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Data-driven transport: Putting the passenger in control

With new market entrants and business models increasingly gearing mobility services towards passengers, transport companies must accelerate their move into the digital age, says Ross Timms, Rufus Leonard.


Data has had a huge impact on many industries in the last 20 years, and the transport sector is no different. Brands in the sector are constantly seeking to implement new digital capabilities, driving forward and embracing the benefits of digital innovation for both staff and customers. But with technologies increasingly allowing for customer control, it’s time to make sure they’re at the forefront of digital transformations.


The rise of the digitisation of services has led us to a model where we expect services to be on-demand, context-aware and highly personalised. For those using transport networks, that means an expectation of a seamless passenger experience and the ability to find information, seek entertainment, shop and communicate while on the move.


Moreover, the ongoing integration of sensors into our products and environments is transforming our connectivity while on the go. From our smartphones with near field communications (NFC) and GPS technology connecting us to the built environment, to retail and public spaces using Wi-Fi and beacon technology to provide that hook, we have created a world where there is no real distinction between the online and offline worlds.


Digital services


For passengers, the effects are already with us and very clear. We’re increasingly reliant on digital services to manage our transport needs. National Rail Enquiries processes over 600,000 journey plans per hour and close to a third of young adults use on-demand transport apps such as Uber.


While the boundaries between home and travel, and work and travel have been blurring for a while, it’s never been easier to watch your favourite TV shows on the train, use apps or finish your work on the way home – three quarters of adults (76%) regularly send and receive emails while travelling and over two-thirds now shop (69%) and use online banking (64%), according to Ofcom.


We’re now able to treat transport like our living room or desk, opening up endless opportunities for service providers and content creators. Almost half of executives surveyed by Forrester believe that 47% of their revenue will be influenced digitally by 2020.


In an environment where digital-first services such as Uber, Netflix, Deliveroo and Amazon Prime can flourish, Virgin Trains, for example, has launched BEAM and moved into the role of content provider, mimicking the experience provided on its transatlantic flights.


Simplifying complexity


Even more fundamentally, digital transformation can help resolve the complexities of the transport experience.


Anyone who’s been through a hub like Heathrow will have had to contend with the lack of clear single ownership of the customer experience – there’s the operator, the airline and a wealth of retail, food and beverage brands who all want to attract attention and therefore revenue or loyalty. As the owner of the ‘platform’, Heathrow has the opportunity to utilise location (e.g. GPS, beacons) and connection technology (e.g. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth) to create a digital tool that preps passengers before and supports them through their entire airport experience.


Digital transformation can help resolve the complexities of the transport experience.


Airport maps and flight departure boards could be in the hands of passengers; retailers could offer till-free shopping; passengers could track and keep an eye on their luggage once it has entered the bowels of the airport; and restaurants and cafes could even take food orders from hungry passengers stuck in security after a long flight.




Transport brands are facing new challenges from disruptors bringing new services and business models to the market. Brands like Uber, Ofo, Trainline, Citymapper, Waze and Transloc are all seeking to build a data-driven, responsive service offers which can truly respond to changing passenger behaviours, in real-time and over time.


Citymapper calls this the ‘demand-responsive’ future and is an exemplar of this model. It’s leveraging the network effects (attracting more users to improve the service to attract more users) of a well-honed and on-demand journey planning tool to better understand travel and commuting behaviours, and create new service offers (such as the recently launched Smart Ride) that match.


Uber has built a model that allows it to very quickly match supply to demand and reap the rewards. Ofo, a dockless, global, bike-share scheme has gone one step further, and built a service that guides the demand (riders) to the supply (bikes), removing the need for centralised coordination.




The opportunity for transport brands here lies in the ability to derive actionable insights from a large volume of data. The necessary infrastructure investment lies in the hardware and software required to generate the kind of valuable insights that have the potential to deliver huge operational and commercial gains. Could an established operator such as Arriva in London, for example, operate in a way that’s much closer to the Uber model, and offer a fleet of on-demand, eight-seater ‘buses’?


Could an established operator such as Arriva in London operate in a way that’s much closer to the Uber model, and offer a fleet of on-demand, eight-seater ‘buses’?


These service innovations, and the proliferation of others like them, raise some interesting and challenging questions for the industry. Firstly – and especially in political and regulatory environments like the UK and most of Europe – these businesses build themselves on publicly available, open-source data and APIs.


Organisations like TfL and its equivalents have become a blend of operator and data platform, providing the key infrastructure for others to operate on. This has created a value exchange model that largely holds up, whereby all parties involved both take from and give back to a single, shared set of transport data.


Rebalancing the relationship


This approach raises a second question. The other factor in this relationship is the passengers: the question here is whether they (i.e. we) are a beneficiary or a resource in this model?


Social and commercial imperatives make travel, and therefore transport, a necessity. Passengers do not choose whether to travel or not; we choose (where possible) the mode and timing of our journeys. We are de facto participants in the relationship between platform providers, service providers and users. We have no choice over whether we contribute to the common dataset – and then we are charged a fee every time we wish to utilise the benefits of that data and services.


Maybe that’s fine. After all, we’re not the ones aggregating millions of journeys’ worth of data, aligning service provision to shifting demands, or integrating multiple services into a single interface. These things take time, expertise and money. But maybe there is more to offer than Citymapper’s ‘demand-responsive’ future? Surely more can be done to rebalance the passenger-provider relationship and put passengers in control.


If, as it seems, the next phase of transport is going to be an exploration of the implications for common infrastructure and shared platforms, then it really becomes an exploration of regulation driven by the requirements of society – technology drives demand, which pressurises regulation.


New technologies are enabling – indeed, compelling – transport brands to fundamentally see and do everything differently. This is creating new pressures and dynamics on the relationship between providers, platforms and passengers, leading providers to find ways around regulation to meet evolving consumer needs.


Data-driven innovation


We are entering a new era which will see an intense focus on the passenger side of the equation. As brand experience engineers, we believe transport data can, and should, be viewed as a raw material that can be shaped by brands into innovative solutions – solutions that directly respond to people’s ever-changing behaviours.


No transport experience is delivered in isolation, and passengers expect a consistent, connected and meaningful experience no matter what the configuration of partners delivering it is. It’s up to the providers to utilise the information they have to ensure that this experience happens.


By looking at innovations and developments with the customer in mind, brands can create technologies that respond to and predict passenger needs, and in turn give them full control over their journey – the whole way.


With new market entrants and business models gearing services towards passengers, there’s even more reason for transport providers themselves to accelerate their move into the digital age. They can respond directly to data and build additional services in response, making for an engaged and symbiotic passenger-provider relationship.

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