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One account –the only way to optimise urban transport

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Innovation in urban transport has left many people with a thirst for more, and a belief that a revolutionary approach can both bring complete transformation and solve the growing pressure on city systems.   

But that perspective is flawed. Endless advances in technology have left us impatient, anticipating the next new service lurking just around each corner. Yet transport infrastructure is a sector notoriously resistant to change, restrained by cost and shifts in labour. There are few radical ideas that have immediate, widespread effect on public transport, but we have reached a point where we expect that all the time.   

The plain truth is that transport must become integrated and intelligent. Faced with growing congestion, pollution and population, we must act immediately to develop more efficient, informed processes using the infrastructure already in place, rather than focus only on wholesale change. Data-led processes will be key to tackling our transport problem, and pave the way for a city that understands its inhabitants.   

Electric fleets and autonomous cars are far from a blanket solution. We need to actuate data and make full use of the flexibility granted by digitisation. We must integrate public transport in such a way that it delivers a seamless travel experience for the individual: each passenger with a unique, multi-modal travel account – one that offers more freedom than car ownership. Feeding back data about how we engage with the urban environment is the only way to improve services. Optimisation is the key principle behind today’s innovations and a crucial factor in transport.   

A multi-modal model 

London has long set an example for multi-modal integrated public transport. Transport for London, as a governing authority, unifies the fragmented model of many individual service providers. This is not the case in a majority of cities, and so achieving a truly integrated multi-modal service represents a greater organisational challenge. Without any overarching body regulating them, competitors see no incentive to work together.   

Politics and technology rarely get along in complete harmony. Yet we have finally reached a point where bureaucratic hurdles can be circumvented through technology. It doesn’t take government intervention to force transport providers to co-operate; the same can be achieved with a standardised platform. A culture of sharing can only rise from a system of mutual benefit, licensed to providers as a channel for payments, and adopted by consumers as an alternative to tickets or cards.   

As we approach the limits of ‘more’s law’ - more trains, more frequently, for more passengers -  providers will acknowledge that they must get smarter about transport management. In the UK, we have the technology to squeeze a lot more efficiency out of the public transport network, but without a means to monitor how passengers use the service, we can be left blind to problem areas.

The problem with cards 

Several cities have followed London’s example and introduced card-based solutions in recent years. While these are arguably an improvement, the time spent in development has seen their viability diminish. Card-based architectures have made it difficult and expensive to keep pace with rapidly evolving technologies and with the opportunities these create for further multi-modal integration.  Such systems are not well suited to form the foundation for the intelligently-managed city or region of the future. 

In an account-based system, users would be able to connect with all service providers in a region through just one account, using a device they already own. Meanwhile, licensees receive payments efficiently, increase customer throughput and boost data acquisition. By allowing for customisation of the front-end they maintain control over their brand image, but without the potential of sending users down an endless rabbit-hole of account management.      

Account-based systems and a joined-up approach 

An account-based travel system is not revolutionary, but its effects could be. For younger generations, it is already the preferred method to engage with services, while greater efficiency has driven adoption across all sectors. Because all processing takes place in the back-end, the most complex combinations of fares, multi-modal routes, geographical parameters and inter-agency agreements are handled with ease. This minimises requirements for in-station hardware and allows support across all users’ devices.   

If everyone in London registered for an account tonight, more than a million people would disappear from ticket queues. Station-goers would be given some much-needed breathing space, while passengers would pass through the gates more smoothly - using the device in their hand rather than the card in their bag. The effects are almost imperceptible at the level of the individual, but iterated across millions of travellers this strategy brings about significant improvements. 

Over time, data correlating to account holders’ common departure times and routes reveals inefficiencies. A transport provider can step in with suggestions to optimise their journey, highlighting speedier or less congested routes across any mode of transport, and in turn free up space where it’s needed. On a city-wide scale, an account-based system means real-time control over people’s transport habits, preventing backlogs caused by infrastructure issues and suchlike. 

Encouraging people to change their travel habits is a huge undertaking. It is a case of informing and not dictating. A travel account is the ideal channel to provide reliable, real-time information to each person individually, showing them the status of each route and allowing them to choose their own way.  

Tackling cost while boosting efficiency 

To truly future-proof transport, an account-based system is imperative. Having one account tied to an individual passenger means a complete picture of their journey is available as-it-happens.  Public and private providers within a region are united under the same customer administration and payment infrastructure, while retaining control over fares and slashing payment processing costs. 

By centralising systems as well as data, costs go down and efficiency goes up. This system can be adopted by other regions, allowing one account to continue serving a passenger across country or continent, bringing an end to tickets and cards. Data is the only way to make sense of how transport networks are used – we must ensure we monitor every detail and use it to drive a revolution in the way people choose to travel. 

John Hill, senior account director for CTS 

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John Hill
John Hill is a Senior Account Director at Cubic Transportation Systems. A systems integration professional, John has 30 years’ experience bringing complex, multi-disciplinary systems to market in challenging operational environments.