Bus and rail passengers want the same sort of digital experience they’ve come to expect elsewhere — the ability to access and engage with information anytime, anywhere and on any device.

As a result, we’re seeing many transit agencies starting to explore or implement Wi-Fi to retain existing riders and attract new ones. It’s truly amazing when you think about the many ways connected transit has the potential to transform passenger services such as Internet access, onboard Wi-Fi and real-time trip-planning, as well as timely and accurate transit information.

Last September, the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD), which operates trains between South Bend, Ind., and Chicago, installed cellular routers on 10 rail cars and contracted with AT&T for 4G connectivity. Now, riders can check email and keep up on news during their daily commute. Based on rider feedback, NICTD plans to expand Wi-Fi throughout its train cars.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Transit agencies can leverage their wireless infrastructure for other functions. NICTD eventually could use Wi-Fi to remotely monitor train security cameras, send signals to digital signs and enable automatic passenger counting systems.

What’s more, connected transit can play a role in getting a younger generation involved with public transportation while, in the process, also help lower the carbon footprint and conserve energy. When transit officials encourage citizens to take public transportation rather than drive, chances are better that cities will reduce their carbon footprint. Fewer vehicles on the roadways equal reduced emissions.

Expand the Digital Experience

Beacon technology — beyond even Wi-Fi — will truly expand passengers’ digital experience. Beacons are a relatively new technology, integrated in many new ways from retail to transit. Basically, a beacon is a small box with a Bluetooth connection that is constantly looking for a signal. Similar to GPS, beacons send out a signal to mobile devices with an application developed to connect with the technology. In order for a beacon to detect a mobile phone, however, the user must download an app and opt-in to allow beacons to engage with it.

For users with the application on their devices, a beacon will ping the phone and provide information. One of the largest transit systems in the world has started to sprinkle Bluetooth beacons throughout its track lines. Transit officials are able to feed information culled from the track lines into existing tracking and monitoring applications, with an eye toward providing a more accurate view of train or bus arrival times at a given location.

Many riders have mobile phone apps that are supposed to provide an idea of when a bus will arrive, but those apps are seldom correct — typically off by 10 or 15 minutes. Systems that integrate beacon technology at these bus or train stops can ping a bus, for example, and feed that information into a tracking application. Commuters who have been standing and waiting at a bus stop for some time, maybe five or 10 minutes, could choose to be notified of their bus’s arrival time through an app that coordinates with the beacon. The beacons proactively reach out to commuters and system users to send the information they need, making unclear wait times more accurate.

The technology is not without its security concerns. Some digital privacy experts view beacons as an invasion of privacy because the sensors know — and potentially share — a person’s precise location. However, because users have control of the apps that leverage beacon technology, it is authenticated with users’ permission.

To learn more about the intersection of mobility and the Internet of Things, check out CDW’s Capitalizing on Data resource.

What are some of the other new digital experiences on the horizon for bus and train passengers? Share your thoughts in the comments below!