Global cities like London, which possess a wide array of transport options, are not the only places in need of new types of mobility

 
No doubt Ford has learned a lot in the various markets around the world in which Chariot operated, including London

 

In January of this year Ford announced that it was closing on a global basis its small vehicle transport business – Ford Chariot. There was a very short run down period. It was a bit of a shock in the mobility business as it was, perhaps naively, assumed that small vehicle transport would be made to work effectively by a global OEM such as Ford Motor Company, with deep pockets, substantial resources and a global business footprint. In fact, if shared use of vehicles was to be one of the futures of mobility it would be a company such as Ford that would absorb the lessons and then scale globally. Any short term losses would be part of a long term global business development process.

As with much innovation, it hasn’t quite turned out as expected. No doubt Ford has learned a lot in the various markets around the world in which Chariot operated, including London. This knowledge and experience can be used in future new mobility offers.

Furthermore, the reality of the car (and truck) business is that the core operation of making millions of vehicles can turn from a healthy profit to potentially significant losses very quickly. The US car market is looking increasing unhealthy and retrenchment of the industry is now underway at most of the major makers. With a period of capacity excess pending, how much funding should be devoted to the development of small vehicle transport with its currently unproven business model versus autonomous technology, electrification, and other pressing technologies?

Other companies in London and around the world are continuing to test and develop urban and suburban small vehicle transport as a variation of classic bus services

Other companies in London and around the world are continuing to test and develop urban and suburban small vehicle transport as a variation of classic bus services, an extension of classic taxis with an element of sharing, or based on bringing more robust business processes to community transport. Small vans have for many years been used as a part of the overall transportation service in cities around the world. In many emerging economies small vans form the basis of the public transport system under a variety of names such as matatus, jeepneys and colectivos.

However, there is a more fundamental question regarding the end of the Chariot service. Does (did) Putney – in inner southwest London – need more public transport?  Railways, tubes, buses, cycle hire, taxis, private hire, good pedestrian and cycling infrastructure are locally abundant. As a Londoner I am within a few metres of multiple bus routes which are served every 10 minutes throughout the day and evening and I’m adjacent to a rail station with trains every few minutes. Cycle lanes are common and taxis, private hire and ridesharing services abound.

For that matter, does the city of San Francisco – another major Chariot market – need another public transport service to complement what MUNI and BART are meant to provide as well as cycle hire, Lift, Uber…?

Are we in danger of ever greater cannibalisation of existing transport markets that already have a well-developed diversity of transport services in the world’s global cities via every new mobility innovation and the continual desire of entrepreneurs to trial these services in the large cities that seem to be seeing lots of mobility innovation in any case?

Does this direction for mobility innovation actually make any logical business, or social policy sense?

Many of these mobility inventions are being trialled in the global cities in which entrepreneurs, investors, and policy leaders already cluster around the robust local economic scene and inevitably an already diverse transport system. It may be inevitable that these same cities are the locations where these ideas are brought to market. A sound part of any entrepreneurial plan is to test in locations where you have ready access to your product so that you can monitor it closely. And, these global cities as a result of their large populations and employment markets inevitably have large and complex transport systems that face challenges of coverage, quality and growth.

However, every transport innovation isn’t best suited to this relatively small list of global centres. The challenge of delivering sustainable, inclusive transport systems is broad and impacts small and large cities around the developed and emerging worlds.

Some of the most pressing challenges are in communities developed using a suburban density model which in an ageing world is increasingly difficult to serve with any other means of transport other than the private car. This creates an endless cycle of congestion, calls for increased road capacity and potential isolation. Public transport interventions in these locations can be relatively lightly used and still not change the basic mobility offer.

Cities in the emerging world are growing fast and face the challenge of rapidly providing quality mobility solutions with limited resources and constraints on the desirability of disrupting the urban fabric during construction.

Across Europe rural areas are often very poorly served by bus services as an alternative to the private car. This can create a cycle of rural poverty and ill health due to limited affordable access to jobs and health care. Particularly in the UK, local authorities are no longer able to subsidise these bus services and they are being progressively withdrawn. Again, few transport alternatives to the private car are being offered.

MaaS (Mobility as a Service) will struggle to ever be a meaningful concept for these markets as there are so few viable services to include in these new apps.

In these markets the business models will certainly be challenging and the density of demand perhaps lower. Also, the customers will be more difficult to coax out of their private cars – as they see these as the only viable mobility option.

However, challenger transport models are certainly needed!

These will also be the areas where encouraging entrepreneurs to base themselves and develop new mobility models will be more of a challenge. Many of these same entrepreneurs may originate from and personally understand the needs of these areas but have, as adults, chosen to live the more exciting and diverse big city experience.

In summary, there are many user cases calling out for mobility innovation. In many cases we are not seeing the innovations or the innovators seizing these wide opportunities and testing many of the solutions for these areas. This is very unfortunate.

Much will be written about the evolution of small vehicle transport schemes and it is hoped that eventually a business model will evolve that will see these services become an effective part of an integrated transport system in cities around the world based on their market niche.

Introducing all mobility innovations into the limited set of global cities in the effort to crowd out the previous innovation and prove market success is not necessarily the route to a truly sustainable transport system

However, introducing all mobility innovations into the limited set of global cities in the effort to crowd out the previous innovation and prove market success is not necessarily the route to a truly sustainable transport system. This may be increasingly adding an ongoing level of instability into the very transport systems that these innovators are trying to improve.

There is so much to do and so many opportunities for new mobility models. Ford if anything should be celebrated for investing in and testing small vehicle transport in global markets. While for various reasons this has not created a long term sustainable business model, Ford and the rest of the industry have learned which is the essence of innovation.

These trials will allow us to create the services that will make the future of society work in a viable and sustainable way.
However, we need to look to the diversity of the need and begin focussing more concerted efforts on the wider set of locations and lifestyles in our communities
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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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