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Smart public transport

Green TechFeatures
by Jamie Carter, 12 Dec 2012Features
Smart public transport

Cities that don't move don't work; how many times have you missed a meeting, job interview or been late for work because of a totally unexplained delay on a train or bus?

“Cities are facing over-crowding and extreme pressure on public transportation,” says Steve Latchem, vice president of solutions and strategy at Mastek UK, which helped usher in London's congestion charges in 2003. “To succeed, cities need to keep people and traffic flowing and business footfall high.”

However, all people operate on incentives so there's little point in city-dwellers abandoning their cars for public transport if hold-ups send them running back to their own wheels.

With queues at tickets machines, unpredictable departure and arrival times of trains, buses, trams and taxis, and long delays at airports, public transport can be insufferable. It’s high time, then, for some smart thinking.

Investment in information

Crowded at peak times and deserted at other times of day, the trains, buses, tubes, trams and taxis in our cities desperately need some smart ideas around the flow and control of information. “Fares need to be dynamically changed based upon popular times, gates and access points to automatically manage footfall and queuing,” says Latchem, who thinks that all transport-related information should be provided in real-time to traveller's smartphones. Smartphone apps are already available, but more investment in IT infrastructure is needed before this kind of information is reliable, let alone universal.

“It's an investment that can be easily justified when considering the environmental and well-being aspects of providing a seamless and easy city experience,” says Latchem, maintaining that such information would encourage spontaneous travel into city centres, and therefore boost local business revenues.

Smart ideas in this area include Internet kiosks, a Siri that can tell you where your bus is, GPS-enabled monitors on trains, and city-wide free Wi-Fi. Engaging the latter on a smartphone could involve submitting your personal travel profile, so an advanced 'big data' system would know your probable travel intentions – such as your most frequently travelled routes at particular times of day. Just as with vehicles, it’s this predictive element that will prove a key part of making a more efficient, more reactive transport system – both day-to-day and to help plan long-term improvements to infrastructure and new services.

Scientists at Xerox have similar ideas, having conducted experiments analysing ticketing data to allow city transport networks to understand how they're services are being used in minute detail. When combined with demographics, real-time schedules of all modes of transport, reports of incidents and even weather reports, such big data could create a comprehensive 'dashboard' style smartphone app for every citizen that tells you exactly how to get from A to B. However, that's going to take a much bigger and smarter IT infrastructure that probably lies beyond 4G.

Networked infrastructure & M2M

The smart city of the future will boast a completely networked infrastructure with 4G networks and machine-to-machine (M2M) communication throughout. Trains will tell platforms when they're due to arrive, platforms will monitor how crowded they're getting, and passengers will know exactly where their train or bus is; 'sorry for the inconvenience' messages will become pointless since passengers will have enough information to appraise their options.

Before any of this happens there needs to be a network of intelligent sensors across cities that can track and control everything from vehicles in intelligent traffic systems, video cameras in real-time traffic monitoring systems, and data exchange nodes between all transport operators and agencies in a city.

“M2M technology will enable wireless, remote management of billboard and street lights as well as pipelines, water and sewage systems,” says Olivier Beaujard, VP Market Development at Sierra Wireless, an M2M solutions provider. Beaujard thinks that M2M will, “allow real-time monitoring and repair work to take place without disruption to everyday city life.” Now that really would make a huge difference.

The smart card and beyond

London has its Oyster Card, Sydney its (new) Opal Card and Hong Kong its Octopus Card; smart cards on public transport are not new, but they are evolving – and could soon be used as ID cards at border control.

John Elliott, Head of Public Sector at Consult Hyperion, worked on both the Oyster its inspiration, Octopus, and explains how they work: “There is a smart card which stores value that can be used for travel, with the account shadowed in the back office in case the card is lost.” These cards are not identical; Octopus can be spent on non-travel things, whereas Oyster cannot.

“In London we are currently working on having contactless bank cards accepted wherever Oyster is accepted, which will remove the need for top-up and will mean that TfL will not need to issue cards to you,” he says. “In the future, bank cards will appear in mobile wallets and will appear as a bank card to TfL, and so will be accepted in the same way.”

Smart cards are common; SIM cards in smartphones have the same ID function on a phone network that an Oyster card does at a TfL turnstile.

So are smart cards just a stepping stone to something better and more convenient? The shift to an even smarter integrated solution may have already started.

The cashless, queue-less commute

Why carry around a smart card when you’ve already got a smartphone? Queuing at booths or machines in order to buy tickets is one source of delay on transport networks that is currently being squeezed out as the smart city goes cashless. On the cusp of mainstream introduction, Near Field Communication (NFC) tech uses short-range wireless interactions to transform mobile devices into contact-less devices for touch-and-go applications, such as transport ticketing, paying for goods in shops, and even for communication. “On NFC phones, the SIM is being extended to act as the Secure Element that can hold other apps such as payment cards,” says Elliott.

Smartphones clearly have a big future. "NFC is enabling smartphones to become smarter platforms, helping people do the simple things in life more quickly – and this is something that will sit at the heart of how smart cities function,” says Gerry Kelliher, senior director, sales operations, Europe for Research In Motion (RIM), which operates the Blackberry network.

BlackBerry Tag, a peer-to-peer feature in the BlackBerry 7.1 OS released over a year ago allows users to share contact information, documents, website addresses and photos by tapping BlackBerry smartphones together. RIM has already been involved in NFC payment schemes in Turkey, Indonesia and France, where a BlackBerry can buy a ticket at a bus stop.

An experimental NFC scheme launched earlier this year; Orange Quick Tap Treats enabled those with an NFC smartphone to tap their handset to special posters in EAT restaurants to get a free treat each day.

That's just a taste of NFC technology's potential; the BlackBerry Bold 9900 and BlackBerry Curve 9360 can double as ID cards and digital keys capable of accessing secure building systems.

In May 2012 Orange and Blackberry took part in a trial at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport, where passengers with an NFC smartphone were able to park a car, have changes to their flight time, departure hall or boarding gate sent to their smartphone, and board the plane. The goal is to do away with boarding passes altogether – for added airport security as well as convenience. "It is extremely secure, will work when the device is powered off, does not require the passenger to launch an app or retrieve an SMS or an email, and is not affected by reading problems caused by dirty screens,” said Renaud Irminger, Director at NFC ecosystem developer SITA Lab.

Meanwhile, in Moscow train passengers can tap their ticket against their phone for an instant update on how many trips the ticket still contains, though it does mean downloading an app.

The research and trials are ongoing, but it's clear that cards, keys and cash will have no place in an intelligently mobile smart city.

Read more about smarter transport at Smarter Trends.

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