A trip to San Francisco, a global showcase of mobility innovation, demonstrated that ‘classic’ public transport needs to raise its game

 

San Francisco seems to be at the epicentre of every new transport innovation being discussed on a global scale
 

 

Disruption continues in the world of mobility. Opportunities are leading to new modes such as bike and car sharing, as well as the most recent e-scooter phenomenon, coming to cities around the world. Existing public transport operators need to refine their business to offer increasing customer service and maintain the loyalty of travellers who have in many cases an increased choice of travel options. Also, as society and travellers become more diverse and generally older, the needs of these customers are changing. The capability of customers is also evolving as technology allows them to be ever more aware of transport options, real time information, pricing, and excellence in services via the ubiquitous smart phone.

This creates the perpetual need for transport operators to improve services, scout the market for new ideas and/or competitors as well as understand wider trends that are making transport a very desirable business opportunity for many otherwise non-transport related businesses, such as online content providers, lifestyle businesses, etc. These trends are playing out around the world in developed as well as emerging economies and lessons can be learned from many different markets.

A recent trip to California has highlighted some of the challenges, however, and the fundamental challenge that “classic public transport” faces from the continuing growth of new mobility opportunities and businesses.

Firstly, I am an avid supporter of local public transport – in a classic modal sense. This is not only as a result of the ability of buses, trams, metros and trains to provide effective and efficient mobility and accessibility to a wide proportion of the population, but also the resulting urban form and streetscape that these modes can deliver. Public transport oriented cities are often the most pleasant in their delivery of mobility. The examples are widespread and include Paris, Vienna, Barcelona and Amsterdam. Each provides density, vitality, interest on the street, livability and is based on the web of public transport offers and a constrained role for the private car.

But, innovation is still needed and this is apparent in our industry.

How can public transport remain competitive with the range of new and emerging modes? Like all industries which are being disrupted, it is no longer sufficient to be just competent, but you need to be compelling and constantly improving.

In particular, how can public transport remain competitive with the range of new and emerging modes? Like all industries which are being disrupted, it is no longer sufficient to be just competent, but you need to be compelling and constantly improving.

I’ve seen and experienced vast improvements in the quality, comprehensiveness and price competitiveness of public transport in London over the last 10 to 15 years. I would say that I am a generally contented customer of Transport for London’s services. However, I still have concerns about local national rail services – particularly regarding customer information and environments.

But on a national scale and certainly global one in developed economies I see many weakly delivered public transport offers. These are not comprehensive in coverage, poorly marketed and delivered – simply confusing to use, locally expensive or incoherently integrated with other modes. In summary, transport systems that are simply not compelling to the customer.

Many years ago, in a less competitive market for transport, and particularly public transport, this may not have mattered. The services fulfilled a certain social need and many other customers chose private modes of transport.

In congested cities, with ageing populations, clustering workforces, millennials who want walkability and a range of travel options, and the visibility of globally competitive lifestyles these issues create many challenges, and public transport will need to work hard to maintain its relevance and particularly its right to have support from public sector resources to be able to flourish. Even if privately operated, public transport in most cases depends on public sector largesse and certainly support.

In a recent trip to San Francisco and the Silicon Valley it was amazing to see the range of public transport innovation on display, being tested and in quite widespread use.

San Francisco seems to be at the epicentre of every new transport innovation being discussed on a global scale. The visitor sees a range of cycle hire schemes – in this case a docked service sponsored by Ford or a series of free floating services, including one now owned by Uber. There are also plentiful new electric shared scooters from several groups.

Innovation and competition is widespread and intense. Options include: ride-hailing services – Uber and Lyft; small vehicle transport such as Chariot from Ford; cycle hire schemes; and electronic scooter services. Various autonomous vehicles in self driving test mode are also visible in the city region as the next pending mobility revolution.

In San Francisco, services are also provided by the strangely anonymous “Google Bus”, although several other tech employers from the Silicon Valley, south of the city, are also offering these services. These slightly surreal unbranded intercity coaches arrive in various neighbourhoods in the city depositing or collecting staff and whisking them off to the major tech employment parks south of the city. They are, in effect, private services only available and communicated to the workers of each of the tech giants.

Travelling around the city for a few days, journeys could easily be done by public transport and some staff were excellent in their assistance and service, but on the whole it was not what I would expect from such a wealthy global city.

The main public transport agencies, particularly, in San Francisco – BART (regional rail) and MUNI (local buses and light rail) were, in my view, offering a distinctly unimpressive service. While reasonably comprehensive, these systems were poorly marketed and inadequately maintained. It seemed to be customer unfriendly and at times difficult to navigate.

The 1970s era BART system presents the user with such a tired, dated and dirty welcome. BART and indeed all of the public transport in the city suffers from severe amounts of public vagrancy. While this is a serious and sensitive social issue, as public transport professionals it is our duty to provide a service and environment that welcomes all users and makes the most of our role to efficiently move city residents and visitors in a financially and socially responsible manner. Public transport in San Francisco seems to have forgotten this role, or at least suppressed it, and the outcome can be shocking.

If public transport were in a captive market environment this situation may not be as serious as it seems for San Francisco’s authorities. However, some substantial funds are being invested in various aspects of the classic public transport in the city.

While a hub of global innovation, the city and region demonstrates the dangers to the public transport operators of not having a relentless focus on delivering service excellence and quality. Furthermore, the level of local innovation surely puts the central role of public transport in such a city under threat.

While a hub of global innovation, the city and region demonstrates the dangers to the public transport operators of not having a relentless focus on delivering service excellence and quality. Furthermore, the level of local innovation surely puts the central role of public transport in such a city under threat.

Another way of considering the issue would be to notice the lack of classic taxis in the city. They are surprisingly rare and you don’t really notice until you actually see one how clearly absent they have become. A traditional means of urban transport that has been squeezed out of the market by newer and more service focussed alternatives such as ride sharing.

Public transport operators need to be very aware of their position in cities and the level of service that they provide. While billions have been invested in their infrastructure and this continues in many global locations, mobility is still a very competitive and potentially disrupted market, and becoming more so.

Innovative service offers can substantially change the mobility options in cities and potentially push classic public transport to the margins. This may challenge some of the assumptions about urban form and street design of those earlier mentioned classically livable cities.

Suppressing competition and innovation may seem like an appealing countermeasure, but will inevitably damage local economies and frustrate local travellers.

Partnership and being open to new models and services will provide insights to new options, offer new services and encourage local entrepreneurship and investment. This strategy is being pursued by many leading cities, such as London, Paris, Singapore – and indeed San Francisco.

Is the classic public transport operator in a transitional phase to irrelevance in urban mobility and certainly in a few globally leading technology cities? Will they be missed or will their services only be used by the most socially excluded members of society?

As an avid supporter of “classic public transport” and because of all of the things that these services have created in our cities and for their residents, I believe in new mobility innovation needs to be based on a sound, well developed, comprehensive and compelling public transport offer. This is what we should expect from the public transport industry!

 

About the author:

Giles K Bailey is a Director at Stratageeb, a London based consultancy assisting businesses think about their strategic vision and innovation. Previously, he had spent nine years as Head of Marketing Strategy at Transport for London.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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