Are we getting the best out of developments in technology for public transport?

By Ellen Tvedt

Apps are becoming an integrated part of our everyday life. Personally, I rely on apps for everything from reading the news, keeping in touch with friends and family and planning trips on public transport – particularly during the Tube strike, when I have been exploring new London transport apps. With smartphone ownership increasing by the day in the UK, it comes as no surprise that public transport is investing in this technology.

As a Norwegian living in London, I always found going back to Oslo a bit stressful when it came to public transport, particularly getting the bus. Few bus stops actually have a ticket machine, and buying a ticket on the bus is almost twice as expensive as buying one in advance. When I complained about this, a friend recommended I download a free app for buying tickets. I will admit I am an occasional techno-sceptic and had my doubts about what I imagined would be a messy and complicated app.

But there it was, a simple and well-designed app which gave me exactly what I wanted – an easy way to buy all kinds of tickets. It covers all public transport; bus, tram and underground, and a ticket is valid for one hour, allowing you to change modes of transport without having to buy a new ticket.

20 per cent of all public transport tickets in Oslo are bought using this app and people like it – 93 per cent are satisfied, according to Ruter, the Oslo transport authority. In my personal experience, the app works because it stores your payment details and deducts it directly from your bank account – no need to spend time topping up a separate payment account or be on a specific phone contract. Furthermore, its design is simple and incredibly user friendly, with a ticket two clicks away – or several tickets on the same phone if you’re travelling together in a group. Of course, you need to make sure that you’ve remembered to charge your phone!

Apps are already being widely used in all sectors of the UK travel and transport market, pinpointing your nearest bus stop, storing your travel documents or telling you what platform your train will leave from before it’s even up on the boards. In fact, mobile ticketing for buses has actually been around for years – yet is not that widely used. This could be because of high customer satisfaction with the current systems (as we see at BDRC from the National Rail, Bus and Tram Passenger Surveys which we run for Transport Focus (formerly Passenger Focus) or simply a lack of awareness of the technology.

An important sector development is that London buses will no longer accept cash payments from July this year. This is part of the trend of increasing reliance on technology in public transport. In London, 99 per cent of passengers already pay for their journey using Oyster, prepaid tickets, contactless payment card or concessionary tickets, according to Transport for London (TfL).

A new system will be piloted in London, where tube travellers can swipe their smartphone instead of a contactless payment card such as an Oyster card. TfL aims to have the system up and running by the end of the year. Hoping it will be as hassle free as my experience with the app in Norway, I am really excited about this – most of all not having to queue to top up my Oyster card during rush hour anymore!

Based on how a simple app changed my perception of travelling around Oslo, I know how important an easy and hassle free public transport experience can be. If the pilot in London goes well, the new technology could help encourage people to take full advantage of the London public transport network. Personally, I hope I will soon be able to recommend a new app to my friends!

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