Reimagining travel: how can data technologies create better journeys?

From steam trains to electric trains, bicycles to Segways, the transport sector is constantly innovating. Although much of the excitement revolves around high-profile developments in self-driving vehicles and private space travel, there are many up-and-coming technologies that could make a great deal of difference to both transport professionals and the average traveller.

The driving force behind these innovations is data. By gathering, analysing, processing and disseminating travel information, we can make better use of the transport infrastructure we have around us. Developing new technologies and business models that use transport data innovatively will be key to improving journeys and creating real benefits.

Managed Service Providers (MSPs)

Many companies currently offer ‘mobility-as-a-service’ apps that allow travellers to compare journeys on different modes of transport. Travel agents purchase tickets in bulk and monitor real-time travel data from airports and other transport operators. And travellers can use ‘digital wallet’ services such as Google Wallet to store their tickets in their smartphones. However, these services can be complex to navigate, and don’t always offer travellers the option to update or change their tickets in real time. The MSP concept involves utilising the transport infrastructure that’s currently in place, but also providing travellers with the flexibility to change their planned journey if conditions change e.g. cancellation of a service.

There is also the potential for ‘insured travel’, where MSPs could guarantee that a traveller reaches their destination by a specific time. This, according to professional services firm KPMG, would be more complex, as it would require using big data analytics to estimate the risk of delay and pricing the journey accordingly. In Holland, travellers are already able to purchase insurance along with their railway ticket to Schiphol Airport. If a train is delayed – resulting in a traveller missing their flight – the rail operator will book them onto the next available flight.

Data and traffic management

The development of ‘connected cars’, which transmit real-time location data, and greater coordination between smartphone and satnav providers, will mean that transport professionals will increasingly have access to a wide variety of travel information. As a result, a more ‘holistic approach’ can be taken to traffic management. For instance, public sector road managers could group drivers by certain routes, in order to avoid or worsen traffic congestion problems.

Idox’s Cloud Amber is one of the most innovative companies working in this area. For example, their Icarus passenger information and fleet management solutions enable professionals to view real-time locations of all vehicles within their fleet, integrate traffic congestion into predicting vehicle arrival times, and create reports replaying vehicle journeys.

Flexible resourcing at airport security

Gatwick Airport has been involved in trials which monitor data and gather intelligence on the traffic conditions which may affect passenger arrivals. KPMG have suggested that combining data on current travel conditions with historic data could lead to airports becoming better at predicting the demand at the arrival gates. Having this knowledge would support airports in providing appropriate staffing levels at arrival gates, which means fewer queues and a better experience for travellers.

Public / private collaboration

Sir Nic Cary, head of digital transformation at the Department for Transport (DfT), has highlighted the need for the public sector to embrace new ways of working or ‘risk being led by Californian-based software companies.’

In his keynote speech at a recent infrastructure conference, he explained that the public sector needs to get more involved in digital transformation and to have a greater focus on user needs and working collaboratively. As a good example of this, Cornwall Council recently engaged Idox’s digital agency to look at how digital services could encourage existing car drivers to use public transport in a sustainable way. There was a particular interest in engaging with 18-25 year olds. Cornwall is a county where over 78% of all journeys are taken by car – with only 1% taken by bus and 3% by train. Following Government Digital Services (GDS) guidelines, Idox embarked on a series of activities to understand how public transport is perceived by Cornish citizens.

The user research explored barriers discouraging them from using public transport; online/digital tools they may use already to plan journeys; and their experience of public transport. Idox also reviewed and made recommendations to the Council around the brand proposition for public transport. The user insights are now being taken forward by the Council.

Security implications

There is, however, a risk in integrating data technologies into transport systems. For instance, smart ticketing, traffic lights, signage, and automated bus stops, are just some of the technologies which present potential opportunities for malicious hackers, or those looking to commit acts of terrorism.

Last year, San Francisco transport systems suffered a cyber-attack, where hackers demanded the city’s transportation agency pay 100 Bitcoin (about $70,000). The incident had no impact on the transport system, but over 2,000 machines were hacked. As a precaution, the agency shut down the city’s ticketing machines, which led to customers being able to travel for free.

Final thoughts

Improving how people get from A to B is one of the key challenges for cities. If data technologies can play even a small role in creating better experiences for travellers – by providing more reliable and flexible journeys – then the transport sector and the public sector should look to invest and create partnerships which encourage innovation.

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