Juan Antonio Barros Moreno/123RF

Blockchain In Public Transportation: 7 Possible Use Cases

  • 3 December 2018
  • Sam Mire

The world is moving toward efficiency and sustainability, which means embracing public transportation. The global movements toward minimizing pollution through the evolution of public transport has served to reform the image of old, dingy buses with alternative means of getting around in an urban setting. In La Paz, Bolivia, the Mi Teleferico is a practical cable car network that zips high above the city, and has been likened to a “subway in the sky.” It’s one of the most scenic, cost-effective, and time-conscious ways for La Paz’s working population to get from their homes in the mountainside into the city each day, and it is the sort of outside-the-box solution that pairs practicality with aesthetic beauty.

As another example of where the future of public transportation is headed, the Hochbahn in Hamburg, Germany, has incorporated a charging system for its electric buses that can charge an array of different vehicle models from different manufacturers. This is a key development considering that, in the not-so-distant future, large fleets of vehicles from different manufacturers will need interoperable systems to juice their batteries back up. By embracing this innovation and partnering it with technologies such as the blockchain, visions of smart cities fueled by means of shared transportation may arrive sooner than anticipated.

There are several ways that blockchain technology will help assist the public transportation facelift and mainstream-ization, from securing fleets of rented bikes to helping coordinate ride sharing, disseminate critical data, and beyond.

Blockchain in public transportation - Practical use cases

More Transparent Public Transportation Data

Blockchain use cases in public transportation - Transparent Public Transportation Data

Knowing how well the vehicles of public transport are — or aren’t — functioning is key to developing a system that runs smoothly and in a sustainable manner. While one of the strongest arguments for broadening the use of public transportation is an overall decrease in pollution emissions, the vehicles have to be up to environmental and performance standards in order for this goal to be realized.

We know the benchmarks for how efficient and environmentally-friendly public transportation can be when the vehicles are maintained and monitored. High-functioning buses use 8.7% less energy per passenger per mile than the typical automobile. Further, buses emit 20% less carbon monoxide per passenger than single-occupant vehicles, and 10% less hydrocarbons per passenger. But these figures can only be trusted if systems are in place to ensure that public vehicles are functioning as they should.

By establishing a database of public information about public transportation fleets held on the blockchain, the public can be kept abreast of how well their money is being utilized to realize the environmental gains that public transportation promises. Because blockchain ledgers are immutable and permanent, they are suited to information that is intended for public consumption, especially for accountability purposes.

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • Omnitude – Partnering with Maltese government to use blockchain for improving transit.

Better Maintenance Data Tracking / Improving Safety

When you’re driving your own vehicle, you at least have the peace of mind that comes with knowing that you did, in fact, get the oil changed, that the brake pads are up to date, and that it is generally safe to operate. With public transportation, there’s a certain level of trust that is extended to a third party not only to fix parts that need repair, but also to oversee the entirety of the vehicle and make sure it gets in the shop when it needs to. The rise of the “curbside” bus industry has resulted in a lack of safety and maintenance standards across the industry, which has not helped curb the danger of shared vehicles.

A 2011 report found that “buses and other commercial motor vehicles (CMV) have a higher likelihood of fatal accident involvement per registered vehicle.” Rome is just one of the many cities with a failing public transportation system, with 22 public buses exploding in 2017 and 14 going up in flames the year before. A similar explosion has been reported in China, while a crash involving a public bus in Baltimore killed at least six and left at least 10 injured. While some of these instances may be inevitable, it’s clear that public transportation needs better maintenance and safety measures, especially if it is going to become the normal mode of transport in the future.

The blockchain is touted for its automation and ability to serve as a record accessible by several parties. This means delegating maintenance needs to several parties as well as affording automated alerts and usage records for individual parts and entire fleets. These aspects could help take much of the burden off of public and private employees, who are often forced to rely on outdated, barely-functional systems to ensure that public transport operates safely and smoothly.

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • Fleetio Blockchain powered fleet management platform.

Universal Transit Payment/Ticketing

Blockchain use cases in public transportation - Universal Transit Payment Systems

Public transportation is an unavoidable, often-embraced aspect of daily life for countless commuters across the globe, particularly those in large urban centers. As proof of public transport’s continued strength, Amtrak — the most well-known name in rail transport — reported record ticket revenues of $2.14 billion in 2016. Those strong ticket sales were the result of 31.3 million passengers riding American railways, a 400,000-passenger increase compared with 2015.

However, the process for obtaining and utilizing tickets, especially among different modes of public transport, is often fragmented and time-consuming. For example, for those who want to ride multiple trains, hop on a bus, and then rent a bike, it could plausibly require as many as four different transactions. And with enough reasons to shun public transport, such as poor upkeep — New York City subway riders continue to decrease for the second straight year in 2018 — creating more efficient systems for ticketing is one way to help woo those riders back.

Through blockchain-linked platforms and unique “mobility” coins, there’s hope that purchasing and applying tickets for all different modes of public transportation could become a far simpler, time-efficient process. No longer would commutes involve the time and effort of visiting multiple different ticketing desks or kiosks; instead, a single platform for the secure purchase and storage of digital tickets will replace the outdated legacy processes. 

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • Dovu  Early entrant into unified payment and rewards for mobility services.

Mobility as a Service Economy

There are many who see the future of the economy benefiting from the advent of ride sharing, autonomous vehicles, and public transport. The concept of mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) has been described generally as “a better, faster, more connected and personal transportation that can bring benefits to cities, communities and transit agencies.” The European Union’s Mobility-as-a-Service Alliance (MaaS Alliance) goes further, stating that MaaS is “the integration of various forms of transport…into a single mobility service accessible on demand,” which provides “an alternative to the use of the private cars that may be as convenient, more sustainable, help to reduce congestion and constraints in transport capacity, and can be even cheaper.”  

According to Accenture, the services associated with the future of transportation will outpace the revenues from vehicle sales. By 2030, it’s expected that profits from car sales will have shrunken from roughly $142.5 billion to $138 billion. Conversely, revenues derived from “mobility services” associated with Mobility-as-a-Service are anticipated to increase to as much as $1.35 trillion.

In order to coordinate the many aspects that make up the MaaS model — ride sharing, public transportation, manufacture, etc. — the blockchain can be utilized as a single platform capable of withholding records, facilitating transactions, and serving several other needs that will facilitate the movement towards a public, versus individual, paradigm of getting from place to place. 

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • Whim Blockchain powered mobility application from MaaS Global. 

Transit Equity

Blockchain use cases in public transportation - Transit Equity

When we talk about transit equity, we are alluding to the ability for drivers and passengers to be treated fairly regardless of where they may be, within reason. One group that helps illustrate the unique needs of motorists and riders is the disabled. In the UK, as many as 10% of the nation’s drivers license holders are disabled, and they already face barriers to obtaining insurance. And while the number of disabled drivers in the United States recently fell by as much as 80,000 over the course of two years, there’s still a need to not only accommodate the truly disabled, but weed out those who are taking advantage of the system.

The expense of parking in major cities — in Boston, it can cost as much as $6,000 per year — has led many people to apply fraudulently for meter exemptions that are reserved for the handicapped. In Michigan, fewer than 2% of the 510,000 applicants for handicapped placards that would result in free parking in a single year ultimately qualified, implying that shysters are attempting to game the system.

Consider that somebody who qualifies for a handicap sticker or insurance policy in one township moves, and would like to obtain the same rights as a handicapped motorist in their new home. Or say they don’t qualify, but apply in a new city or state. Or they’re on a trip to New York City and require special accommodations due to their disability. A single, interoperable database containing such data in a way that maintains privacy but enhances equity across borders would help create efficiency while reducing fraud and headaches. 

Fewer Paper Trails

Blockchain use cases in public transportation - Fewer Paper Trails

Public transport is no stranger to systems of physical, paper-based documentation. But there are signs that the industry is moving away from paper-based systems, instead of looking toward a decidedly paperless future. In 2013, Metro announced that they would stop selling ticket books that they had offered since the 1970s. Riders didn’t seem to mind, either; in fact, eliminating the books was a decision coordinated with falling demand. In 2009, 25,000 Metro ticket books were sold each month. By 2013, that figure had fallen to 3,000 per month. Quite simply, the world is moving toward reusable, non-paper based systems, and there’s no system more reusable than a digital one.

Regardless of the industry, blockchain ledgers can serve as a reliable, immutable replacement for paper-based records systems. This is also the case for those in the business of public transportation, whether it is municipal governments, private train operators, bike rental services, or otherwise. A digital system of ticketing, receipt, confirmations, and other aspects of travel that are traditionally conducted using paper will also reduce hassle and the dreaded “Did I leave my bus ticket at home?!” realization for commuters and travelers who often have little time or money to spare.

Decentralized, Non-Traditional Public Transportation Services

Blockchain use cases in public transportation - Decentralized - Non-Traditional Transportation Services

Look at a city you consider to be progressive, for better or worse, and you will likely see an abundance of public transportation users — and not just regular old bus riders, but bike and scooter riders, too. These cities are likely most reflective of the worlds of tomorrow, and the rise of non-traditional modes of public transportation are an essential aspect of their fiber.

Among those cities considered to be shifting toward sustainable practices are the “Top 15 Most Bike-Friendly Cities,” which include the likes of Amsterdam, Portland, Copenhagen, Tokyo, and Barcelona. And while China has discovered that an overabundance of bike-sharing services can lead to a city flooded by abandoned and broken bikes, plenty of other cities have figured out how to implement successful bike sharing programs to help decrease pollution at a reasonable cost. And as scooter use continues to increase globally, one can be sure that similar programs will continue to pop up for other forms of non-traditional modes of transport.

Whether it means rewarding riders with tokens for using their services, offering ticketing and other services on a blockchain-enabled platform, or finding other ways to push the services that will likely come to greater prominence in the smart cities of tomorrow, the blockchain could help ease and speed up a movement toward non-traditional modes of public transportation.

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • DAV Token Platform and payment system for autonomous vehicle services.
About Sam Mire

Sam is a Market Research Analyst at Front Lines Media. He's a trained journalist with experience in the field of disruptive technology. He’s versed in the impact that blockchain technology is having on industries of today, from healthcare to cannabis. He’s written extensively on the individuals and companies shaping the future of tech, working directly with many of them to advance their vision. Sam is known for writing work that brings value to industry professionals and the generally curious – as well as an occasional smile to the face.