How mobile technology is shaping the future of UK transport

Steve Evans

Thursday 5 March 2015

From train tickets to boarding passes and taxis, technology is changing the way we travel. How is this trend likely to develop over the next few years, and what are the benefits for the providers?

When the Oyster card was introduced across most of London’s transport network back in 2003, it heralded a new way of paying to get around the UK’s capital. Transport for London (TfL) promised a quicker, easier and cheaper way of using buses, the Underground, Docklands Light Railway, National Rail services and some Thames River Boat services. By the time the system celebrated its 10th birthday in 2013, some 60 million cards had been issued, and more than 85 per cent of rail and bus journeys were paid for with an Oyster card.

One of the main aims of the Oyster card was to reduce queues at bus stops and Underground stations in London. And, as anyone who has travelled around the city in the last few years will agree, it has been successful in that respect, with fewer people needing to buy a ticket at the start of their journey.

TfL now wants to take that one step further and remove queues altogether, and that could mean the end for the Oyster card. Its successor? Contactless bank cards (although TfL has said it will continue to accept Oyster cards as long as there is a demand).

Contactless payment on public transport was originally scheduled to roll out in time for the London Olympics in 2012, but that deadline slipped due to difficulties implementing the system on the Underground and rail network, where travellers have to tap in and out to calculate their fare. Contactless payment went live on London buses (where there is just a single price per journey) at the end of 2012 and was finally rolled out on the rest of the transport network in September 2014.

Commuters can also pay for their travel with selected mobile phones containing NFC chips, using a mobile payment app. EE’s Cash on Tap is one example.

This technological innovation is pushing TfL towards a ticket-free network, which will further reduce queues at stations and help keep buses and trains running more promptly. But it’s not just public transport that’s benefiting from these technological advances. Many of the world’s biggest airlines have released their own mobile apps, which allow users to book flights, check-in and download a boarding pass, saving time and removing much of the hassle once you arrive at the airport.

Mobile technologies are also changing the way people hire taxis, with companies like Uber, Lyft and Hailo. It’s no longer about standing on the street with your arm outstretched or calling a booking office; all you need to do is press a few buttons, and in-app payments mean you don’t even have to hand over any cash.

What’s driving most of this technological innovation in the transport industry is data. Many apps use APIs to pull information from travel companies and systems to provide live information on flights, trains, buses and even traffic conditions. This can help people plan journeys more effectively, which, for people travelling to work in particular, will have the knock-on effect of making them more productive.

Of course, increased mobile usage means even more data. Information about who travels where, when, how and why will help businesses continually improve their services to meet demand.

Anything that makes life quicker, easier and in some cases cheaper is likely to be embraced by the public, which is why mobile transport technologies are gaining more and more traction around the world, not only in the UK. And that’s why we can expect to see even more mobile innovation in the industry over the next few years.

That means more mobile booking and payment options, while paper tickets and boarding passes will continue to decline. Ultimately, the aim is to get mobile technologies at the front and centre of the travelling experience, from booking and paying to checking-in and being kept up to date on delays.

As mobile devices, technologies and connectivity become more ubiquitous in everyday life, there’s no reason for transport to be excluded from those innovations.

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