Make public transport safer with digital queuing

May 18, 2020
Carl Partridge

Digital queuing Social Distancing

It felt like there was a collective national gasp of horror at the recent pictures of commuters crowded onto trains, tubes and buses.  Surely, the outraged headlines suggested, people should be more considerate, especially in the face of government advice to ‘avoid public transport where possible’.

The reality is that many of these people simply have no choice.  Almost 50 per cent of homes in the lowest income bracket do not have a car, so across the country, 20% of commuters rely on buses and trains to get to work.

Even if someone does have a car, there is pressure right now to abandon it in favour of ‘active travel’ i.e. walking and cycling. Great if you work around the corner from your home, but given that the average commute is a twenty-mile round trip, this could be a challenge for many. Cycling is an option, particularly for those that already own a bicycle, but with an estimated 20,000 bicycles currently on back-order and many stores currently out of stock, it would seem that bikes have become as rare as toilet paper was at the start of this crisis.

Which is why, with every day that goes by, the number of people reluctantly boarding trains and buses will grow, and all the problems that entails will start to emerge.

What we face is a perfect storm – massive demand combined with a lack of availability across the transport modes – and this will result in huge queues.   At rush hour, this amounts to thousands of people, so, effectively, queues could extend for miles.  We are all aware, by now, of the risks of Covid-19 exposure in closely confined spaces, so this situation is likely to lead to considerable crowd control issues and danger not just to passengers, but also to drivers.

So, how do we deal with the threat of ‘queue-mageddon’? Fortunately, there is a solution, and it promises to reduce queues and make the daily commute safer while still supporting social distancing.

Queuing for public transport

Digital queueing allows public transport to be made pre-bookable. It is a proven way to manage a scenario in which demand outstrips supply.  It works for ticketing websites, post-office counters, even the deli counter at the supermarket.  And, used correctly, it presents an ideal short-term solution for the management of crowded buses, trams or trains.

If transport operators convert a proportion of their fixed-route bus services, for example, into pre-booked, point-to-point shuttle services, passengers can then book and pay for their trip via an app. These bookings are strictly time-limited to manage capacity and enforce social distancing.  If exact timed trips cannot be guaranteed, then time-banded slots can be booked, in the same way as coloured bands are issued to users of a swimming pool.  A centralised platform monitors the bookings and ensures capacity constraints are met on each trip.

The main benefit is that passengers no longer need to queue, and they have the reassurance of a guaranteed journey at a set time which will also be safe. For operators, the advantage is having the ability to ensure services meet demand whilst being able to use capacity as efficiently as possible.  For society as a whole, digital queueing provides a safer environment with the enforcement of social distancing.

The technology to convert a ‘hop on’ service to a pre-booked system not only exists but is surprisingly quick and simple to deploy.  Our platform at UrbanThings can be supplied with a minimum of cost and fuss.  The average time it takes to deploy can be measured in just days, not weeks.

Over time, such systems can be extended to deal with more complex requirements.  A staff app to validate tickets or priority booking for passengers with an NHS email address, for example.  At UrbanThings, we’ve even worked with the Department for Transport to develop a national standard for Bluetooth beacons that detect when passengers get off.  This permits additional stops en-route and could allow spare capacity to be re-booked on the fly.  There even exists the opportunity to plug such a system into the emergent NHSX contact-tracing framework, augmenting the data with metrics on potential exposure in the close confines of a bus or train carriage.

This might sound like a familiar solution to people working in intelligent mobility. It’s part of a “Demand-Responsive Transport” platform, and this is the next-generation approach.  The example described for use on buses is just the beginning.  A true DRT platform can do much more — if overloaded bus fleets can’t meet capacity, other transport modes can be called upon to meet passenger demand in real-time; minibuses, taxis, even private cars.  With ticketing and payment integration, the platform will evolve into a “Mobility-as-a-Service” (MaaS) solution, offering a wide choice of safe and convenient travel options to passengers.

The rather haphazard approach to returning to work outlined by the government does not properly accommodate the difficulties of keeping passengers safe. But by using digital queueing, transport operators will be providing a way to mitigate the risk factors and get people moving safely. There will also be future benefits for cities who are able to demonstrate that they have taken their mobility infrastructure to a higher level.

If you would like to know more about pre-booking for public transport, or to speak to the UrbanThings, please feel free to get in touch.