UITP chief executive Alain Flausch says the organisation’s World Congress in Milan later this year will provide an opportunity to consider some transformational changes facing public transport

 

 

It was a cold, gloomy day last month when I met with Alain Flausch, secretary general of UITP, the international union of public transport, in his office in Brussels. The Belgian has an affable and upbeat nature, but his mood matches the slate-grey sky behind him as we discussed the low oil price.

It’s a “very disturbing issue”, he says, because it threatens to undermine public transport. At a time when more and more cities around the world are beginning to see the advantages that pro-public transport policies can offer – for their economies, for the health and well-being of their citizens, for their environments – suddenly, out of the blue, the oil price crashes and the private car gains an advantage.

When the price was higher, Flausch says that motorists in Belgium were purchasing as much fuel as a 20 euro note would buy. Now they can fill their tanks with this money, and he believes that this must lead to greater car use. At the same time UITP is trying to convince the world to constrain car use and instead embrace cleaner, greener collective transport – public transport. “Matching this contradiction is really hard,” he says.

Flausch wants governments to use the opportunity provided by low oil prices to create new ‘green’ taxes.

“In New York right now a gallon of fuel instead of being at $3.30 like it was six months ago is now $2,” he says. “So if you just say to the consumer they get half of it and the rest I take and put it in a fund to develop alternative fuels, this is the right time to do it.

“And when the petrol price goes back up, finish with the tax.”

He also believes that government’s should consider smarter ways to tax motorists, introducing road-pricing schemes that charge motorists depending on what car they drive, how far they travel and at what times.

The oil price isn’t the only thing that is concerning Flausch. He’s also worried about the large and powerful organisations that are showing an increasing interest in public transport, such as banks, telecom companies and IT giants like Google. He has compared these companies to “vultures”, circling over the public transport sector (PT086).

Flausch says these businesses have come to understand the importance of public transport and the waste caused by congestion. They don’t want their staff commuting two hours a day one way and another, and arriving at work unhappy and frustrated.

“From a business point of view, connectivity is of the essence, so they are our best allies,” he says. “Business is now asking government to do something. They realise that combining walking and public transport and sharing the car, is the option that will prevail in the future.”

But in Flausch’s eyes, this support also poses a threat to the public transport sector. Google, for example, already has a personal relationship with many millions of people and Google Transit is offering live journey information to internet users. How long before they add a ‘purchase ticket’ option, and where could their influence extend after that?

“The question is: how do we keep control of our future? You don’t want IBM or Google to run your show. You want to use Google, you want to use IBM to help you make your show.

“But since public transportation is also a major part of the city you might want to say that you want the decision maker to remain the political guy, the ones who have a mandate from the citizens. Because the city belongs to the citizens.”

He adds: “If you have an industry that takes over the power, they might just run it for their own interest, which is not eventually matching the citizen interest. I’m trying to keep it.”

Flausch has spent the past two years working closely with Sir Peter Hendy, a familiar face among UK passenger transport professionals. Transport for London’s commissioner is close to completing his two-year presidency of UITP and Flausch says that he has been impressed by the contribution that “workaholic” Hendy has made during this time.

Hendy’s main influence has been to show how to make the case for public transport as “an enabler of economic development”, as London has done, in addition to the more traditional social inclusion case.

“We were pushing for this but we were a bit alone and having him as an icon of British transport pushing in the same direction helped us a lot,” says Flausch.

Britain’s way of organising public transport has long been regarded an oddity in Europe, but there are signs that ideas are now flowing more freely in each direction across the Channel. Europe is placing more and more services in the hands of private sector operators, something that was pioneered in the UK. And while there seems little interest in the deregulated model for bus services that exists in Britain (except London), German express coach services have been deregulated in the same way that British ones were 30 years ago.

In return, Britain’s major cities appear to be adopting an holistic, continental approach to transport, considering it alongside their land use planning and development agendas.

Flausch’s career has included public and private sector experience. In the 1990s he headed Belgium’s first media sales house before taking charge of Brussels transport operator STIB in 2000. He has transformed UITP since his appointment as secretary general in 2011, modernising the association and strengthening its representation around the world. He isn’t keen on “pure unregulated competition”, but he does value competition for contracts as a way of breaking up complacent and inefficient monopolies.

“The Belgian railway, for instance, is terrible,” he says. “Very bad productivity. Awfully trade unionised. Poor service to the traveller. One train out of two is either cancelled or late. So we should privatise this.”

He acknowledges the increased ridership that has been achieved on UK public transport, especially on the rail network, but he says that the cost of travel is still comparatively high. UITP has encouraged cities to implement regular fare increases in order to provide investment, but he believes that the UK has gone too far along this route.

“London is awfully expensive,” he says, adding that public transport fares in Britain are “much higher than anywhere else in the world”.

All of these issues and more will be debated at the biggest public transport event in the world, UITP World Congress, which takes place in Milan on June 8-10. The exhibition is expected to attract more than 25,000 visits. There will be over 320 exhibiting companies, representing up to 37 countries.

Flausch says that Milan is a great showcase for public transport. This industrial city was covered in smog 30-40 years ago, like London in the early 20th century, and flights were sometimes diverted because pilots could not see the runway. This pollution meant that Milan was known as ‘la città di merda’, a sobriquet that probably doesn’t require translation. Over recent decades it has been transformed and public transport has played a key role. Milan has the biggest public transport system in Italy, featuring all modes of transport – bus, tram, metro, car and bike-sharing – and the city is seen an example of political will in terms of pollution reduction. It combines a large public transport offer with private car use restriction measures like congestion charging and strict parking policies.

Flausch says the World Congress will provide an opportunity for the whole public transport community to come together and to feel reassured that the future is bright.

“It’s not only giving a picture of what’s going on but also of what could happen.” he says. “What role we would play like in smart cities, which is where I think public transport operators should be the pioneer.

He adds: “It’s also drawing the attention to what will happen with the [driverless] Google car. How do we react? Are we able to become the backbone of mobility?

“Let’s not be afraid of competition … You need to make it a robust and vigilant sector.”

 

For further information about the UITP World Congress visit www.uitpmilan2015.org

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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