Posted: 22 Jun. 2020 4 min. read

On the digital track: transit in unpredictable times

The role of regulation and governments in enabling mobility in the disrupted world


There is no question that meeting the general goals of transit authorities—better, safer, cleaner, and more efficient ways of getting people where they need to go—requires the use of digital tools. This was the case before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and will remain the case as authorities facilitate the return to work and revise their mobility strategies for the future.

However, the COVID crisis is forcing us to think in new ways about how we get around. Old patterns were disrupted when this crisis began, and new patterns will be formed as we gradually come out of it and enter the “new normal.”

Ridership on subways or buses, where social distancing is more difficult, is problematic now and in the near future. While ridership may not return to pre-COVID levels in the short-term, restoring full public transit services will nevertheless remain a critical part of restarting the economy and society—especially in those areas where public transit forms an integral part of daily life and work.

This begs the question: How do we need to rethink the digital tools that were driving the future of mobility prior to COVID, and how can we use them to help bring passengers back and ensure networks’ long-term sustainability?

Before COVID, governments were deploying a range of digital approaches to make mobility cheaper, more accessible, and more efficient. Integrated journey planning and pricing, Mobility as a Service, live journey updates, and responsive network operations were all being explored and implemented. Now, transit authorities will need to employ these digital tools and others to identify new patterns of behaviour as they emerge, evolve, and take root in a post-COVID world. Operators will need to use real-time data­­ from multiple sources, both public and private, to support solutions that adapt rapidly to changing conditions. Schedules can be optimised to maximize capacity and better reflect the needs of riders, thereby making public transit a more attractive option, and limiting a resurgence in road congestion.

Effervescent data-driven decision-making

As discussed in “Navigating the new normal with data driven decision making” data and digital technology is a key solution to support decision-makers in these unpredictable times. Dramatic changes in demand and operation have rendered obsolete the usual application of machine learning based on vast historical data sets. However, by using advanced simulation techniques underpinned by near real-time or “effervescent” data, we can provide agility and accuracy in decision-making, empowering transport organizations to address key post-COVID challenges:

  • Dynamic Timetable Planning for public transit based on shifting patterns of critical workers, demand, and safety requirements
  • Asset Maintenance based on utilisation to prioritise constrained resources (financial, staff, and assets) to maintain quality of service
  • Capacity Planning to achieve optimal day-to-day running of networks based on utilisation and changing social distancing requirements

All these benefits can only be achieved through comprehensive data availability across the value chain. While past data may be of less value, fresh data from multiple sources can drastically improve the accuracy of “what-if” simulations.

The role of government and regulation

Governments have a major role to play and an opportunity in fostering this change:

Data Sharing – Governments can be instrumental in making data more available, shared, accessible, and interoperable. In their role as policymakers, they can facilitate cross-industry rules and standards on data exchange. They can de-risk the process of data exchange by defining the privacy standards as an enabler and encouraging co-operation for the benefit of all. Cross-industry unified data models can provide a fertile ground for the emergence of the industries of the future.

Regulation - The constantly changing demand on mobility means that universal, set services cannot meet the needs of tomorrow. Regulatory outcomes need to be defined in a way that it allows changes depending on varying needs. New thinking on the goals and incentives of mobility needs to emerge to accommodate fluid patterns of behaviour.

A key factor in the success of harnessing the power of digital technology is skills availability. Even before the COVID crisis, there were significant skills shortages across industries in Analytics and Machine Learning. Now they are even more scarce. Policy makers can address this by nurturing co-op approaches to building such capabilities.

Diversity is the key to solving the skills challenge

The scope of the challenge and opportunity that advanced digital technologies present can only be met if we have a diverse talent pool with which to tackle it. Combining traditional engineering skills in the transit space with digital and data-driven solutions will need people with diverse thinking. The only way to find the answers of tomorrow is to ensure plurality of voices across organisations. This means balancing equity and equality in opportunities and the economics.

In conclusion

Prior to this global pandemic, enthusiasm was high among stakeholders about the future of mobility—and the crisis should not derail efforts to achieve truly integrated mobility systems. Public transport planners will need to intensify their efforts. Restoring public transport services and embedding digital into mobility as standard is critical if transport operators are to support a thriving new economy in the new normal.


To learn more, view the recording of the webinar ‘Recover and Thrive : Regulating Mobility in a Disrupted World”.

Key contact

Nadun Muthukumarana

Nadun Muthukumarana

Data Analytics Partner | Deloitte UK

Nadun has over 24 years’ experience in innovating and delivering complex data analytics and technology transformation to national and global clients. At Deloitte, he is the Lead Partner for Data Analytics & Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Public & Transportation sectors. He has developed industry scale AI solutions that are delivering unprecedented gains in customer service delivery, operational planning, execution and asset management. Nadun is a thought leader in explainable AI, Data Privacy, Ethics and Open Data. He runs the Deloitte Analytics Labs, an innovation incubator that specialises in the development of products & services which uniquely combines AI with simulation technologies. As a Respect and Inclusion Advisory Partner, he also leads initiatives to improve inclusivity in the workplace. Nadun is the President of the Management Consultancies Association (MCA).