This is the second of three blogs about technologies to support contact-free use of public transport.

Public transport operators have been making great efforts to make public transport safe during the pandemic. TfL recently launched a new app that makes it easier for passengers to plan their travel and avoid routes where they might come close to large numbers of people. There are claims that the rate of uptake of contactless by passengers has increased significantly since the pandemic and the demand for contact-free transactions on public transport. Visa recently offered a graph relating to global public transport contactless transactions. However, it is not clear what the actual contactless usage is since they are hidden behind month-on-month percentage increases which look enormous when the previous months had fallen off the proverbial cliff.

King Harald Bluetooth to the rescue?

For an ultimately contact-free experience, Be-In Be-Out (BIBO), where the passenger presence on a mode of transport is detected without their having to tap in and out, seems highly desirable. Until, that is, you start to look for technologies that can deliver it. We have conducted surveys of BIBO in the past for clients and there was a trial on buses when we were working at Transport for the North. Yet still in 2020 BIBO is not a success story outside of the lab.

Various technologies have been trialled for delivering BIBO, some with beacons mounted at strategic points on buses and trains as well as at stops and stations. The passengers must carry some kind of transponder that can be detected by the beacons as they pass through the transport network. The latest hope for BIBO is Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) named by Ericsson after a Danish king with a dead ‘blue’ tooth. BLE is inside every modern smartphone and can be left activated without significant battery drain.

However, BLE has been around 2011/12 in smart phones and still no BIBO success. There are all sorts of known issues with implementing BIBO. Say, on a bus:

  • How does the driver know you are using BIBO? So, you end up having to activate an app and show the driver that you are using it. By which time, it would have been faster to pay by more conventional means such as tapping a contactless bank card.
  • The beacons are not particularly accurate in range and struggle to differentiate between a passenger on the bus and one standing near the bus.

This same technology was proposed for COVID-19 ‘track and trace’ apps. For similar reasons to BIBO lack of success, it seemed obvious that they would not be able to operate accurately enough to be useful. Furthermore, if launched, they would potentially cause more trouble than they are worth by triggering false alarms and telling innocents to go into periods of self-isolation for fear of transmitting a virus they don’t have to others. Although, companies are still working on it and some claim to have a solution by combining BLE with inaudible ultra-high frequency sounds and others are trialling the use of GPS for tracking.

This is the second of three blogs about technologies to support contact-free use of public transport. There are many technological options and even more considerations, but we thrive on the challenge of finding smart, innovative solutions to clients’ requirements. If you would like to discuss what this means for you, give us a call.

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