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Friday Fun: 3 Ways Mobile Technology is Transforming Bus Travel
Buses and Cell Phones in Jinotega, Nicaragua

Mobile-based technology is transforming bus travel in cities like Jinotega, Nicaragua and making public transit more responsive to the needs of local communities. Photo by Adam Cohn/Flickr.

In the last fifty years, bus systems have evolved significantly as a mode of public transit. From the onset of bus rapid transit (BRT) in the mid-1970s to the growing variety of alternative fuel options—including  cooking oil and human waste (known as the Bio-Bus)—there have been continuous improvements to bus mechanics, decreasing its environmental impact. Examples like the Bio-Bus, as the Sustainable Collective notes, demonstrate that there’s a lot of promise for innovating bus travel. Considering these progressive changes, the future of bus innovation is bright.

Technology has perhaps the most direct influence on public transit innovation. Some commentators have even said that smartphones alone are “the most important transportation innovation of this decade.” In the context of bus travel, this includes mobile ticket purchasing, mobile location tracking, and opportunities for Internet access and data collection.

Mobile Ticket Purchasing Is Convenient and Efficient

In terms of purchasing tickets, smartphones will likely play a critical role in future bus travel. Many public transit systems in cities worldwide have been transitioning to e-tickets in recent years. For example,  Redbus led the move throughout India toward online ticket sales about 10 years ago. Now, the company serves more than 80,000 destinations and 1,500 operators. While their service does not apply to public transit, it has helped reinforce the trend toward mobile ticket sales.

Around three years ago, an Israeli start-up called HopOn created a “high-frequency sound-wave technology” that allows riders to buy tickets on the bus, without adding time to the scheduled route. Although the buses needed to be outfitted with transmitters, David Mezuman, one of the founders, describes the new technology as the “simplest way to pay for the bus by smartphone.”

Even in the past three years, technology has evolved considerably, and now an e-ticket can be bought online and verified in-person by the bus driver. For instance, in early 2015, Los Angeles developed LA Mobile, an app for buying bus tickets. However, LA Mobile has not yet standardized ticketing for all modes and lines of public transit throughout the county. Once these become integrated, it is likely that traveling by public transit will be much easier and popular.

Additionally, mobile ticket purchasing has become even more popular as more and more buses no longer accept cash for onboard fares. For example, as of 2014, the Transport for London buses stopped accepting cash. Cash on Tap, which offers an app-based payment system, is now one of the preferred payment methods across London’s public transit system.

Mobile Apps Provide Users with Information about Bus Locations

In addition to mobile ticket sales, some cities have started to incorporate smartphone technology to track buses on their routes. In Washington D.C., 64 Circulator buses now feature onboard smartphone technology for location tracking. This location data is available through RideDC and can be visualized through mobile-based apps. Not only is it an effective way of determining the current location of a bus, it costs little

However, in some cities, it’s difficult to pinpoint the locations of bus stops. Since Costa Rica does not have a single bus operator, Costa Rica’s public transit system once lacked a comprehensive platform for bus route information. Therefore, the website (and now app) BusMaps Costa Rica was created to help integrate the process. The platform provides a map of around 2,000 bus stops and over 30 routes. Integrating the country’s public transportation options will improve country-wide travel and is a step forward for mobile-accessible transit information.

Better Data Make City Services More Responsive to Local Needs

Bus technologies are also being used as a way to inform city maintenance decisions. For example, Porto, Portugal utilizes data from sensor-equipped buses to highlight areas along bus routes in need of maintenance. Approximately 600 buses and taxis in Porto now carry sensors that collect data. Across the city, these buses are also creating a portable Wi-Fi network with built-in routers, bringing buses into the so-called “Internet of Moving Things.”

Public Wi-Fi coverage has even expanded beyond the bus itself to stations and stops. Since 2013, Barcelona has developed “smart bus stops” (or smartquesine). These digitized bus stops now include “interactive digital public information screens,” which present maps and other relevant information to riders.

These examples demonstrate that technology can help lay the groundwork for smarter bus systems, making public transportation responsive to residents’ mobility efficiently and sustainably.

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