The smartphone experience is raising our expectations for comprehensive, yet targeted, regular information – and it’s influencing how we use transport

 
These issues will only intensify with the pending arrival of autonomous shuttles

 

Mobile phone penetration is currently at over 85% in the UK. Over 40% of UK adults look at their mobile phones within five minutes of waking up in the morning. Mobile technology was the preserve of the young, and the wealthier, not long ago, but the percentage of the population using these technologies is increasing across all demographic groups, including many harder to reach portions of the population.

This trend is not new, and has been observed and commented upon in many articles and across many industries. It is changing the reality of how many of us lead our lives as well as how business and government interacts with us. However, I would like to reflect on the resulting impact of these trends on a number of aspects of the mobility industry, and how these trends will continue to challenge many of the historic assumptions of the needs of our many customers.

Information, regarding transport choice, is becoming limitless – subject to availability of alternative modes and some form of openness in data from authorities and operators. Thus, users are potentially being offered ever wider sets of mobility choices. This creates the market for data aggregators who are developing the portals to manage the range of datasets available to the consumer. As well as the evolving Mobility-as-a-Service innovators, these data aggregators include the existing online mapping providers, such as Google and Apple, satnav providers, as well as local authorities, National Rail in the UK, etc. Each is providing a view into the world of modal choice for the consumer – but in most cases not for the needs of wider society such as congestion relief or overall sustainability. And, this view is typically based on the needs of the business model of the data aggregator.

However, consider that for many people, and in developed economies such as the UK, there is little real choice in mobility. For many journeys the only feasible choice is personal driving. This can be due to the personal choices of individuals as to where they live and work, and the resulting local availability of services as well the limits of the available modal options.

The smartphone can assist in increasing the efficiency of driving via satellite navigation. If your car doesn’t already have a built in device, but will not change the poor availability or quality of alternatives to personal driving.

This is the reality of many suburban and ex-urban lives in the UK and in many other countries.

Nevertheless, for many urbanites and selected journeys for suburbanites and ex-urbanites, the smartphone portal is redefining choice in modes and routing.

The key issue, I would argue for the future of transport, is increasingly what the “portal” says about the available mobility offer and the relevance of traditional information sources. This is potentially disconnecting the operator or local authority from their customers.

Over time even our most habitual journeys will be influenced by mobility portals

We have many habitual journeys for which we typically don’t necessarily seek out pre-travel information. However, the increasing availability of information which is often pushed to the user, expectations of being informed at all times, and habits of interacting with mobility portals is even challenging behaviours for the most regular trips. The smartphone experience is raising our expectations for comprehensive, yet targeted, regular information. The addictive nature of this information forms many of the business models for these new services as well as the craving for these devices. Over time even our most habitual journeys will be influenced by mobility portals.

There are numerous specific impacts for authorities and transport operators.

Wayfinding has traditionally been a key element of the public realm in city centres and other busy pedestrian areas. Cities across the UK, and around much of the world, have generally spent heavily in the last few years in rolling out new plinth-based wayfinding schemes. Wayfinding schemes are particularly aimed at occasional and infrequent visitors and also form part of a wider sense of place in public realm improvements in many areas. The target market of visitors are also typically more willing to explore and take time to interact as well as be much more sensitive to data charges on smart phones, particularly if they are roaming outside of their home country. A good case in the UK is the recent scheme in central Birmingham – which deals with an otherwise confusing city centre geography.

However, these schemes seem to have been spectacularly resistant to being integrated with the smartphone revolution. In my travels they seem solely based on the print solution to wayfinding with little reference to alternative smartphone based concepts. Is this a “solution cul-de-sac”? More problematically, as is often the situation in capital spending based public sector investments, the maintenance cycle for these units – whether in general updating of the information or physical care and unit repair has seemingly been under resourced. In London, I am increasingly seeing many of the units in a poor state. This is not only unsightly, but damages the whole concept of these types of schemes and their reputation for accuracy. In an era of severely limited local authority public resources is this the eventual evolution of these types of schemes, which demand consistent public investment and maintenance and are being challenged by the smartphone vision of personal mobility? Is the real need instead more ubiquitous, low cost and high quality Wi-Fi signals across cities?

What is the role of wider street wayfinding in the digital era and the most useful types of street furniture? They could include street benches, perhaps powered and Wi-Fi-enabled digital street signs and on street advertising panels. How should they now interact with smart devices and even what are the needs for consistency between digital and non-digital solutions?

Is the most logical and fundamental role for local authorities to ensure that accurate and reliable street mapping information and the inclusion of a wide variety of asset databases is collected and reliably distributed to content partners who then can deliver the personal smartphone experience our users are gravitating towards? In effect, accurate and plentiful open data is to be provided!

The issues are also impactful for transport operators. What is the role of customer facing staff if they are not able to provide accurate real time information? Customer facing staff roles vary from security, revenue protection to departure control. However, this interface between the operator and their brand and many customers is being side-lined in the information needs of many customers. Is it a regular occurrence to see delayed customers checking their smartphones for the latest information and not bothering to engage with nearby staff who are assumed to be less informed and experienced than the online databases and software?

The public transport authority is no longer necessarily in control of the transport user’s awareness of modal choice

The public transport authority is no longer necessarily in control of the transport user’s awareness of modal choice. As the mix of mobility choices and of public and private modes increases and in many cities as the innovation culture develops, customers do not necessarily see the authority as the starting point for mobility choices and look to these emerging online solutions for ease of use and access to a wide range of accurate choices – even if many of the suggested solutions are powered by authority or operator databases.

Fundamentally, local authorities need to carefully consider what they are best placed to do and support in the longer term and how their earlier role is best placed to react to this new reality of mobility. These issues will only intensify with the pending arrival of autonomous shuttles which are likely delivered by private operators using a model of maximising data and customer capture and reward.

At a (mobility) conference last year in Paris I was struck by a conversation with a colleague who proudly pointed out that upon arrival at Gare du Nord station, he openeda suite of smart phone apps and hailed his preferred supplier to whisk him to the venue. In his view, local information services as well as the local authority’s diverse and plentiful transport modes were not considered or even noticed versus the ease of use of the smartphone and its access to personalised mobility. While this may be a very unique user case, it illustrates the situation the mobility industry faces.

The ultimate role and ability for local authorities and transport operators in providing information is perhaps rather limited beyond offering the best and most advantageous data as a commons that can be accessed by the portal providers.

In our future world the portal owner becomes the ultimate king of the transport experience. Signal coverage is now critical and lack of device battery power a disaster!

 
About the author:

Giles K Bailey is a Director at Stratageeb, a London based consultancy assisting businesses think about their strategic vision and innovation. Previously, he had spent nine years as Head of Marketing Strategy at Transport for London.

 
This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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