passengers on phones

How much should your transport operator know about you?

2018 is the year that data privacy became headline news. From the Cambridge Analytica scandal, to a seemingly unending torrent of GDPR emails, greater oversight is coming, making us more conscious than ever about what digital companies know about us and why.

Public transport companies may not have seen the same level of public scrutiny as the social network giants, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a conversation to be had. Mobility as a Service (or MaaS) has been an exciting conversation topic in the transit world in recent years. Operators are coming to terms with the limitations of long-standing transport practices and embracing a collaborative future where ride-sharing, hire bikes and autonomous vehicles join the ranks of bus, train and tram. For MaaS to work, it must incorporate account-based travel and smart ticketing, and that means data.

Passenger waiting at subway station

Utopian visions for the future of transport portray seamless journeys, where demand-responsive transport picks you up just in time to meet your friends for a Sunday coffee, and journey planners don’t recommend cycling to your meeting on a hot summer day. Underpinning these concepts will be a unified smart ticketing platform that charges you for exactly what you use. But in exchange for this frictionless travel, will passengers have to give up their personal information? In what seems to mirror the debate surrounding always-on smart speakers such as Alexa and Google Home, passengers are weighing up convenience against covertness.

Would you be willing to share your home and work addresses with online platforms if they could make your commute easier and deliver cheaper fares? Many already have, and it’s a default feature on most mapping and transport apps. Would you trust a company to charge you fairly based on where it knows you’ve travelled? The exponential growth of capped contactless card payments in transit suggests that many of us would.

It isn’t just the operators of the future that gets to benefit from Big Data, there are large scale data-fuelled projects going on right now. TfL is using anonymised and aggregated WiFi data to track how passengers are moving around London’s Underground network. The results showed the surprising number of routes that passengers take to get between the same two stops. The transport body is now planning to pilot the same technology on buses in the capital. This project underlines the importance that operators like TfL attach to live occupancy information, and its potential to improve service.

Bus drivers in Cape Town

To put things in perspective, London’s network is in the advantageous position of being relatively well funded, particularly when compared to Cape Town’s Transport and Urban Development Authority (TDA). Cape Town’s transport system consists of informal taxis and almost 8,000 unregulated minibus services, in addition to formal routes. Local startup WhereIsMyTransport mapped over 1,000 routes in three weeks using passenger data to make sense of an otherwise chaotic infrastructure. The TDA gained new insights into the city’s transport landscape, and discovered dozens of previously unknown routes.

When it comes to running an efficient public transport operation, data is key, whether we’re talking about TfL, Cape Town or Ticketless. By knowing your business, operators can optimise their quality of service and improve the passenger journey. But, in turn, we need to stay on top of where our information is and how it’s being used, so we can make sure that our data is serving us.

How much of your info would you be willing to share for good public transport? Let us know what you think.

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