2011 - The Year of the Connected Passenger

The new year is here and Christmas seems like a distant memory (although my waistline is still expansive enough to remind me). By any account it’s going to be a busy year in the wireless sector. 2011 kicks off this week with the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the annual funfair at which vendors display their latest gadgets and analysts predict what’s hot and what’s not. Among the 3D-TVs, HD cameras and tablet PCs, carriers and vendors including Verizon and Sierra Wireless are aggressively pushing machine-to-machine (M2M) devices and services for connecting vehicles — so much so, CES is quickly beginning to look like a car show. The advent of 4G (covered in previous editions of “Unwired”) makes streaming video to and from vehicles a reality; OnStar has introduced a solution for vehicles to do exactly that. CES and Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February are the usual venues for mobile operators to show their latest handsets, and this year it’s going to be all about 4G-enabled smartphones. According to Gartner, worldwide smartphone sales grew 96 percent in Q3 2010 over the same period in the prior year, accounting for nearly 20 percent of the 417 million phones sold globally. This surge in sales is due in part to their high-resolution screens and cameras, GPS, multimedia and the extraordinary range of apps available — a key driver behind the ascent of Apple and Android, and the rapid decline of Blackberry-maker Research in Motion. New 4G LTE and WiMAX handsets will be capable of real-world download speeds in excess of 5Mbps, and 1Mbps or more on the uplink, bringing a new level of performance to mobile devices.

Worldwide Smartphone Marketshare, Q3 2010 (Source: Gartner)

What does all this mean for the mass transit industry? Primarily, people will be turning to sleeker, faster, more intelligent devices for information — particularly social information, and that includes transportation facilities and services. Your phone should know where you are, be able to help you find the best method of public transport to and from your destination, keep you updated en route, and let you share your travel experience with your friends. For transit operators, designing a real-time information delivery service that includes smartphones rather than focusing exclusively on expensive bus stop and in-vehicle displays can dramatically reduce deployment costs. After all, 33 percent of young American mobile subscribers have smartphones, so take advantage of it — after all, a static display can’t help you plan your journey; it just lets you know the timing of your next connection. Transit operator CIOs and GMs need to embrace the wireless smartphone, and plan their real-time information strategy accordingly. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) is doing exactly that. With no less than 30 Android, iOS and Web-based ‘Rider Tool’ applications on its website, MBTA has become a leading proponent of wirelessly enabling its services, supported in part by an extensive community and developer program at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. This week an article in the “Boston Herald” outlined the effort that MBTA plans to put into technology and services during 2011, including real-time information for commuter trains, combined with next-train ‘countdown’ LED displays on subway platforms. During the recent snow-bound chaos that enveloped the East Coast and led to delays across transport networks, mobile apps proved faster and more accurate at delivering up-to-the-minute information than MBTA’s signage system. The use of wireless technology is not simply one way; according to GM Richard Davey. MBTA will enable its customers to provide “pictorial feedback on station cleanliness [and] train conditions” by sending photos straight from their smartphones. This kind of innovation will drive up customer satisfaction levels and hopefully increase ridership, which recently reached a two-year high at 1.3 million per weekday. It’s not all happening on the East Coast, as Chicagoans will be happy to hear. This month the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) commences a pilot of a proposed train tracking system. The service will enable passengers to track train times via a website, and on electronic signs in an initial 10 stations. This comes on the heels of a similar pilot in 2009 that ultimately failed as the information was not deemed accurate enough. Unlike the CTA’s Bus Tracker system — which uses GPS to determine a bus’ location and thus its arrival time at a specification destination — Train Tracker works out arrivals based on averaging the time it takes for five consecutive trains to travel over specific sections of track. The downside of this interesting approach is that the first trains of the day will not provide arrival times. CTA has not been forthcoming about the availability of smartphone applications, but as long as the data is made available using an open API such as Google’s GTFS, then the appearance of such apps is only a matter of time. Let’s hope CTA’s second shot is more successful than its first. Finally, moving west to sunny Portland, Ore., — there is TriMet and a burgeoning community of open source app developers, including Chris Smith of Portland Transport, developer of TransitBoard and a self-confessed fan of transit information devices. Running on a low-cost ($169.99) third-party touch-screen device, Smith’s software delivers scheduled mass transit times to a simple touch-screen device for the home or office. At the other end of the spectrum is a solution from the Washington. D.C. District Department of Transportation (DDOT). Though admittedly prettier, this weighs in at a cool $20,000 per display. Thank goodness the latter was funded by the taxpayer in the form of a TIGER grant, where money is apparently no object regardless of commercial impracticality. Maybe for the cost of installing the DDOT solution in all the Portland stations, they could just give a TransitBoard device to every commuter. Good luck Chris Smith.

TransitBoard Display (Source: Portland Transport).

Were you caught in the snow-filled madness that was Christmas? If so, did you use Twitter to help you get out of it, or at least to try and contact a plane, train or bus operator? If you did, please let me know. The speed and ease of Twitter did help many, as the “New York Timesreported. In San Francisco we just put up with the rain. To leave you with a fond memory of those frozen drifts, here’s a time lapse sequence of a backyard in Belmar, N.J., as the blizzard came in. Enjoy! Jim Baker is CEO at Xentrans Inc., a wireless project management consultancy based in San Francisco and London and a consulting editor for Mass Transit magazine. A C-level wireless industry veteran, Baker has been involved in many deployments of wireless technologies on passenger transportation worldwide and is a recognized industry expert on Wi-Fi, 3G and 4G convergence. He is chair of the Technology Committee at the Joint Council on Transit Wireless Communications that is developing a strategic plan for implementation of wireless technologies in mass transit. Contact Baker via LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter.