consider when building a public transportation network

Regardless of the scale, the building of such a network must be preceded by a lot of data collection, analysis, and decision making.

IoT in Public Transport

Seven criteria that measure the usability of different types of public transport and their overall appeal to the average user.

  • Speed - It is calculated from total journey time including transfers.
  • Comfort – Does the vehicle have extras that add to comfort? Here, not only the comfy seats are included. We are talking about restrooms, air conditioning, luggage and bicycle areas, entertainment, and so on.
  • Safety – Pretty subjective criteria, but still supported by statistics and outside factors, even people's phobias (high speeds, heights, germs, and others).
  • Cost – The accumulated amount of fees on a chosen route.
  • Proximity - How far passengers must walk or otherwise travel before they can begin the public transport part of their journey and how close it leaves them to their desired destination.
  • Timeliness - How long they must wait for the vehicle and overall accuracy.
  • Directness – It records how far a journey using public transport deviates from the route.

In selecting between competing modes of transport, many individuals are strongly motivated by direct cost and convenience. That same person may accept the statistically higher risk of accidents in private transport, together with the initial, running and parking costs in exchange for that. Loss of control, spatial constriction, overcrowding, delays, and other factors may also discourage the use of public transport. Waiting, interchanging, stops and holdups, for example, due to traffic or for security, are also discomforting.

Every aspect has its weight for every person and making them as widely accessible as possible gives the user the freedom of a better choice. Actual travel time on public transport becomes a lesser consideration when predictable and when travel itself is reasonably comfortable, and can thus be scheduled and used pleasurably and productively.

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On the other hand, from the point of view of the organization building the network, other criteria are to be considered.

  • Cost/Budget – That point includes not only the price of the construction of the network. Future financing, maintenance, amortization, innovations are also part of the equation. Not to mention the problems that a limited budget can cause, and let’s be honest – every budget is limited.
  • Infrastructure/Preparation – Usually a public transport network is implemented after the settlement itself is already there. When new cities are built and the old ones are expanding, the architects keep in mind that there would be some sort of public transit and make preparations for it in their plans. However, the infrastructure is heavily dependent not only on the already existing buildings but on land features as well.
  • Maintenance – A clear idea about the future of the networks in the form of constant updates (timelines, routes, and vehicles).

When building such a complex structure all the angles must be kept in mind and compromises be made.

Areas where IoT is or might be of help - IoT in Public Transport

  • Human flow monitoring – This is probably the foundation. All the other calculations are made based on the human flow. So naturally, reliable counts are required. Monitoring the numbers of people on platforms and stops, as well as those on and off the vehicles, provides vital information on the use of routes by time of day. Sensors can be put on the entries and exits of every vehicle to do the counting. It will give insight that will help reduce overcrowding and planning timetables accordingly, increasing the frequency of vehicles in rush hours in a given area. Automatic Passenger Counting (APC) is vital in all aspects of public transportation from cost to operational decisions. The information is used in several organizational analysis, including obtaining information to use for scheduling and forecasting; Increasing collected fare revenue; Analyzing key performance indicators, like passengers per mile and cost per passenger; Monitoring passenger numbers over time; Getting live data on occupancy and helping keep within social distancing; Saving on training and employing people to manually count passengers.
  • Control over violators - APC used to monitor the flow of people on and off buses enables the transport company to cross-check passenger numbers with ticket machine transactions. With proof that they had more passengers than tickets sold, steps to remedy the missing fare revenue can be made. Problematic areas will be highlighted as well as the frequency and periods of the violation, and depending on the transport politics and regulations the authorities can take action.
  • Monitoring the condition of the vehicles and fuel supply - An APC system on its own is not the end of possible upgrades for public transportation. When you add vehicle tracking with GPS the possibilities grow. You can now see where a bus, train, or tram is as well as how many people are on it. That will give insight into the condition of the vehicles as bigger usability equals higher amortization rates and increased risk of breakdowns. Higher human flow also means more fuel is needed. That can also be monitored using sensors. IoT even provides solutions for on-time signaling in case of a problem or emergency.
  • Ticket systems – A European Commission's expert group on Urban Intelligent Transport Systems is working on a solution regarding smart ticketing. A draft of their work can be found on the website of the European Commission–an interesting read. Developing a smart ticketing system is maybe the hardest part of an IoT public transportation solution, just after the logistics of it. Just an app is not enough when we talk about something that must be accessible for as many people as possible. A true smart ticketing system must consist of a few different payment methods for it to be effective. At least two are needed, say, a method using a smartphone for the technologically knowledgeable generation, and a more simple, more physical way for the elderly that are bad with machines. At the same time ticket selling is one of the two main financial flows in a public transit organization, the other being municipality or governmental subsidies. It is important to have it as accessible as the transportation itself.
  • Timetables and delays – Tracking of public vehicles in addition to smart traffic monitoring and control give ground to developing and managing the most convenient timetables. When deciding on a schedule for a bus or other type of transport, people flow, rush hours, and traffic, in general, must be kept in mind as well as the time needed for a route to be completed and the number of vehicles available. With a simple tracking system and a set of electronic information boards around the stops information about the next bus and eventual delays is always presented to the people letting them plan their journey and making the general use of public transport more reliable.
  • Safety – IoT may not have the tools to do much about road safety in regards to more responsible drivers or secure vehicles (airbags, seatbelts, and such) but it still can help. A system for early alert in case of emergencies is a good addition to every security measures plan, either in terms of vehicle malfunctions or in cases that need medical, police, or other authorities’ attention.

