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The impact of the Internet of Things (IoT) is seen in many areas of society, but one that is truly paying dividends and benefiting individuals is in the field of public transportation, specifically in urban buses.  Anything to enhance public transportation is a smart change.


For over 350 years the concept of public transportation has evolved since the first tests in Paris in 1662.  The first ‘routed’ transportation began in earnest in 1824 in the UK.  Public transportation greatest innovation were: the prescribed route, predictable schedule, and the defined stops.  So, in the past 194 years, we have progressed, but no meaningful technological innovation has been seen in public transportation. Other than the change from horse drawn carriages to mechanized vehicles.


Originally, they were called the ‘omnibus’ (“carriage for all”) in France where several of the very first public transit companies were established in Paris, Bordeaux, and Lyon.  So, now you know why it is called a ‘bus’ today.

Along came the stagecoach of the wild west lore, and eventually the first motor-buses could be seen carrying passengers down Fifth Avenue in New York City as early as 1923.


Public transportation evolved with greater route diversity for both urban and long-distance transport of passengers.  The urban bus saw routing for moving passengers from residential enclaves to industrial areas and shopping districts.  Express bus routes evolved too.  Then came ‘park and ride’ and other forms of feeder routes to form early linkage between routes.  The spoke and hub architecture played a major role in public transportation too.  It connected disparate routes and allowed passengers to get to hard to reach destinations with transfers.  Long distance bus routes linked cities and countries.  The long distance routes were linked to urban systems.  Specialty bus services saw the advent of the school bus and the charter bus.  The airport shuttle bus evolved to link aviation to the public transportation model.


The bus schedule or timetable was a chief innovation that permitted passengers to plan trips better.  The timetable included provisions for rush hour traffic flows and other predictable delays allowing passengers to foresee arrival times more accurately.

PrestoA variety of fare models evolved along with the various service offerings.  Cash payments, tokens, paper travel passes, transfer passes, and stored-value cards all developed.  Charges for travel on large systems varied with a single fare treating the entire route network as one zone, or payment by stop with a multiple zone pricing strategy.  Some operators used timed fares that allowed travel to any destination within the route network, but within a prescribed time limit, perhaps 90 minutes.

The days of a fare collecting conductor on-board the bus have long been forgotten and now we just have the driver often doing double duty; to steer the bus and collect the fares.  With the onset of autonomous buses, soon even the driver will be gone.

Regulations hit the public transit industry and this begat enhanced vehicle safety standards, prescribed operational policies, and some fare regulations to control costs for the lower income segment of the population that depends so heavily on public transportation.  Laws to make buses accessible saw the introduction of the disabled door entry systems and low-floor buses.


So, the history is long and evolving.  But, never has it changed so much as it is about to change now.  Why?  Because here comes the ‘digitization’ of public transit.

We are seeing multiple innovations come to bear at once within the digital realm.  New features include:

  • Electronic fare systems to simply tap to pay or scan a smartphone display
  • Electronic payment terminals to recharge credits and purchase passes
  • RFID smart cards, often linked to smartphones for fast boarding and payment
  • Digital signage with real-time passenger information displays
  • Countdown signs that forecast the arrival of the buses
  • Wi-Fi hotspots collated at stops and terminals
  • Wi-Fi on buses for better passenger information
  • Smartphone apps and online schedules and routing tools
  • Artificial intelligence and interactive chatbots to provide user centric information that caters just to your specific needs
  • Linkage between disparate fleet operators of all types to facilitate connections and expedite travel along complex routes
  • Dynamic route scheduling that is demand and scenario driven
  • HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes to speed buses along congested roadways with electronic authentication including automated access gates
  • Real-time digital diagnostics of the bus health and performance using the ODB2 port
  • Computerized preventive maintenance planning and downtime reduction with proactive maintenance
  • Automatic vehicle location (AVL) to help advise the precise location of the bus and its arrival time at your stop
  • Integration with traffic management control systems to synchronize public transit with optimal drive times
  • Bus status for on-board occupancy levels to add more buses to the route during high demand periods
  • CCTV surveillance for both within the bus and for the exterior of the bus to enhance passenger safety
  • Driver assistance technologies for collision avoidance, turn and braking stability, and maintaining the bus’ position within the lane
  • Traffic and route mapping and information
  • Weather information
  • Emergency respond communications
  • On-board medical systems such as a defibrillator
  • Harmful greenhouse gas emissions reduction with engine output exhaust processing
  • Hybrid bus technology for electric, hydrogen, and diesel
  • Reduction in operating costs and improved scheduling performance leveraging computerization to adjust services dynamically


One of the more significant public transit enhancements to come along is the innovation of the on-demand bus combined with the autonomous bus.  These new smart mini buses are planned for ‘last mile’ routes.  This next generation of mini bus is optimized for the disabled and the elderly.  They offer dynamic, on-demand routing to take the passenger that last mile from the mall to their front door, from the subway station to their car park, and from work to the bus stop.  This access tier of the transportation network feeds the larger bus networks and augments the public transit experience by providing passengers with a better service and greater convenience.


Replacing drivers will reduce the cost and most probably, also improve the safety of transport. Improved driving pattern, e.g., eco-driving, can be highly prioritized in the self-driving vehicles and hence lead to reduced emissions, this is especially the case for pure electric driven autonomous mini buses like ‘Olli’ shown.

In addition to enabling new services and improved decision making for the traditional public transport operators, IoT will create opportunities for adjacent transport-related services. Reduced travel time can be achieved, for instance, by providing information, for bike renters and taxi companies, that supports the efficient allocation of non-occupied bikes and taxis.  Rental bikes can support more attractive public transport by, for example, enabling travelers to travel to and from bus stops and terminals using rented bikes.  It is also possible to create services that help travelers find available taxis and bikes.  Carpooling and ride-share service offerings can be integrated too.


On the vehicle level, the use of IoT makes it is possible to automatically collect detailed travel data on, e.g. when passengers enter and leave vehicles, occupancy rates (e.g., by measuring the number of available seats through sensors), and robustness (frequent delays).  Realistic and high-quality data might be valuable for travel planners to improve the planning of the resources used in public transport. Improved resource utilization and reduced direct emissions can be achieved through using information about the current use of vehicles, e.g., by using mini-buses at times where few travelers are expected.  However, there is a risk that public transport becomes less attractive if vehicle data is used to support decisions on choosing “too” small buses.  On the other hand, there is a potential to reduce indirect emissions through designing more attractive services, e.g., by using extra buses at times where the buses are typically crowded.


Obviously, there exist technologies that partially, or at least in some situations, help overcome the challenges of public transit.  However, it cannot be claimed that any existing solution completely eliminates any of the challenges in all possible situations.  Technology can fix some problems, partially solve other problems, but it is not capable of dealing with every issue facing public transit today.  However, embracing digital technology advancements is a step in the right direction to improve services, reduce costs, and work towards a cleaner environment.  More work and innovation await as the public transit model will continue to develop in the many years to come.  Who knows, maybe one day, buses will fly us to our destinations.

About the Author:

Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless and digital communications technologies.

He is a Senior Executive with IBM Canada’s GTS Network Services Group. Over the past 13 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He was previously a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX).

Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V). 

He serves as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology.

He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario.  For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section. 

He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has diplomas and certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology.