How intelligent technologies can help drive safer, more convenient and more inclusive transport ecosystems
Imagine mobility facilitated by seamless connectivity with customers, in real time. All modes of metropolitan transport—buses, trains, trams, taxis, scooters, bikes, cars—are effectively zero-emission smart phones on wheels. Fully interoperable end to end, regardless of provider, this mobility-as-a-service ecosystem transports people and goods within and across cities safely and conveniently and is accessible to everyone.
The disruption unleashed by the global health crisis offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make this future vision a reality.
Plummeting patronage and costly ghost services
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of our current lifestyles with frightening clarity—especially in regard to mobility. Fear of contagion has sent public transport patronage plummeting worldwide. In the US, for example, ridership dropped 79 percent at the start of the pandemic and remained about 65 percent below pre-pandemic levels through the end of 20201.
In the US, ridership dropped:
With limited visibility into real-time capacity requirements—how many people travel and when—some operators have been running ghost services. Long accustomed to planning for relatively consistent, long-term trends, they now find themselves saddled with rising costs and rapidly declining revenues2. Faced with the financing of assets that few want to use, 65 percent of US public transit agencies cut services in 2020 and four in 10 are now considering additional cuts to close their budget gaps3.
US public transit agencies cut services:
Sustainability in every sense
The good news is that the pandemic has also focused attention on the sustainability of transport systems, and in every sense: economic and social, as well as environmental. In some cities—Paris, London and Perth (Australia), among them—pollution-belching car traffic significantly exceeds pre-pandemic levels4, underscoring the urgency of luring people back to cleaner, greener public transport. But while minimizing public transport’s carbon footprint is clearly more fundamental than ever, passengers now also want to travel safely, as well as cost effectively. Ease of access and safe space will be key considerations going forward. In Thessaloniki, Greece, for example, 70 percent of people want more buses, appropriately disinfected, on the road5.
In Thessaloniki, Greece, people want more buses:
To keep pace with these demands, mobility organizations will need to be more than merely environmentally friendly. Zero emissions are, of course, everyone’s goal. But replacing 1,000 diesel buses with 1,000 electric buses may not, in fact, be the most sustainable solution. It’s already clear that rather than building new infrastructure many organizations could make significantly better use of what they already have. By leveraging intelligent technologies—AI, sensors, apps—they could both optimize fleets and deliver a better service.
That, however, also requires the adoption of a new mindset: agile, experimental and data driven.
- Agile. Organizations should be flexible enough to scale service provision up or down in response to real-time demand—a tall order, especially when mass transit and very large numbers of people are involved. Yet if organizations could connect with passengers in real time, they could respond much faster. Customer apps are key to such network agility. Consider, for instance, trafi, which powers (among others) Berlin’s jelbi, an app that enables passengers to navigate the city’s entire public transport and vehicle sharing services, end to end, and provides transport authorities with valuable feedback6. Consider too iomob’s inclusive approach to achieving net zero carbon journeys. The app includes car owners and allows third parties to make carbon offsets subsidize bike-sharing and other low carbon projects7.
Real-time connectivity with customers presents an opportunity to “live-test” interventions and iterate or prototype on the constantly evolving transport network rather than on a spreadsheet. In Ohio, the Smart Columbus Operating System serves as an open data platform for the region, syndicating public, anonymized open data accessible to other city agencies, academic researchers, startups and app developers and the community at large. It currently stores over 3000 datasets including traffic characteristics, city infrastructure inventory, crash records, weather readings, emergency response times, food services, parking locations and health behaviors8.
- Data driven.
Sustainable urban mobility requires flexible network planning, scheduling and operations; in short, interoperability. Right now, network planning is usually a once- or twice-yearly process, sclerotic and slow. And turning operations into a self-optimizing machine totally in tune with passenger needs as they change, will be challenging to pull off at scale. Once again, however, data and intelligent technologies can help. Israel-based Optibus, for example, uses AI to enable network planning and scheduling that can help squeeze more out of large numbers of existing assets9. While in Sydney, Australia, the government of New South Wales is partnering with Q-CTRL to investigate how quantum computing technology can create and manage a more resilient transport network10.
A sustainable start
Agility, innovation and data are the critical ingredients of truly sustainable urban mobility ecosystems. But how do you start to build such systems?
We recommend three first steps: