How 5G can help fix our broken transit system

By: Kristen Jeffers

By investing in transit today, we can address long-standing inequities and create smart, more equitable cities of the future.

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The advent of 5G does more than create socially distant fun. Emerging tech can enhance smart transit, which can help us better equip all communities with the tools they need for success. 

Our transportation needs are constantly evolving. Yet many of our transit systems are deeply rooted in the past. Unfortunately, in the United States, the failings of our transit system targeted and disenfranchised people of color. These issues persist. Today, white workers are three times as likely to own cars as African American workers are. They’re two times as likely as Latinos and Asian Americans. So it’s no surprise that a disproportionate number of nonwhite, low-income individuals rely on public transit. And that public transit is rarely reliable—buses show up late, aren’t fully accessible and often have fare rates that don’t match riders’ budgets. 

While a number of steps need to be taken to address this inequity, technology can play a role. 5G and emerging technology can revolutionize how we use public transit and how agencies plan, design and create routes. Both riders and transit agencies should keep 5G and emerging technology in mind as we consider investments in communities over the next five years.

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Reliable public bus service has been a long-term problem in the U.S. But cities are now positioned to provide better passenger service by planning, designing and creating routes, timetables and schedules in real time through data collection.

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5G could allow public transit data to display on mobile phones faster than before. Users might also opt in to showing transit agencies how they move. This means buses could get to riders—and their destinations—faster than ever.

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5G technology can give us access to data in real time, allowing everyone to better plan their trip. Soon, we could know how many seats are available, and how many open spots there are for wheelchairs and bikes.

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Smart urban transportation solutions can also keep passengers connected. Top-notch 5G connections could allow students to complete homework and commuters to get extra work done while riding.

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Data can be used for more than getting riders to their destinations. It could also allow for predictive maintenance, like knowing when to charge electric buses at 5G-enabled kiosks.

5G and passengers: time to get going

GPS-enabled apps have already completely changed transit thanks to 4G LTE connectivity. Apps can alert drivers to hazards, traffic jams and even police presence. Apps can also usher in the next wave of innovation for smart transit.

We’re seeing innovation already. With the Transit app, riders can get information quickly, including upcoming stop alerts, offline trip planning and more. Riders can also receive pings alerting them to closures or renovations. And then there are payments. Transit users can cut down on the need to schedule a trip on one app and open another to pay.

Holistic approaches like the Transit app cut down on travel time. And really, when it comes to smart transit, time is everything.

Many of us assume that getting on a bus or train takes longer than driving, so we just drive if we’re lucky enough to be able to. This has detrimental effects on the environment and leads to congestion on our highways. But if people know they can get somewhere on public transit just as quickly, they might take the bus instead.

5G can take this to the next level. All this data—safely collected from riders—means agencies are ripe for smart transit innovations.

In the future, thanks to 5G technology’s ability to carry on real-time conversations between transit vehicles and the phones in our pockets, we could automatically check into smart transit vehicles the moment we step on board. And before we do, transit technology advocates suggest, we’ll know how many seats are available and whether there’s space for wheelchairs or room for bikes on the bike rack.

More real-time data should also mean more smart transit advocates. To build a better world, we need everyone involved. By presenting data directly to riders—like whether a bus is accessible or whether bus routes evade specific neighborhoods—anyone who relies on public transit has more tools at their disposal to take action. More access to more data means passengers have the opportunity to improve the system and be better equipped to work with local transit organizations and governments when groups are actively targeted or unknowingly left behind.

5G and agencies: rethinking routes

Apps like Transit work directly with agencies, cities and states to provide real-time data to change how we travel. So does Optibus, a cloud-native AI platform whose overall goal is to nurture freedom of movement by empowering all travelers and creating smart, sustainable cities.

“5G’s ability to send more data at much higher bandwidth allows us to start thinking about location and passenger counts in real time,” says Amos Haggiag, CEO of Optibus. “This allows us to design better routes that better match the population.”

