Mobile Innovation

The Rise of Bluetooth Beacons & Public Transit

Let me guess – transportation isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think “Bluetooth.” Stop for a second and name all the objects around you that are Bluetooth connected. Most likely your smartphone, laptop, and speakers. Maybe your headphones? Keyboard? Mouse? What about the road you take to work? The bus that’s pulling into your stop? Bluetooth has entered the world of mobility, and low energy beacons offer an accessible solution that can help transit agencies implement the next innovations in public transit.


Cities across the world, from Bangkok and Montreal to Tempe, Arizona, are already using Bluetooth technology on roadways. However, current use cases are focused on reducing traffic congestion with Bluetooth sensors – a small departure from beacons. These sensors are built into highways to track traffic and provide analytics on congestion, traffic management, pricing, toll collection, HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes, safety, and maintenance. The Global City Teams Challenge (GCTC) is developing best practices with a transportation sensor network blueprint to help advise cities that are interested in implementing sensors technology.


Taking Bluetooth adoption in transportation a step further, the technology presents an opportunity to build smart solutions for public transit. Bluetooth beacons act as transmitters that broadcast information to nearby devices like smartphones and tablets. For example, beacons on a bus could broadcast the bus route. When a mobile device with the corresponding app comes within range of the bluetooth transmission, the device detects the signal’s message, which can trigger different notification and in-app behavior dependent on the message. So, a mobile device with a transit agency’s mobile fare app could trigger “your bus is here” messaging when the bus with the correct route comes into proximity with with the mobile device. When combined, these capabilities offer various possibilities for public transit.


1. Mobile and contactless ticketing

Bluetooth infrastructure on transit vehicles, platforms or stations can track when riders with a Bluetooth-enabled mobile fare app are in and out of the mesh network. This Be-In/Be-Out (BIBO) framework captures transit usage analytics similarly to gated systems, but without the enormous capital investment. BIBO paired with a real-time fare payment engine shifts the responsibility of understanding complex tariffs from the rider to the automated system. In this model, the fare is calculated in real time while the rider is on the vehicle, and the system provides the best fare for the rider automatically. As reliability is still a challenge to overcome, the alternative Check-In/Be-Out model provides the same level of data analytics with a low friction user experience of Checking-In.


2. Fleet management

Public transit systems are already using CAD/AVL and Automatic Passenger Counting (APC) systems to capture real-time vehicle location and passenger counts. Installing beacons on vehicles can augment these systems by pairing vehicle capacity and location information with richer data about on-board customers. This would combine the value proposition offered by CAD/AVL, APC and fare collection systems into a single source of truth. Data could be used by planners to support decisions around routing, frequency and vehicle needs, or by public safety personnel for real-time analytics on vehicle occupancy and location.




3. Accessibility

Beacons open up a range of possibilities for making public transit more accessible to riders. They can help those with disabilities or impairments travel more efficiently and safely. Wayfindr is an app that uses Bluetooth beacons to locate blind or visually-impaired users within a transit station. It then directs them with verbal instructions, such as which trains are to their right or left or how many steps are in an approaching staircase. Another company, Onyx Beacon is implementing beacons to alert riders when a bus is nearing the station. A visually impaired user can mark which bus route they need in their mobile fare app, and when the correct bus arrives at a station, the app will notify the rider that their bus is there.




4. Mobile marketing

As more transit agencies adopt mobile fare apps, there’s an opportunity to see beacon technology come into play with retail engagement. Beacons are often used in the retail industry to send passersbys coupons or alerts. This opportunity allows transit agencies to partner with local businesses to send riders exclusive deals based on their geo-location and nearby retail locations. The retailer would broadcast their bluetooth signal, as a rider with the transit agency’s mobile ticketing app came into proximity with that signal, the app would trigger a coupon or alert pop-up.


5. Gamification
Gamification offers transit authorities the opportunity to put Bluetooth beacons to good fun. Installed beacons can act as rider checkpoints, turning a particular transit line, or an entire system, into a life-sized game board. In 2015, moovel used beacons to create a mobile scavenger hunt, celebrating the opening of a new TriMet transit line. Riders earned points and won sponsored prizes like Nike sneakers and round-trip tickets on Alaska Airlines for visiting beacons along the line.

Now when you think “Bluetooth,” think beyond the smartphone in your pocket. In this age of transportation innovation, it’s critical that transit agencies push for smarter mobility solutions. The doors are open to implement new technologies that can improve both user and operator experiences with public


Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.