Saving lives with on-board Wi-Fi, one journey at a time

The Trapeze Team | June 02, 2015

There’s a story about Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who reportedly had the vision of reducing the time it took Macintosh computers to boot up, and in doing so Apple could effectively ‘save lives’. The rationale was that shaving 10 seconds off the boot time, multiplied across millions of users, would produce an accumulated total time saving roughly equivalent to a dozen lives.

Perhaps lives ‘not wasted’ would have been a more literal term to use than ‘saved’ – but of course that wouldn’t have made for as effective a soundbite.

Still, it’s interesting to consider whether we can borrow the approach for bus travel. In many instances, time spent on the bus is at best unproductive; could on-board Wi-Fi enable passengers make better use of their valuable time?

And if we do this and then calculate the cumulative total of effectively used time across the millions and millions of bus journeys that take place every single day, aren’t we doing much the same thing as was outlined in the story above? And even if doing this doesn’t literally equal saved lives, is it a less worthy ambition?

Demand for Wi-Fi

In the modern digital age we increasingly expect – indeed demand– access to the internet at all times. It is now possible to access free Wi-Fi while waiting for a coffee, in restaurants – even at the base camp of Mount Everest.

Why, then, can we so rarely do so during the part of our days so often wasted staring at traffic lights and passing vehicles? Why can’t we get online during our commutes?

There have been increasing calls for improvements to Wi-Fi technology on UK public transport. For many workers, being able to access the internet – especially work e-mails – while commuting is essential for their job. Of course many of us have access to mobile phone data, but connections tend to be unreliable when travelling. Imagine, then, how well a fast and reliable Wi-Fi connection would be received by the travelling public.

There appears to be a strong commercial argument for Internet availability on commuter systems. After all, research suggests a year of our lives is wasted commuting (others at the ONS have this figure down at five weeks a year); imagine what could be achieved if this were transformed into active and productive work.

Wi-Fi could turn journeys into opportunities to work effectively, rather than obstacles to productivity. And if people viewed the bus in this way couldn’t we change the way people view buses for the better, and thereby increase ridership?

A study by Eurotech has found that many commuters are already researching travel routes for public buses, looking to find and ride the services which offer on-bus Wi-Fi, suggesting the public already has the demand, if operators can deliver the service.

It’s a view endorsed by Linda Watson – CEO Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority - who said, “Implementing high-tech features […] appeals to a younger generation, who will hopefully grow into lifelong  users.”

Operators: Why-Fi?

Wi-Fi is clearly of value to passengers themselves (91% of whom say they expect it while travelling), but of course operators will need a more convincing argument to justify investment.

Research indicates rail services are seeing increasing ridership following the introduction of Wi-Fi. The US train service, Amtrak, launched free Wi-Fi on its California Capital Corridor Route in November 2011, with 2012 ridership expected to be 2.7% higher than it would have been.

Of course train travel has long been an integral part of train travel, but can we apply this template to buses? The trend towards portable, instant-on laptops and tablets suggests that working on a bus is a far more practical prospect than it was in the past.

Evidence from the US (where Wi-Fi has kick-started a revival of the country’s bus industry) suggests we can: The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in Silicon Valley saw a 16% jump in ridership after installing Wi-Fi to its express commuter buses. As stated in a 2011 San Francisco Chronicle article, “Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority's customer surveys consistently find Wi-Fi is the most requested feature and that ridership increases when it's implemented.”

So shouldn’t we be doing the same in the UK?

Admittedly, Wi-Fi may be more difficult to introduce on rural bus services where connectivity can be poorer than within cities, but perhaps this should be seen as an opportunity. With huge potential benefits for passengers and bus service providers, could we stimulate demand for public transport by offering reliable Wi-Fi in areas where connections are poor?

For cities, meanwhile, the infrastructure (mobile phone masts, etc.) may well be in place already, making the implementation of on-bus Wi-Fi an easy route to increasing ridership and, therefore, ticket revenue.

Where’s my Wi-Fi?

So why are so many in the UK still waiting for Wi-Fi to be rolled out on their bus services?

The Government has earmarked £90 million to fund the improvement of Wi-Fi services on train services, but there is yet to be a similar statement for bus services. Nonetheless, a number of operators and local authorities are getting on with the task under their own initiative.

Both bus operators and those in the local councils have come to realise the importance of on-bus Wi-Fi. For example, the Leader of the City of Cardiff Council, Councillor Phil Bale aims to use Wi-Fi throughout the city to “make public transport a more enjoyable and more viable option, offering an improved service that is favourable to commuting by car.”

Of course, it’s not only providing passengers with Wi-Fi that matters; but how you go about providing it. Introducing Wi-Fi is an opportunity to consolidate existing assets and aspects of on-bus technology into one single, streamlined solution, which brings benefits to both passengers and bus operators.

A great example can be seen in Hampshire, where First Group have begun installing Trapeze’s IDR units on their buses. The IDR is a single hardware unit that delivers requirements for ticketing, RTPI, bus stop announcements and more – as well as on-board Wi-Fi.

Photo of the rear of a Trapeze IDR unit
A Trapeze IDR Unit

As such, the IDR ensures previously disparate systems and features can be run – and managed – on a single device. In Hampshire, some funding has been made available for new technology such as next stop displays, yet operators are making the most of the opportunity created to implement additions like Wi-Fi, because they recognise its value in attracting and retaining customers.

Money where it matters

In recent times, economic pressures have tended to result in funding for Wi-Fi – largely seen as a luxury – fall fairly low on operators’ priority lists. However, given the sources highlighted in this article – and obvious need to retain and increase ridership in the ongoing battle against the private car – perhaps it is time to reconsider?

It is important that we don’t think of Wi-Fi as an extra cost – or even as ‘yet another box’ to install. The IDR approach means it is possible to provide passengers with the service they want while actually consolidating in-vehicle hardware and thereby reducing purchase, installation and maintenance costs.

The road ahead

In 2011, Mayor of London Boris Johnson pledged that “every lamppost and every bus stop” in London would become a Wi-Fi hotspot. But perhaps the Mayor was missing the point (and offering something unrealistic; considering there are 15,000 lampposts in the borough of Dagenham and Barking alone), because nobody looks at a lamppost and thinks that would be a great place to stand and do some emailing.

However, people do travel to work on buses, and they do want to see their journeys improved through the provision of reliable internet access.

Not only is this what the passengers want; it’s also far easier to do than you (or the Mayor of London, for that matter) might think. And it can be done in a way that offers a simple and elegant solution to a number of other challenges facing bus operators today.

Demand for Wi-Fi access from passengers is clear and should be taken seriously. As this article in Eurailmag noted: “For the moment, Wi-Fi continues to be the most requested amenity among passengers, but soon it will come to be expected as a right, and then, woe betide the operator that does not have plans in place to hook their customers up”.

On-board Wi-Fi is the future – but it’s also the present. The time to act is now.

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About The Trapeze Team

The Trapeze Team are here to bring you news and information from Trapeze Group (UK) and the public transportation industry.