Accelerating the digital transformation of the public transport system as a result of Covid-19

Ralph Gambetta, General Secretary, Calypso Networks Association, Belgium

Over the last decade, digital transformation has represented one of the main challenges for the organisation of urban services, including for public transport. COVID-19 pandemics created a context in which the role of digitalization has become a central point of attention. Digital approaches proposed by major institutional and business actors are considered fundamental key solutions to restore the productivity, safety and attractiveness of public transport and mobility services, severely affected by the pandemics. In this context, contactless technology will be essential to reencourage people to use public transport services.

As one of the global leading associations for the deployment of open source based ticketing specifications, Calypso Networks Association has closely followed the evolution of the pandemic. Most public transport companies, including the leading Belgian operators, have witnessed last year a significant reduction in terms of ridership that in its peak reached up to 95% with a corelated impact on the revenue stream. In terms of ticketing most networks stopped temporarily their on-board sales and have implemented protection measures for customers and their staff being considered essential workers. Some networks like Porto have deactivated at all their smart ticketing scheme, others disinfected their vehicles, stations and also stationary equipment like ticket vending machines. There is consensus among the transport operators and networks that the wider adoption of mobile ticketing and contactless smart card schemes will be a clear-cut advantage to reduce contact interfaces with the ticketing equipment for sanitary reasons. A stronger demand for those solutions can be expected in the aftermath of the crisis. Currently several networks, due to the overall economic impact of the pandemic, have stopped their project deployments. These shall resume later this year or from 2022 onwards depending on the overall economic framework evolution.

But the overall question remains how to regain trust in the usage of public transport services. After almost a year of recommendations to avoid the use of public transport, this sector needs to find the right balance between the adaptation of the networks and services, the increase of operational capacity with dynamically managed vehicle occupancy rates and the investment into new technologies in order to provide attractive services for their customers by keeping all necessary sanitary safety measures in place. Until now public transport ticketing revenues are still heavily impacted by this ongoing dramatic drop in ridership and the increased costs of additional sanitary measures. There is no clarity on how lockdowns, the increase of remote working and travel bans will impact the future passenger volume in public transport. Nonetheless the challenge posed by the pandemic has boosted several developments in the sector with regards to digitalisation and the deployment of IT tools. This includes also the provision of real time information to avoid crowds, accelerating the drive towards contactless in ticketing with a focus on mobile ticketing. The latter including the ability to be used as ticket issuing device, storage device and being ready for inspection to facilitate the revenue enforcement in a contactless way complying with the health sanitary measures. Big data could help cities and transport operators gain insights into what travelers need in order to increase ridership again. Contactless ticketing based on open source and standards shall become an enabler for future Mobility as a Service oriented schemes to facilitate the seamless usage of sustainable transport modes. With the help of such innovative schemes integrating various transport modes new business models shall be deployed for an overall recovery of the public transport sector.

The economic and societal impacts of the pandemic in public transportation go beyond operational aspects and health risks linked to the usage of public transport to adapted and moderate pricing, social distribution and sustainable mobility. The drive towards contactless in the aftermath of the pandemic and the recovery plan will give this sector additional momentum and pave the way for future sustainable recovery and growth. Digital technologies are currently remodeling the public transport eco system and allowing for a modern image and incentive to use its services.

Despite the pandemic the growing world population will see an increased future need for mobility. More and more sustainability, reduction of CO2 emissions and reaching the climate goals will become relevant. Modern urban living is rapidly changing with new technological innovations. Public transport users need innovative, multi-applicative, secure and on demand fare schemes that are easy to use. Within our association and ecosystem, we are strongly working on these technologies allowing the realisation of the set targets.