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Digitally transforming mass transit

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Digitally transforming mass transit

MOVE – Mobility Reimagined – brings together disruptors, their technology, and their attitude with stakeholders across the mobility spectrum.

CitySwift CEO Brian O'Rourke was invited to speak at MOVE's recent London event. Here's an excerpt from his presentation.

How did airlines digitally transform?

Before I talk about digitally transforming mass transit, I'd like to say a few words about low-cost airlines. Because planes are just buses with wings, right?

Irish low-cost airline, Ryanair was one of the pioneers of online flight booking. It helped them improve customer service while reducing staffing requirements (which, in turn, helped them keep flight prices low). But it also meant they could access more passenger data, optimize load factors, and generate more ancillary revenue.

Ryanair is also one of Europe’s top airlines for punctuality. They were one of the first to board and off-board passengers using both the front and rear aircraft doors. This allowed for faster turnaround times and more passengers per hour, per seat. 

Ryanair understands that poor reliability costs money – and that there's a direct correlation between reliability levels and passenger numbers.

The problem with mass transit  

How does this relate to the problems currently facing the transit sector? Well, the first problem is that buses can't fly! But perhaps the biggest problem is that mass transit hasn't experienced the growth in ridership that the low-cost airlines have seen. Why?

Back in the day, people tended to travel from A to B, along fixed paths at around the same time each day. Now, they might travel from A to B to C, using different forms of transport and at different times of the day. But our transit networks haven’t been able to react to these changes.

As our towns and cities get more and more congested, journey times have been getting longer. Over the last 50 years, bus journey times have increased by more than 50% – and every year this increases by a further 1%.

Transport Focus surveyed 50,000 fare-paying bus passengers in 2018. 7% said they were dissatisfied with bus journey times, 15% were dissatisfied with bus frequency, and 17% were dissatisfied with bus punctuality. Generally, these areas are the responsibility of transit planners and schedulers to fix.

The problem for transit planners

It's a transit planner’s job to ensure their network runs on time.

But, every day, things can go wrong... extreme weather, roadworks, and various expected and unexpected issues can cause spikes in traffic or demand. They can cause vehicles to be slow, late, full, or bunched (with two vehicles arriving at the same time).

In a digital age, surely these things can be planned for or fixed in advance? Well, not currently. 

Most of the tools that bus schedulers use were built over 20 years ago. They're non-cloud based and they don't take advantage of advancements in technology and the wealth of data that transit operators now have available to them. In fact, some planners are still using pen and paper to design their schedules and plan their operations.

Transit planners want vehicles to turn up on time and not be empty or overcrowded. Basically, they need to match supply with demand. But they must work to tight budgetary constraints. 

Frequency, run times, layovers, driver, and vehicle rotas... To change things is a slow, tedious, and potentially error-prone process. Long routes can take weeks to schedule. And planners are unsure if their changes will improve things until those schedules are implemented. 

But there has been a massive change over the last five years that could be a catalyst for the digital transformation of mass transit. Transit operators have started to keep digital records. Since real-time information boards and contactless payments were introduced, there have been digital records of every GPS ping (every 30 seconds) and every time a rider boards (and sometimes off-boards) a vehicle. 

There has been a massive change over the last five years that could be a catalyst for the digital transformation of the mass transit. Transit operators have started to keep digital records. 

This data has led to a number of passenger-focused innovations. Planning apps such as Citymapper, simplified ticketing and fare structures with daily/weekly caps are already making riders' lives easier. But what hasn't been digitally transformed yet is the operations side – the backend. How do we speed up our vehicles, and how do we improve scheduling? 

The solution

CitySwift has built the solution to these problems: a data-driven decision-making platform for mass transit. The CitySwift platform integrates with every legacy system used in the transit sector, and we combine data from these systems with external 'big data' sources (weather, events, census patterns, IoT sensors, etc) to create much richer datasets.

Then, using AI and machine learning, our technology does three key things: It predicts delays, predicts journey times, and predicts demand spikes. This information is then fed back into transit planners' hands in a format that's easy for them to understand and action.

Using AI and machine learning, our technology does three key things: It predicts delays, predicts journey times, and predicts demand spikes. This information is then fed back into transit planners' hands in a format that's easy for them to understand and action.

This is done using two products:

• SwiftMetrics delivers user-friendly business intelligence dashboards that allow transit operators to instantly visualize vast amounts of data from their network; identify and act on trends; predict future growth areas using big data; set custom alerts; and track KPIs such as operating hours, load factor and ridership.

• SwiftSchedule enables schedulers and network planners to automatically create optimized timetables that take into account traffic, events and hundreds of other external factors; understand the impact of disruption and changes to their schedules; and model multiple future scenarios.

Unblocking our cities

There are massive benefits for all stakeholders. Transit operators can reduce their operating costs and improve reliability (leading to an increase in ridership); passengers can be more confident that their bus will arrive on time, not be overcrowded and quickly transport them to their destination; and over time our cities can become less congested, less polluted and nicer places to live – with an overall reduction in private car usage!

At CitySwift, our primary aim is to help transit operators and local government unblock our towns and cities. Our data indicates a one-minute journey time reduction leads to a 1.3% average increase in ridership. This has the potential to accelerate the shift back from private car journeys, allowing cities to become less congested and more environmentally-friendly.

To learn more about the CitySwift platform and how it could help digitally transform your transit network, contact us or request a demo.

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