touché completes feasibility Study of smartphone/beacon ticketing in Bristol – Policy

By Trevor Crotch-Harvey

This is the fourth part of our series of four blogs about the “Future Ticketing” Feasibility Study touché conducted in Bristol, testing the use of smartphones in combination with Bluetooth Smart beacons and the touché locate back office.  The project was funded by the DfT as part of its “T-TRIG” programme, which the DfT uses as a route to encourage transport innovation by SMEs.  It also included a Behavioural Study, funded by ITSO.

People using cell phones on bus

This post focuses on policy issues.  In our report to the DfT, we were asked to consider the application to transport policy of the combination of smartphone, Bluetooth Smart beacons and back office.  Here are some of our observations:


  • Off bus ticket purchase. Bus operators are focusing more and more on reducing dwell time (the time a bus stays at a bus stop while a queue of passengers board and pay the driver, often with cash.)  In London, TfL took the bold step of mandating off bus ticket purchase, and anyone who travels in London can see how fast boarding is there.  (Of course that is helped by having a flat fare scheme.)  A number of operators around the rest of the UK are experimenting with off bus ticket purchase, e.g. the new Metrobus project in Bristol.  But many passengers will prefer to buy their ticket remotely before arriving at a bus stop, rather than use a kiosk, especially if the bus they want to board is arriving.  Smartphones and beacons could play a role in making this practice more widespread, speeding up journeys and reducing congestion.  They could also help operators by reducing the dependence on expensive, complex, hardware ticketing infrastructures.


  • Mobile/beacons versus contactless bank cards. With the progressive deployment of contactless bank cards we are observing a growing takeup of this form of on bus ticket purchase.  Some industry observers are taking the view this could be the way to take cash ticket purchases off bus.  We think contactless has a role to play, but that it’s not a case of either/or.  Passengers using contactless cards still need to interact with the driver to determine their fare, and require an on board terminal, whereas mobile/beacon solutions can eliminate them.  Operators and authorities may want to use both solutions as parts of a forward looking strategy.


  • Modal shift. Ultimately, the goal of a ticketing scheme is to play its part in encouraging passengers out of private cars and onto public transport. It’s not the only factor – punctuality, cleanliness, convenience are all important.  But if it’s difficult or confusing to buy tickets, research shows that can put infrequent travellers off.  We think the use of smartphones can help, because these devices are carried by large numbers of the travelling public anyway.  If the other factors line up, a smartphone/beacon combination should make it easy to make a switch.  And that’s why point to point singles of variable length need to be covered, because passengers making the switch will try it out before committing to period passes.


  • In many future scenarios, probably the most important factor is interoperability.  This means having a technical implementation which is universally accessible by all makes of smartphones, useable, probably through commercial agreement, by all transport operators and providing a flexible framework which enables multi-operator, multi-modal ticketing.  Standardisation plays a key role in any open technology solution where infrastructure is provided by suppliers and used by potentially different organisations using a wide range of portable devices.  There could be a framework for multiple users of beacons, while allowing suppliers to compete on functionality and performance.


The ITSO scheme is a good example of this in the transport arena; it allows for infrastructure and ticket media to be used by multiple operators all of which could be independent of the companies providing the HOPS and AMS solutions, while allowing those supplier companies to innovate and compete within the standards.  Touché believes organisations like ITSO have an important role to play in moving beacon technology into the wider public domain, not only in the UK but within international standards fora.  However, their activity could, and probably should, be based on the developments and experience of smaller scale implementations.  Touché has experience of these processes and is willing and able to be actively involved in this activity at the appropriate time.


  • Customer engagement. In part 3 of this blog, we talked about the commercial opportunities where customers are no longer anonymous.  We wonder whether operators are ready to take such a customer centric/holistic view.  In these times of cash strapped public bodies, we think they may wish to consider encouraging operators to enhance their customer engagement.  It would be helpful to explore how this could support the provision of more customer centric services.


In addition, once operators know who their customers are and have their phone details, smartphones can be used as a portal for operators/authorities to communicate with travellers.


  • Use of data. The flip side of engaging customers directly relates to privacy, highlighted by the introduction of GDPR.  Obviously there is a need to reassure passengers about privacy – this came up as a minor, but not zero, concern in our Behavioural Study.  This reassurance needs to be weighed versus the usefulness of data to the data owner and passenger.  The solution can provide more data for traffic planners.  In return for consenting to the use of data, customers need to be offered corresponding benefits – we think this is a fruitful policy area that has hardly begun to be developed.


  • Suspicion of devices. Another small but not zero concern we encountered was suspicion of the beacons themselves.  The public is not accustomed to seeing these devices, and there was a small amount of worry about whether their movements were being tracked.  (Even in areas covered by CCTV.)  As the owner of bus stops is usually a local authority, it needs to consider how it will adapt its stop infrastructure to enable discreet or invisible deployment.  This could be another matter to consider under the heading of standards.


  • Although our project took place on buses, there is no reason why it couldn’t also be deployed on trams.  We have always taken the view that smartphones/beacons are even more suited to tram networks, with no driver interaction, boarding through multiple doors and no gates at tram stops.  A “virtual” ticket purchase and validation system could be well suited to this transport mode.  Indeed, the solution could combine several modes – bus, tram, train, parking, bike hire, i.e. MaaS.


  • In this project touché concentrated on a small scale, closed user group trial aimed at evaluating the potential of Bluetooth Smart beacon technology within a transport ticketing environment.  If one looks to the future then a full Mobility as a Service (MaaS) roll out of this technology would involve enfranchising an entire population, equipping many bus shelters and other transport gates owned by multiple local authorities and commercial entities plus, very likely, multiple transport operators including multi-modal solutions covering bus, trains and trams.  By focusing on solutions which use the power of passengers’ own devices, with transactions taking place in the cloud, transport authorities and operators will have maximum flexibility at minimum cost.


  • Unanswered questions. There are several issues to be defined, outside the scope of our project, before we can call smartphones/beacons a mature option for operators.  The risk management/revenue protection policy and strategy are still undefined.  In addition, business models are yet to be agreed, concerning solution providers, app integrators, beacon access, transaction processing, and others.


Once again, we gratefully acknowledge the support of UWE, ITSO, First, DfT and Bristol City Council in conducting this project.  Check out the blog on the technical/operational results, the Behavioural Study, and commercial opportunities.  For any further information on this blog, the Bristol project, or the use of smartphones in transport, get in touch with touché using the contact page.


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