It is to be noted that an IoT solution may seem expensive and public transport authorities may be afraid that the implementation of such a solution will lead to an increase in price, but in reality, the opposite is true. IoT is striving to present low-cost solutions in every aspect, and even if the initial investment seems big, the profit made from the better utilization of all the processes in the public transit system will generate enough profit for that investment to be worth it.

Furthermore, in a Smart City, where IoT solutions are implemented in other areas of urban living and a network of gateways is already existing, just attaching the public transport to it and benefit is the obvious choice of action.

There are many devices out in the market that help make smart public transport a reality. We at RAKwireless have our variety of devices that can be used in such a solution. For example, the WisNode Track Lite (RAK7200) – compact and with low power consumption, built-in 9-axis sensor, integrated LoRa and GPS antenna, and other features are perfect for the tracking part of the equation. WisNode Button 4K (RAK7201), on the other hand, is a good addition to the safety aspect. An easy to deploy a fleet of gateways from our WisGate Edge series can build the network, providing LoRa coverage for the smart city as a whole, not only for the public transport. Or maybe a custom end device is needed? We got you covered with that as well with our modular system – WisBlock.

Smart solutions have never been easier!

IoT in Public Transport

Impact of public transport in different aspects of society

  • Societal - Maybe the most important field of influence is the social one. Public transportation is a service built and executed by the people for the people. It is a community project. It is so much more than just a tool of travel, it breaks down social and cultural barriers between people putting them in the same environment. Public transportation opens to its users the possibility of meeting other people, it becomes a location of inter-social encounters across all boundaries of social, ethnic, and other types of affiliation.

The simple romantic of traveling like that, with good company, meeting interesting people is immortalized in literature and people’s minds.

But this is just the pretty side of things! There is another, more important, and socially justified reason for it to exist. The above is just a result of the true role that public transport plays in today’s society and that is the inclusion of all. Ensuring that all members of society can travel, not just those with a driving license. This includes groups, such as the young, the old, the poor, those with medical conditions. Traveling is a human right and public transport makes it accessible for all!

“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars; it's where the rich use public transport.” Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogotá.

  • Economic - According to a study from the American Public Transportation Association, investment in public transport has secondary positive effects on the local economy, with between $4 and $9 of economic activity resulting from every dollar spent. Now, this may not be true to the cent in every country worldwide, but the correlation is still there.

According to a survey conducted during the preparation of the Plan for Sustainable Urban Mobility in Sofia, Bulgaria, traffic to and from the workplace generates the most significant part of the movement in the city - 38%.

Better commuting is key in every urban environment. Businesses that require a large workforce (industrial manufacturers, and factories, business parks), or ones that assume a large number of customers (concert venues, sports stadia, airports, exhibitions centers), and even businesses where people are not able to use cars (bars, hospitals, tourism sector) depend heavily on the city’s transit system, especially when the amassment of cars and parking are not an option.

  • Environmental - Studies have shown that there is a strong inverse correlation between urban population density and energy consumption per capita. Mass transit, in general, is regarded as significantly more energy-efficient than other forms of travel despite the continuing debate about the true efficiency of the different modes of transportation themselves. Those same studies show also that public transportation uses approximately half the fuel required by traveling with private vehicles, they emit about 95% more carbon monoxide, 92% more volatile organic compounds and about twice as much carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide for every passenger-mile traveled. Public transport could facilitate traveling in areas with increased population densities and thus reduce travel time and fossil fuel consumption, not to mention the fine dust particles in the air. Public transportation offers decreased airborne pollution compared to automobiles.
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Noise pollution is to be considered as well. It is a growing problem in densely populated areas. The growing number of vehicles increases noise values and that can lead to health problems.

Today’s green movements around the world are constantly looking for opportunities to make transportation more environmentally friendly. Public transportation is the ideal experimental arena for testing fuel alternatives (like hydrogen-powered or electric vehicles) as well as swapping out materials to create lighter vehicles with the same or better performance. The goal is to increase the environmental friendliness of public vehicles while maintaining current standards or improving them.

IoT in Public Transport
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United public transportation, accessible by everyone everywhere is a utopia for the average traveler. Such a solution sounds grand to be implemented on a global or even continental scale. It is not impossible, just hard. It will need a lot of resources, mostly humans not that much hardware. And a big part of it will be politics that will make it extra hard to execute. But on a smaller scale, say a city or a country it is doable! As we saw earlier, the benefits are not to be dismissed lightly. And frankly, in the future, everything will be smart. The question is not “if” but “when.” Why not now?

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