Everyone is talking about Smarter Transport. We ask Chris Cooper of IBM what it all means

Throughout his transport career Chris Cooper has been exposed to all the major modes of transport. And now, as smarter cities architect at IBM UK, he is in the fortunate position to see where technology is heading. So we took the opportunity to ask him about a number of the most important trends and share their implications for the sector:


What is ‘Smarter Transport’?

Chris Cooper: Future trends can be categorised in one of two ways: societal and technological. From a societal perspective the trend is an ongoing reduction in car use.  Although car journeys will grow, they are predicted to decline as a percentage of the overall number of journeys taken. The reasons for this include lower car ownership amongst the young, free bus passes for OAPs, the increased use of trains for inter-city travel and the growth of car clubs.

Technology will soon allow autonomous vehicles to share the highway and reduce the price per km of Personal Rapid Transit – a good example of which is the ULTra PRT. However, it is the proliferation of Big Data, analytics, mobile technologies and social media that are having the most immediate impact.

As our economy grows, demand on public transport will increase. One way of alleviating peaks in demand is to better align capacity with potential customers. Obvious, but how? The latest technological tools can help transport planners provide better coverage by examining how people travel door-to-door, within or between cities.

Overall, Smarter Transport is simply our ability to use the information around us to seek new insight, which in turn leads to better ways of managing, operating or servicing the traveller. As more data becomes available for us to mash, reference, link and interrogate, the greater the opportunities we have to create valuable information and to do things Smarter.

This proliferation means it’s a case of when, not if, Smarter Transport systems arrive.
By observing travel patterns, transport providers can adjust their services and prices to maximise revenue by optimising load factors and matching the timetable and operational plan to the actual demand. Infrastructure providers can benefit too. Gathering information, for example, from vehicles passing over a bridge, could help identify maintenance needs before they become critical.


Can you give us an example of this use of data in action?

CC: There are many good examples already out there and much work going on behind the scenes. For example, IBM’s own research laboratory in Dublin is investigating new ways of using city data. One observation already made is that Big Data can help change the planning process. For instance, by using different sets of data to understand travel patterns and how people use public transport it’s possible to determine where to put bike parks so as to encourage more people to cycle and even how the existing public transport infrastructure should be extended in a complementary fashion.


How will this change the passenger experience?

CC: Social media is changing the relationship between customers and transport operators by making that relationship more personal, responsive and accountable. For a transport provider to excel, it must build trust with its customers. It’s essential to inform them in a timely, accurate manner and consistently meet expectations. Perhaps nothing new, but now a poor service can be rapidly punished online, so the incentive to deliver well will take priority over other considerations. And looking further ahead, the ability to continually manage an individual customer’s entire journey will become the new expectation that transport providers will need to meet.

Furthermore, personalising the engagement with passengers will not only provide competitive advantage but could even offer a unique selling proposition.

Mobile phones can also be used as a starting point in understanding how a city’s transport system flows. IBM, with partner Vodafone, offers a City-in-Motion study which enables a city to visualise how it is moving based on anonymous mobile phone data samples. Analysis of the data can be used to help achieve city-wide objectives such as reducing car pollution or encouraging more people to use public transport.

As the emerging 4G network grows in popularity, it will change our relationship with the internet. 4G will lead to a step change in the number of sources we can derive data from and in the quantity of data we’re able to transmit. Permanently connected, high bandwidth communication will provide the platform by which passengers are offered choices, in real-time, by a provider in an effort to perfectly match supply with demand.

Today, travel information is often limited to the timetable. Eventually we’ll not only be able to receive real-time data on present travel conditions but we’ll also get accurate forecasts.


Won’t this be expensive?

CC: Nothing will happen without some investment in systems, but compared to the cost of building new roads or railways, technology can offer a cheaper alternative. The pressures of the future mean that working Smarter is not just a sensible choice, it’s essential.


Case study: Nice, France

In Nice, the transport provider, Transdev, and the municipal authority are providing the travelling public with a consistent and synchronised stream of information. The benefits expected are a 20% reduction in pollution and a 10% reduction in traffic congestion by directing the public to alternative driving routes and means of transport.


This article (and many, many more) appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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