How Digital Technology is Transforming Public Transport and Mobility


6 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Man waiting on a London train station with his back to the camera, a red train arrives in the background.

Today, 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas. By 2050, the UN predicts this number will go up to 68%, adding 2.5 billion more people to urban areas. While urbanisation brings with it a host of benefits, it does put a strain on a city’s transportation and mobility systems resulting in traffic congestion, inadequate public transport and unsafe roads. These are huge challenges that many urban areas today just don’t have the resources to properly address.

Digital technology has ushered in a revolution in how we think about and run public transport and today that revolution shows no sign of slowing down. Digital innovations are now improving people’s lives and opening opportunities for the public, including increased efficiency, lowering costs and easier accessibility. 

We are not just talking about the advent of Uber and ride-hailing apps here. There are many technological innovations that are making cities not only easier areas to travel in, but more livable places to be in. 

Increasing Safety For Drivers and Pedestrians

Roads today are increasingly becoming perilous for both drivers and pedestrians alike. In the UK, 470 pedestrians died in 2017—a 5% increase from the previous year. Within the same timeframe, pedestrians made up more than a quarter of all road deaths and these numbers are currently at a nine-year high.

London, a city that houses 8.7 million people, sees an average of 600 people killed or injured every billion walking trips. Meanwhile, most of the accidents and casualties involving cyclists happen at or near the junction in congested areas

With road accidents, deaths, and injuries increasing, several digital technologies are at the forefront of reducing these numbers.

Starling Crossing – Interactive Pedestrian Crossing from Umbrellium on Vimeo.

Umbrellium’s Starling shows how even the busiest streets can be safe for pedestrians.With the help of LEDs installed on the road’s surface, as well as a camera that tracks every object and person moving on it, the road can then show the appropriate crossing colours and patterns for both vehicles and pedestrians to follow in real time. This interactive pedestrian crossing also includes warning lights for distracted people who might get too close to vehicles or for drivers to avoid a kid who is running into traffic.

Inclusive Designs

The navigation apps we tend to use today do not generally include information on whether destinations are accessible to people, especially those who have baby carriages, grocery carts, or those in wheelchairs. This lack of inclusive design impacts not just people’s abilities to get from point A to point B, but also people’s access to employment, education, and healthcare. 

Inclusive design should underpin the way that public transport systems and services are designed, delivered and maintained to make true positive contributions in the mobility ecosystem.

A 2012 study by Stanford University found that transportation data does not accurately report mobility trends among women, calling for transit systems to redesign facilities to accommodate women’s needs. An ongoing study by the World Bank echoes this, revealing that women’s needs are often overlooked in transport systems, especially since they take more non-work-related journeys than men.

Network Rail’s Inclusive Design Strategy for 2015 to 2019 includes, among others, consulting with passengers, collaborating with policy makers, and educating people for more awareness.

In terms of apps, a couple are making headway into solving this issue. AccessMap, designed by the Taskar Center for Accessible Technology, allows users in Washington, USA to customise their routes based on their preferences (e.g. slope of the street, curb cuts). 

AccessAble, meanwhile, is an online search engine that gives users detailed access guides to thousands of places in the UK, including ramped or sloped access, baby changing facilities, and parking spaces.

Reducing Traffic

The UK is the 10th most congested country in the world, with the average driver wasting 178 hours in 2017 during rush-hour traffic and costing £1,137. 

Traffic congestion takes its toll not just on resources wasted, but also on people’s health. Traffic congestion increases vehicle emissions and affects air quality, exposing people to significant health risks. 

London’s Congestion Charging Zones has implemented an automatic toll system with strategically-placed cameras and sensors that will take photographs of licence plates and automatically charge the drivers who traverse those roads during the hours of 7am to 6pm (those with reduced mobility are subject to exemptions). The Low Emission Zone operates throughout Greater London and levies a fee on heavy polluting vehicles.

There’s a similar initiative in Manhattan, New York City, where drivers collectively spend 6,400 hours every day waiting in toll lines.

In Singapore, the Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) maximises road network efficiency and manages traffic flow by aggregating traffic data in real time. This information on hand has a two-pronged benefit: they can monitor and manage traffic better and disseminate accurate information to the public via radio broadcasts, smartphones, and websites. Motorists can then make better decisions on which route to take to avoid congested and dangerous areas.

Making Public Transport Accessible for Disabled People

The UK is one of the signatories of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The British Equality Act, also specifies equal treatment for disabled people. 

The reality on the ground, however, is different. People with disabilities encounter numerous issues, including lack of and/or blocked wheelchair ramps, buildings without lifts, and shops with no step-free access, among many, many others. Our environments and services can be disabling.

According to WHO, people with disabilities are less likely to socialise or work, have poorer health, lower education achievements, and have higher poverty rates due to lack of accessible services – including accessible transportation.

Customising public transport for people with disabilities also benefits the economy. In fact, the accessible tourism market is worth £12 billion, while the “purple pound” (spending power of disabled people and their families) is worth £212 billion.

There are a growing amount of digital solutions available today for those with disabilities. Aurrigo, for one, has created the world’s first autonomous four-seater vehicle for disabled people. These vehicles can run on several locations like city centres, airports, and heritage sites, among others. 

At Calvium we are exploring a digital wayfinding solution called NavSta, in partnership with Transport for London (TfL), Open Inclusion, and Connected Places Catapult. This innovative mobile solution aims to help people with less visible impairments (e.g. dementia, autism, anxiety, etc.) to navigate railway stations. 

The Future of Transport Systems

People today expect increasing digitisation of mass transport, especially since this will make their commute easier and faster. Open data is also now helping people to see their transport options, make informed choices, and/or suggest changes.

Looking ahead, these technologies will vary from project to project and country to country. However, at their core, these digital innovations will (and should) focus on inclusive design, meet the needs of all groups, and provide solutions to 21st century challenges resulting from increasing urban populations. For our public transport systems to remain viable and accessible to all, whilst minimising impacting on citizen’s day to day lives, public and private sectors need to not only work together but to take full advantage of the huge opportunities digital technology has to offer.

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