Can IoT help public transportation?

Image result for iot  smart meter

The situation

Today, IoT is the buzzword. Like in the early 2000’s, just say it and you’re in business. So much potential with so small a device. It is magic. But magic has its cost. As low as it can be, the cost is real and for a “new” technology, massive use is a must in order to become mature.  Most of the telcos have identified some usages and they try to surf on the wave. No matter how good a telecom company is, one can only get as much from fleet management, smart metering and similar services.  What next ?

Image result for iot   meteringThe goal

When it comes to commercial success, nothing beats up adoption by the masses or by companies that serve the masses. The list of such enterprises is quite short and contains mostly what is generally called public services. This blog is about public transportation, so we will focus on how to improve the  experience.of the travelers.

According to, there are about 4000 cities with more than 100.000 inhabitants.  We are talking of more than 400 million people . It is a safe bet to assume that in every such city, most of the general  population travels by public transportation. Yes, there are happy car owners, but by definition, a city is a place with high rise buildings, with a significant density of population.

At peak hours, most of the commuters are concentrated around bus stops or subway stations, unless they  are already inside the vehicles. It is clear that public transportation must be optimal in regard with the required passenger capacity. Sadly, no city has such an optimal system, because of population dynamics.

IoT comes to rescue

Every bus company knows its inventory. Some measure the number of passengers per hour/day/segment/line. Few companies adapt the offer according to the instantaneous needs. The problem here is the lack of information. How many passengers are gonna take the bus line number 11 at station City Hall  at 7:25 in the morning ? How many get off the bus at the Railway Station.

Related image

By identifying this critical information, the bus companies could add /remove buses on a need by basis. The impact could be huge. For example, 10000 people could arrive at the shopping mall 20-30 minutes earlier and buy more. The consumption of electricity for the whole city could be optimized according to the information.  Waste at any level could be reduced accordingly.

The solution ? Put small devices in the buses and on stop posts, as well as developing an ecosystem for the people, similar to the  application stores for smartphones. The small devices could and should send the right information where it is needed: average speed of the bus, number of passengers in the vehicle, travel plan with connections for every single passenger.

  The cost

When doing business, cost is of essence. Dig up a well for $1 million to get one liter of oil is one thing. Dig up the same well to get 1 billion barrels and you’re in business.  The cost of IoT devices is relatively small comparing with the cost of smartphones. By using cheap technologies, like LoRA, instead of costly SIM card devices could lower more the cost of use. Some transportation companies have limited budgets. Cost could be a decisive factor.

A practical case: Utopia

Note: This is an exercise. Figures might not be real.

Let’s play a bit with the figures. The city of  Utopia, proud of its 100000 inhabitants, has launched its public bus service. 20 bus lines  cover 70% of the city, while  10 major multi modal  nodes ensure a a balanced distribution of passengers. Every buss line has an average of 20 stops, both ways (20 x 20 x 2 = 800 stops). The year is 1962. The 300 buses serve  the population from 6 a.m. till 11 p.m. No night bus service in need. Most of the time, the buses travel two thirds empty. Everybody is happy. In that year, less than 5000 inhabitants owned a car.

Over the next 50 years, population grew significantly, till the 2000’s, when, due to the internet, many moved to the neighboring city of Webia. The population went down till stabilized at 100000 in 2010. At this time, one inhabitant out of 2 owns a car. Utopia is a city in a mountainous valley. There is little space to extend, the rocky terrain forbids the development of a subway network.  The streets cannot be enlarged, buildings cannot be demolished. All transportation occurs on road, be it by bus or by car.

In 2013, June August, the city mayor decides a change is required and plans for Utopia 2020, the smart city of the future. With a budget limited to $10M per year, the town hall is not a superpower.  Only $1M can be used for infrastructure refurbishment. They don’t have any debts and banks are eager to lend money. The mayor has visited San Francisco and seen the 50 year old buses in service.  Mayor June August decides to keep and refurbish the old buses. She had seen the IoT show in Berlin and wants to use this technology in order to improve people’s commute experience.

The infrastructure

The $1M are used for several purposes:

  • renovate the buses (300x 1k = $300k)
  • modernize the data center ($50k)
  • add smart screens at every bus stop (800 x $200/screen = $160k)
  • add smart positioning devices to every bus (300 x $300/bus = $90k)
  • deploy 10 IoT antennae in the city (10 x $5k = $50k)
  • open data for public

The rest of the money constitute a reserve for future needs.

The first month, nothing has changed in the transportation system. Then, slowly, people switched from using the car to taking the bus.

Situation in 2016

90% of the general population use the bus system on a daily basis. The buses contribute up to 30% of the traffic in the city. The average bus delay is below 5 min/trip from end to end. The traffic lights have been optimized for bus traffic. 3 night lines serve the most dense urban areas.

Could Utopia be real ?


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