The account unlocks the smart city
Carol Unwin, strategic lead at T-Systems, one of Europe’s major transport systems providers, explains how smart-ticketing and customer accounts unlock the full potential for public transport policy and planning to be key contributors to smart communities.
Britain’s transport authorities are at a pivotal point thanks to the, now widespread, use of various contactless and mobile payments technologies. These, together with the huge amount of data on passenger journeys now being created, offer the potential for the public transport experience to be dramatically improved.
However, it’s not the payment technology that creates the ‘smart’ outcomes necessary for this, it is through transport authorities going one stage further and enabling their travellers to have smart accounts.
The smart ticketing account, not only enables easy payments across all modes, it also determines the best price for the journey and ensures payment gets to the right operator. Such smart and integrated account-based travel can also allow commuters to pay across travel, tolling, parking, and even pollution charging should it become more widespread.
- Do we stick with the current situation where each of the many transit organisations involved interacts directly with the traveller, so they have to generate numerous accounts to pay each individual operator? The downside of this is that the sheer complexity of some interactions often causes travellers to favour a single mode trip: typically driving from start to destination by car by default, when more efficient and sustainable public transport options are available for much of the journey.
- Or, can we enable citizens to use wider sets of services or even guide them to services by creating smart accounts that enable the sort of improved the passenger experience we know encourages more use of public transport: better information leading to better planned, coordinated services, frictionless travel, simplicity and, wherever possible, lower prices?
If transport operators, local transport authorities and local government address these questions, they can influence the public’s approach to travel and hopefully, stem the general downward trend in public transport usage, bringing benefits to citizens, operators and public services alike for the next generation.
It's easy to explain the smart ticketing account with an example, perhaps a commute from a country village into work in the city centre. This commuter drives to the station daily, perhaps paying for parking with an app. For the train journey they use a season ticket bought with a credit card and, on arrival, today they decide to take the bus rather than walk as it is raining, paying either cash or contactless. Sadly, the train passengers have to wait 15 minutes in the rain at the bus stop as different timetables are not well synchronized.
If it was a nice day and the commuter had wanted to try the shared bike scheme instead on arrival, it's a different system, new form of payment... extra hassle.
From a transport planning perspective, currently the only person who knows about this journey is the commuter, as no information is shared by the bodies involved. For instance, the rural bus company where she lives knows nothing about this potential passenger’s journey when it plans services. The city bus company puts its timetable together without knowing the train times and passenger numbers.
Such accounts can benefit drivers too, who tend to set up accounts to make payments for tolls and parking. For instance, a regular car journey may involve a route that is blocked today, so the driver can be alerted and offered the public transport option that best gets them to the normal destination.
Or, in the future, if pollution levels are high, a car user is warned that the charges for entering the city are higher today, and they are informed of costs and routes for the equivalent local bus journey to the same destination. Authorities can encourage change.
There are lots of new payment solutions becoming available, from phones to contactless cards, but it is important not to think these, by themselves, bring about such improved outcomes. Whatever the payment method, without a smart account every time the commuter hits a new provider it's extra inconvenience, potentially a different payment method, and overall the opportunity for transport planning is lost because of the fragmentation of the data.
Today the passenger is recognised by travel card, mobile app, mobile payment or contactless card. In the conceivable future we may see a biometric token: like a fingerprint. Creating smart accounts separates the payment mechanism from how the passenger is recognised.
The multi-use smart account unlocks the potential for planning across modes, helping transport authorities understand so much more about need, flow, and timing across the mass of users. It also creates lots of benefits for users, for instance it is particularly good for parents managing their children’s assisted travel payments.
Countries and regions outside the UK that have adopted the collaborative approach of account-based travel, with Switzerland being a notable example, have seen sustained increases in public transport usage.
Ultimately, the collaboration of operators and transport authorities allows the anonymous ‘big data’ generated from the mass of accounts to create a better understanding of demand and it can help encourage behaviour by making offers that move people from private to public transport leading to smarter, less polluted, freer-flowing transport services.
With a smart account, transit providers will retain the individual journey information they have always had, allowing them to manage their business effectively.
For transport planners the opportunity is clear: let’s start creating smart accounts that enable dramatic improvements in choice, convenience, communications, and insights for planning, that bring the sorts of benefits described in this article and already available in countries, like Switzerland, that pioneered this approach over a decade ago.