Smart cities need smarter public transport
By Jochen Apel
The concept of autonomous or ‘self-driving’ cars has been heralded by some as the dawn of a new era in public transportation. However, while efforts to develop autonomous vehicles are clearly advancing, the technology has a few hurdles to clear before its widespread adoption; some estimates suggest it could take as much as a decade.
Moreover, while autonomous vehicles can help to improve urban transport, they still face a limiting factor — the availability of roadways; which will continue to be a relatively scarce resource, particularly as cities look to establish more vehicle-free zones and green spaces for purposes of sustainability and livability. As a result, municipalities need to be looking at opportunities to establish smarter transportation systems of all kinds.
Fortunately, many cities and their surrounding metropolitan regions already have convenient, safe and largely reliable public transport systems in place, specifically in the form of subways systems, regional railways and light rail networks. There is also the opportunity today to introduce new types of intelligence into these systems to help ensure they remain the backbone of sustainable urban transport long into the future.
In some ways, metro and regional rail operators might seem to be facing an uphill battle. Autonomous vehicles (including ride-sharing services, buses and private vehicles) essentially operate as ‘over the top’ services, taking advantage of roadways — at little or no cost — that are owned and maintained by national, state or city authorities. Metro operators, in contrast, tend to contribute significant funds to developing and maintaining their own infrastructure.
However, investments in metro network infrastructure have a lifespan of 10 to 20 years or more, so owners and operators of metro infrastructure can invest in technologies today that can bring enormous and immediate benefits to their operations. This in turn can help make them highly relevant and attractive to their customers, cementing their place in the transportation ecosystem of the future.
For instance, enhancing the passenger experience is relatively low-hanging fruit as investments in high-speed internet and infotainment services would immediately improve passengers’ experiences. In the future, operators could offer other conveniences such as online shopping portals onboard with delivery available at a passenger’s destination or charging stations for electric bikes, which are becoming a bigger piece of the urban transport mix.
At the center of these new experiences are communications networks, which in practical terms act as the brain and nervous system of smart transport networks. By investing in smarter communications networks, transport operators can expand their revenue streams in interesting ways. Beyond the previously mentioned, operators could also sell dedicated communications infrastructure access to third parties who could then introduce new services in both railway stations and onboard trains themselves.
Using Internet Protocol/Multi-Protocol Label Switching (IP/MPLS) technology, operators can strictly segregate data traffic — helping to ensure the critical transportation-related applications get the appropriate prioritization and predictable levels of performance to ensure that the trains run on time, while also delivering the security, reliability and resiliency required for such a critical public service.
Finally, railway operators currently sit on large piles of valuable data about their passengers and the services they use. This data, if managed and shared with the appropriate privacy features in place, can also contribute to broader smart city initiatives, public safety and economic development.
As cities look to become smarter, it is important that they consider where public transport will fit into their smart city plans. By carefully modernizing the communications networks supporting their existing transport systems, cities can smoothly integrate their legacy transportation assets into future smart city initiatives — laying the foundation for more efficient urban transport of all kinds.
Jochen Apel is the global vice president of Nokia’s transportation segment.