Today, vehicle fleets send data on location and vehicle performance to transit agencies. But even in the best of cases, Haggiag says, agencies only receive limited data every few minutes, and in many communities data is only examined every few months, which can lead to gaps in service.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Transit agencies that use Optibus have a clear idea of what people do on Monday at 8 AM versus Tuesday at 11 AM. This means those transit agencies know two things: rider demand and whether bus service truly lives up to that demand. If a bus consistently shows up 30 minutes late, Optibus knows to deploy buses earlier in the morning to meet demand. These slight shifts can have huge impacts, since being 30 minutes late to work can have major consequences for minimum-wage or part-time workers.

Eventually, 5G should also allow buses to react in real time to unexpected crowds and traffic jams, even creating new routes, helping them service people in marginalized communities faster than ever before.

Macy Neshati, CEO of Antelope Valley Transit Authority, has fully realized the power of Optibus. Recently, I spoke with him about his all-electric, 5G-enabled fleet.

Turns out Haggiag was onto something. Neshati—a 35-year-plus veteran of the transportation industry—tracks his fleet through 5G and Optibus, getting granular details like when a vehicle needs a charge and how long it will stay idle.

“When I founded Optibus, we thought about simply running buses more efficiently,” Haggiag says. But his vision has evolved beyond thinking about cost, mileage, battery consumption and how much CO2 is emitted.

“We have to optimize our service for equity—not just cost,” he says. “So now we think about our network as one that better serves all communities and people.”

For example, you might technically optimize service by removing a stop on a bus route, but that change—no matter how “efficient”—may negatively impact low-income populations that rely on that stop.

Ultimately, Haggiag shows that we need to do more than run machinery and algorithms: We need to learn from data. And doing so requires a critical human eye with equity in mind.

5G and local leaders: success on the ground

Templates for future success also happen on the ground today. David Johnson, the vice president of strategy for the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority—also known as RideKC—increasingly relies on technology, including the Transit app.

In 2011, RideKC brought high-intensity bus transit to Troost Avenue, a historically Black corridor of Kansas City that has acted as a dividing line for city finances. Development east of Troost had barely changed since Jim Crow. But due to RideKC, Troost Avenue’s line of segregation is blurring, with a rapid smart transit line of its own. This was done with limited local money and a huge dose of federal funds.

More recently, Johnson worked to get more smart transit routes along Kansas City’s Prospect Avenue—a part of town whose predominantly Black residents were starved of grocery and retail stores—including smart kiosks that could eventually act as electric charging stations for buses.

“There’s still room for improvement,” he says. He envisions a future where the radio networks that currently connect buses—and have to be maintained at a high cost—could be replaced with 5G networks. That opens up possibilities for RideKC to be much more efficient.

“Enabling the vehicles with 5G unlocks things for our operations like replacing the radio network for voice, so we’re not using a CB anymore, and monitoring the vehicles remotely with video telematics,” Johnson says. “So we’ll eventually be able to remotely monitor individual systems on board, rather than wait for them to break down and require expensive fixes at a body shop. “

Johnson also lauded 5G’s ability to lower construction costs. Today, cities spend money to build and maintain fiber networks just to keep track of traffic signals. “That can change in the future,” he says. “For example, we might not have to build out fiber networks to connect smart kiosks and other components, like signal priority at intersections.”

The potential of 5G hasn’t been fully realized. But we can look to local leaders, like Johnson, to envision how we can push through innovative, 5G-powered tech in less time and with less interruption than before. We can also see a larger collective goal: to create connections—in this case, quite literally—that matter, to empower all people in all communities.

Excited about how the future of transit can make our cities more equitable? Share this article.

As we consider future infrastructure, it’s important that we look at how public transit directly impacts individuals’ day-to-day lives. Not everyone has the luxury of working remotely. The least we can do is ensure that all neighborhoods—whatever their income levels—have reliable service to get people where they need to go on time, thanks to the power of 5G.

About the author(s):

Kristen Jeffers is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Black Urbanist, a multimedia platform focusing on urban design, planning, transportation and architecture through a Black, queer and feminist lens. Her website is www.theblackurbanist.com.

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