As schools and offices reopen, we speak with transit operators about how they are using data to help passengers plan their journeys and head back to school/work with confidence.
Back in 2015, Stagecoach co-founder Sir Brian Souter said the passenger transit sector must embrace technology or it will risk being sidelined by a new ‘tech stock’ entrant to the market. He warned that Uber-style entrepreneurs could remold the passenger transit sector in the same way that he and others did in the 1980s and 1990s – by thinking differently and responding to what the market wants. “There’s some big, big challenges coming from this,” he said. “I think we need to raise our game.”
Five years later, never have Souter’s words been more true – and big data offers the industry a quick and easy way to efficiently adapt to the new normal.
Mass transit network design specialist Adam Hawksworth says transit operators must not miss any opportunities to tap into resurgent demand: “If we concentrate on the numbers we have today, compared to yesterday, then we are going to end up with very different networks to what we had just a few months ago. The temptation to cut is all too great. We have to broaden our thinking.”
What makes things complicated is that demand is not returning evenly. Numerous factors are influencing it, for example, what’s happening to local or regional employment, which educational institutions and retailers have reopened in a particular area – and the key will be to bring together a variety of data sources to assist in planning the network.
“We’ll be looking at the data right down to stop level. We’ll be looking at transit networks and examining them in a very different way to the way we did it before. While that’s an enormous challenge, you’ve got to look at it as an opportunity. The key to the future is understanding where your customers and, more importantly, your future customers (which you don’t know you’ve got yet) want to go.
"The key to the future is understanding where your customers and, more importantly, your future customers (which you don’t know you’ve got yet) want to go."
“Commonly, up to a third of patronage churns each year, especially when you think about education and employment changes. So it’s essential that network offerings meet their needs and expectations.”
“Patronage and funding have changed quickly and are likely to do so again,” says Andy Foster, Deputy Commercial Director at National Express Bus. “We need to respond quickly and be able to see what is happening to patronage much more rapidly than we did in the past.” He believes that the industry will need to understand in far greater detail when and where vehicles are needed on routes, which sections of route are busier and where operators can generate commercial patronage.
Andy continues: “Crucially we also need to understand how riders travel across the network. Post Covid-19 travel patterns look set to be more complex than previously. Shopping and working patterns are changing. There will be a more complex mix of activities. Experience alone won’t get us back to profitability – nor will data alone. But I think we will rely on data to a greater extent because networks and schedules need to become more efficient.”
“Crucially we also need to understand how riders travel across the network. Post Covid-19 travel patterns look set to be more complex than previously."
Harnessing the power of data
At Cityswift, we have worked with transit operators such as National Express and the Go-Ahead Group to provide their passengers with dynamic information about ridership. By harnessing the power of the CitySwift transit data engine, our SwiftConnect APIs use artificial intelligence to predict how many people will use a service at a specific date and time. This helps to inform journey choices at a time when on-board capacity is severely restricted as a result of physical distancing rules.
“What CitySwift have delivered is a more detailed and comprehensive solution than I had perhaps envisaged,” says Martijn Gilbert, Managing Director of Go North East, who worked closely with us to develop the technology. “The guys are really up for the challenge, and they could see how their data engine could be used in this slightly different way.”
Martijn thinks big data offers huge potential for the transit sector. “We have only just started to scratch the surface of it,” he tells us. “If we can get this right, it will be an opportunity for the industry to really embrace the power of big data. We’ve got to, because I don’t think anybody is expecting customers to return in their normal numbers for some time. There will be changes and for us to find our way to the optimal solutions for both our customers and the business, we’ve got to be influenced by emerging demand.”
“As individuals, we struggle to understand all the factors that will affect future demand – there are just too many of them,” adds Andy Foster. “Systems that help us analyze all the factors will be hugely beneficial.”
“As individuals, we struggle to understand all the factors that will affect future demand – there are just too many of them. Systems that help us analyze all the factors will be hugely beneficial.”
Data will offer significant benefits elsewhere too. One potential area is in convincing stakeholders of the value of mass transit within communities, the ability to demonstrate the effects of traffic congestion, and how some of these impacts can be mitigated by investment in mass transit. As Andy notes: “There doesn’t seem many points in solving the Covid problem if we then sleepwalk back into issues of air quality causing respiratory diseases.”