Public transport for a growing population: can high-tech tools help?

Dr Peter Vitartas's picture

Can mobile technology be utilised by the public transport industry to deliver information that will lead to increased public transport preference and improved customer satisfaction?

If the Australian population continues to increase and resource constraints lead to an inevitable increase in population densities, the ability of roads and private cars to function in a practical manner will decrease. At some point people will make the switch to public transport. However, will the switch occur if there is an inefficient public transport system? Some could argue that already happens with people using our current system, while others, who use the system every day, are more than happy with the service. Experience from other countries is that higher density population leads to greater dependency on public transport. The question is, can mobile technology provide a solution to the speedier adoption of public transport use?

One of the biggest complaints regarding public transport is that it’s never there when you need it! What’s worse is when you’re waiting for a bus, ferry or train and there has been an unforseen delay that is affecting the arrival of your transport. The reason people object to using public transport is when they are inconvenienced. It could be due to not knowing the timetable, if there is a disruption or when their transport is overcrowded.  

An apparent solution is already evident. Any traveller who has been to Europe or a number of Asian cities will have seen the use of technology to keep travellers up to date with vehicle location, timetable information and minute by minute messages about their forthcoming transport. The Internet, through the use of mobile technology, short message services, 3G, 4G, Wi-Fi technology, radio frequency identification devices (RFID’s), digital signage, GPS and mobile commerce are being used to assist commuters in their travel decisions.

Australian Population in Focus logoI believe these technologies are all valuable inputs in an array of tools that can assist in providing travellers with up-to-date, real-time information which can assist in informing their travel decisions. Foremost among the tools are smartphones, although other technologies also exist which should not be overlooked in delivering travel information. The Internet, however, provides the means for making the information available to users. 

The introduction of this technology depends on our attitudes toward its uptake. In my research, feedback from commuters has highlighted that a good understanding and knowledge about travel information systems exists among tech savvy consumers. There is a desire for real-time information and interest in multimodal transport information to assist in making transport connections. It would appear that we yearn for what we know is possible but have to wait for the science fiction world of the future to become reality. It’s just a matter of time, hopefully it will be sooner than later.

While we are waiting, one has to wonder will the new technology be delivered together with improvements in public transport? For example, more comfortable transport, more frequent departures and the ability to work during a commute. Or do we need the technology to assist us to deal with transport that is not on time and suffers from delays? Ideally both should be delivered in tandem.

Beyond these immediate questions we can also ask whether the integration of mobile technology into transport systems can lead to increased productivity, a reduced carbon footprint or other benefits? What are the ways we can be more innovative in our approaches to public transport use, crowding and transport efficiency in a new world of mobile technology?

Dr Peter Vitartas is the Deputy Head (Teaching & Learning) of the Southern Cross Business School at the Lismore campus of Southern Cross University. His background is in marketing and interests include social marketing, marketing research and consumer behaviour.
Since joining the University Peter has been actively involved in research consultancies for both local and national organisations. He has extensive experience in market research and has published widely in the areas of media consumption, non-profit marketing and technology adoption in tertiary education. Recently he has completed a project for the Cooperative Research Centre for Rail Innovation on High-Tech Tools for Customer Satisfaction. He is currently undertaking research into the development of a national information, way-finding and ticketing system for public transport as part of further work with the CRC.
Peter is a member of the Australian and New Zealand Academy of Management, the Australian Market and Social Research Society where he serves on the committee of the Queensland branch and Regional Studies Association. He is a board member and President of the Northern Rivers Business Enterprise Centre. Prior to joining the University, Peter worked in Sydney and London in a number of marketing management positions for local and international companies.