5G and transport—envisioning possibilities for a better-connected tomorrow

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Dar es Salaam bus transit system
Photo: Hendri Lombard / World Bank

The Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector is rapidly evolving. It comes as no surprise that advancements in ICTs over the past two decades continue to transform traditional sectors like agriculture, education, health, energy and transport. With the arrival of 5G (the fifth generation mobile wireless standard), this transformation is expected to accelerate as countries around the globe begin rollout of their 5G infrastructure, enabling high-data volume processing with low latency, and bringing online thousands of new internet-enabled devices to further expand the Internet of Things and big data scenarios. However, not all countries will advance at the same time or at the same pace. It is critical to begin thinking about future possibilities, infrastructure requirements and related financing needs. A new World Bank report—Envisioning 5G-Enabled Transport—lays out some use cases for the transport sector and how 5G is likely to enable important transformations.

5G will bring in changes across the transport sector. While it is impossible to foresee all potential applications, the report predicts three likely and significant changes: (1) the rise of connected and autonomous vehicles, (2) increasingly smart and efficient logistics, and (3) improved urban transportation with the implementation of Mobility as a Service (MaaS) platforms.


Key Impact Linkages between 5G and the Transport Sector
FIGURE: Key Impact Linkages between 5G and the Transport Sector

While the connectivity provided by 5G represents only one enabling facet of this equation, it fundamentally changes the overall potential scope and viability of the model.

In the logistics sector, 5G technology opens up three fundamental dimensions for increasing efficiency: (1) enabling the operation of autonomous vehicles, both by land, by sea, or by air; (2) simplifying many communications and signaling processes and dramatically reducing the cost of connected devices; and (3) increasing battery life, potentially up to 10 years. Taken together, these impacts massively increase the potential for connected freight, and thus the ability to track goods throughout the logistics chain and streamline logistics planning. They will empower increasingly autonomous shipping—initially through truck platooning—but eventually in all transport modes. And finally, they will facilitate the management of the logistics sector, improving port operations, facilitating third-party logistics (3PL) players, improving rail safety, enhancing the monitoring of infrastructure, and boosting overall efficiency.

In urban areas, the availability of 5G poses a revolutionary opportunity for urban mobility, allowing cities to modernize and make their transport systems more efficient. With access to 5G, cities will increase their ability to improve public transport operations and planning, even introducing dynamic transport planning—potentially reducing traffic congestion or reallocating space for cyclists and pedestrians. They also may generate more revenues by increasing public transport ridership or through best use of developing business models such a MaaS. In turn, this could potentially help reduce tariffs and increase affordability for low-income users who would benefit from improved monitoring and control systems for smart cards through reduced fraud and the ability of public transport agencies to better target the subsidies for public transport users in vulnerable situations. Better smart-card monitoring and control systems could also facilitate improvements in transport planning through an enhanced understanding of the mobility patterns of various population groups.

Additionally, in the urban public transport context, 5G can improve overall efficiency. Real time monitoring of public transport vehicles and user demand management would allow better matching between supply and demand, creating near real-time Origin–Destination (OD) matrix proxies to make transport operators more efficient by avoiding the operation of either empty or overloaded vehicles, thus, enhancing the quality of service for users. Moreover, increased multimodal connectivity among transport modes integrating all mobility options into single MaaS platforms, will allow users to choose among dozens of trip options. Users will enjoy better onboard entertainment and information display, as well as an enhanced feeling of onboard safety thanks to improved onboard video connectivity to the control center and police, which reduces response time in case of violent assault or sexual harassment within the public transport network.

Another facet—active transport—would also benefit from increased data flow. 5G-enabled smart connectivity and vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communications will improve cyclist and pedestrian safety, who will also benefit from safer automobiles. City and national governments might promote infrastructure sharing for providing telecom availability and other services for mobility, such as using traffic lights or streetlights for deploying the 5G ultra-dense networks and create intelligent transportation system (ITS)-related services, thus boosting jobs in the digital economy. 5G could empower well-regulated systems that give preference to active modes and public transport over private cars. In total, if connected and autonomous vehicles can streamline traffic, and transport demand management is paired with improved public transport, 5G has the potential to open significant areas of urban space for people instead of cars.

While the range of potential advancements is vast, there are associated risks as well. Despite a predicted dramatic improvement in road safety, autonomous vehicles present complex questions of liability and risk. In cities, the digitalization of public transport and the inclusion of private MaaS operators will require innovation-friendly governance. If the regulatory environment does not catch up to new realities, autonomous vehicles could result in extra, empty trips and wasted energy, with impacts on curb use, parking, e-tolling, congestion charging, and more.

As with many digital advances, a key challenge will be for developing countries to implement and benefit from such innovations, leapfrogging their development and avoiding an ever-widening digital divide. Possible delays in deploying connected vehicles highlights the opportunity for developing countries to drive forward in other ways. 5G-enabled handset-based solutions will likely reach developing countries in the near term, providing transport users with enhanced information, and assisting transport operators and authorities with enhanced data for real-time decision making and traffic control. Other applications will require only limited network coverage in urban centers, along rail lines, or in ports. How these applications develop, whether they reach the poorest countries and regions in the short or medium term, and whether they have an ambiguous or definitively positive impact in the transport sector, will be driven by how the policy environment evolves, both within these countries and globally.

The transport industry has entered a period of rapid advancement, and the pace of change is only increasing. The proliferation of electric vehicles, rapid advances in autonomous vehicles, the advent of the sharing economy and digital platforms, advances in big data and machine learning, and rapidly evolving business models, such as eCommerce and MaaS, are causing profound changes throughout the sector. The development and rollout of fifth-generation (5G) mobile broadband has the potential to not only support, but accelerate these revolutionary changes as today’s digital transport solutions evolve and entirely new opportunities become viable.


Sara Sultan

Senior Knowledge Management Officer, Transport Global Practice

Adam Diehl

Urban Transport Specialist

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