While millions of workers in the U.S. are currently working from home, there will be a time in the near future when people start returning to workplaces. That rush of drivers, riders, and pedestrians will present an opportunity for cities to rethink transportation. For the savvy ones, it will mean making their public transit systems smarter, something that 5G may be able to help with.

When future forecasters talk about 5G, they often cite autonomous vehicles as one of the technologies that may benefit from ultra-fast data and A.I.-enabled decision-making. Imagine, these digital evangelists muse, if self-driving cars could send signals to each other--as well as to "smart" vehicles still operated by humans--to steer clear of one another during lane changes or stop on a dime to avoid crashes. No more accidents! No more traffic! All of our transportation problems solved!

While those hopes are informed by quite a bit of hype, cutting down on accidents with self-driving cars is a potentially noble use for 5G and its ability to stream massive amounts of data at unprecedented speeds. The creation of a "smart" city with information pinging seamlessly among cars, stop lights, and other parts of the infrastructure could profoundly change the way people get around in the future, returning people to work and restoring businesses along the way.

Ahsan Baig, the CIO and CTO of AC Transit, the third-largest bus system in California, sees 5G as potentially a part of a smarter transit system that uses data to better serve passengers. "I see in the future that our transit, because of 5G, is going to be fairly accurate and customized to meet the needs of the public," Baig says. 

According to Gary Miskell, CIO and CTO of VTA, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, which serves 246 square miles in California, fast data on 5G can also help transit operators provide more granular information so riders can plan their trips better. "Taking it to the next level with real-time information, we can do things we haven't done before. We can tell the passengers how many bikes are in the bike rack or how many wheelchairs are in the vehicle, are there [available] seats?"

It's not just operators thinking about this. In a blog post from November 2019, Arielle Fleisher, transportation policy director for SPUR (the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association), called for new ways of thinking about public transit. "Transit doesn't have to stay exactly as it is today," Fleisher wrote. "The world has changed in ways that should impact transit design: Virtually every person has a device that shares their location in real time. This alone begs for innovation and experimentation in the transit sector. We need to embrace a larger view of what transportation is for and who it serves." 

"It's really not all that different from any digital disruption we've seen in our lives," says AC Transit's Baig of the coming 5G-enabled smart city. "Things will change. Technology will be disruptive and change lots of roles and business models. I'm not worried. It's more about putting together the framework and spending time on policy. It's going to be interesting in the next five or 10 years."