The view at this month’s IT-TRANS show was that app-based mobility will bring huge changes, but public transport will remain the backbone in cities


it-transLeft to right: Timothy Papandreou, Martin Röhrleef and Scott Cain is Chief Business Officer of the UK’s Future Cities Catapult


Emerging technologies like app-based mobility and autonomous vehicles look set to bring the most radical overhaul of passenger transport since the invention of the internal combustion engine. It seems destined to change everything.

You will by now have heard the doomsday warnings about the impact that these technologies will have on the world of public transport. If you haven’t, or if perhaps you’ve tried to forget about them, allow me to recap.

Stagecoach’s chairman, Sir Brian Souter told bus operators last year: “We really need to get our trainers on and think about what we’re going to do about this issue.”

Nigel Stevens, CEO of Transdev in the UK and Ireland, who has competed with Uber in the taxi market, meanwhile warned that an Uber “nuclear bomb” is heading for public transport.

Leon Daniels, Transport for London’s managing director of surface transport, has warned that “apps could overtake us”.

And, Alain Flausch, secretary general of UITP, the international association of public transport, has said: “You don’t want an IBM or Google to run your show.”

Before you throw yourselves out of the nearest window it should be said that all of these soothsayers see opportunities as well as challenges. There will inevitably be winners and losers as this new order establishes itself, but, as I came away from a trip to this month’s IT-TRANS show in Karlsruhe, Germany, the impression I had was that the overall future for public transport will be brighter – but different.

The three-day event which was attended by more than 5,000 visitors from around the world, examined how emerging IT technologies are transforming the relationship between public transport and its customers. The consensus view is that public transport will remain the ‘backbone’ in cities, but it will need to develop inter-modal platforms and integrate new mobility players.

“Public transport needs IT tools to enable us to be smarter and to better match supply to demand,” Flausch reflected.

“We need to embrace the IT revolution to lead the pack and become the backbone of urban mobility through the use of all these new tools.”

Rahul Kumar, senior vice president at Transdev, commented: “In public transport, we had been used to [just] telling people about our services … until Uber came along. We need to be much more dynamic in providing solutions for customer’s journeys.”

This challenge was explored in greater depth in the final conference session, entitled ‘Emerging technologies: friend or foe for public transport?’ It featured contributions from two pioneering public transport cities – Hannover and San Francisco.

The approaches taken by these two cities are different, but the vision is the same – a simple, integrated transport proposition that uses technology to knit public transport together with other modes – walking, cycling, car sharing taxis and anything else you care to think of. This concept is called ‘mobility as a service’.
They believe that the closer they get to achieving this vision, the less people will want to own a car, and the end result will be a cleaner, greener and more efficient transport system.

Martin Röhrleef, head of ‘combined mobility’ at üstra, Hannover’s public transport operator, believes that emerging technology is more friend than foe. “I see a great chance in the concept of mobility as a service because I think people will like to have this variety and I think it might be even more attractive than owning a car,” he said.

Hannover is seeking to offer a one-stop-shop for mobility, with smartphones expected to become the main point of access. It has developed a multi-modal platform, offering routing and mobile ticketing and covering car sharing and taxis as well as public transport. “It’s a small step for mobility as a service, but it’s a giant leap for public transport,” he said.

Röhrleef believes that the public transport backbone can become stronger as a result of more services feeding into it. Timothy Papandreou, chief innovation officer at San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, agrees.

With the fast-evolving world of Silicon Valley on his doorstep, Papandreou believes that fully integrated, routing, booking and payment systems for mobility will be rolled out worldwide in the near future – but while Hannover’s üstra is seeking to deliver this service in its city, he believes that large global players will emerge and become dominant.

“In the next three years it’s most likely that no matter where you are in the world you will be able to access the entire transportation system with one app,” he predicted. “And I think there’s many app providers which are trying to get there. They’re going to have a big fight over the next three years over who’s going to be the one. But usually you have three companies for everything – the big three car companies, the big three pharmaceutical companies – there’ll be the big three app companies that will be the ones who are going to manage this information.”

Over the same period, Papandreou expects that the discussion and the decision on who owns the customer and who owns the data will be resolved. “That will be a really big policy debate over these next three years and we’re going to be probably getting to the answer over these next three years,” he said.

There was also a shared feeling at IT-TRANS that autonomous vehicles are just over the horizon, but that they will be unable to offer an answer to the congestion that cities face. The only real solution will be shared, electric and probably autonomous vehicles.

“The world’s population cannot continue to drive around in their automobiles, it is just not going to work,” said IT-TRANS keynote speaker and US mobility visionary, Gabe Klein. “Ownership is dead in many ways: shared mobility and public transport are the future and Ford probably won’t be making cars in 50 years.”

With six companies currently testing autonomous vehicles in San Francisco, this technology doesn’t feel like a distant prospect for Papandreou, but he is optimistic about their impact. Combined with app-based personal mobility, it seems that we’ll soon be able to summon a driverless car. There are fears that this convenient, omnipresent offering will be the final nail in the coffin for public transport, but Papandreou believes it could strengthen the role of public transport on the high frequency core corridors, where it will remain the most efficient option.

“The thing that we keep hearing again and again and again is ‘oh no, these autonomous vehicles are going to ruin our public transit system’ – and I don’t think that’s the case,” he said. “I think it’s going to make public transit even stronger on the corridors that make sense, and when I say the corridors that make sense – our metro, our trams, our trains … those things are going to get more and more busy. We have to understand how we are going to handle that increase in capacity.”

However, Papandreou does think that the lightly-used buses on peripheral routes will need to be reassessed.

He said: “The low level bus lines that carry seven people or eight people every time they come, every 15 minutes, they’re going away. How are you going to deal with that reality check? Because most of you are providing a service that is politically-driven and that service has to run for political reasons, for social equity reasons, whatever it is.

“And so the question is, do we need a 12-metre bus or an 18-metre bus to carry seven people or can it be a six or eight passenger van on demand, driven by somebody else or by a computer?

Papandreou continued: “That is really the question we should be asking for the future of public mobility – having it much more tailored so that in the future, and I mean the next three or four years, you say … I need a ride from here to here and it’s going to say to you, ‘Jenny there’s 19 other people that want the same ride, go to the corner there’ and a 20-passenger bus comes and picks you up, or if there’s three of you there’s a car that comes and picks you up.

“That’s really what we want to get to. This is using the technology to get to the outcomes that we want, to make it more efficient.


The full story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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