Macro trends affecting public transportation

Patrik Anderson

Public transport is the lifeblood of a city, moving millions of inhabitants to their destinations and connecting different boroughs. To put the number of people relying on public transport into perspective, in 2016, the average weekday New York subway ridership was 5.7 million. If public transport were to cease, the city would seize up.

Yet even though public transport is vitally important to a city being able to function, it is not immune from emerging trends encouraging it to adapt. In this post I examine some of the macro trends identified by the UITP (International Association of Public Transport) in its Public Transport Trends report, how they are impacting modern day public travel, and new solutions that may be used to help future public transport run efficiently.

A new wave of travel for an online society

Like it or not we live in an on-demand society where consumers want the services they need, as they need them, at the swipe of an app – and expect them to run as efficiently as possible. We are seeing this trend spread to public transport services with mobility as a service, or MaaS.

There are various definitions and development stages of MaaS around the world today. One is that MaaS brings all kinds of transport together into a single service via intuitive mobile phone apps. These apps allow both planning and payments, for various transport options from different providers, to be conveniently managed in one place.

Another part of MaaS, is that it may include monthly subscription-based journeys or on-demand travel services that are reactive rather than passive and flexible rather than scheduled. They may not even need fixed routes, infrastructure or fleets to run. From a traveller perspective this is very attractive, whereas for city planners and system collaborations in the back-end, this presents a new challenge. To solve this, there are many examples of private and public collaborations, both on the transport service as such as well as from a system connectivity perspective to visualize the options to presumptive travellers.

Another related new transportation concept that is making planners re-think public transport is the rise of connected autonomous vehicles, which operate without drivers. While this can save money in the public transport sector, without human influence on where the vehicle goes – for example if there is a need to close a road and operate diversions – problems could arise.

Autonomous public transport, coupled with MaaS, is natural step in the coming years, as the autonomous vehicle tests begin to move into production.

But how would we address the issues around planning and implementation? Such a scheme would rely heavily on data and analytics to determine the most effective route to efficiently accommodate those wishing to use the service. Further, operative help in real-time to remotely control the self-driving vehicles as they encounter unexpected disruptions that the autonomous on-board control system cannot manage.  One way to achieve this is through remote video surveillance taken on-board the autonomous vehicles, which feeds into monitored central traffic management centers.

The eco issue

The UITP report also identified the rise of motorbikes in lots of cities and the impact this is having on the environment. The UITP advises taking measures to encourage those looking at motorbikes as a regular city travel option to instead choose public transportation. But then there are two additional issues: firstly, there are often not enough vehicles to meet the needs of the increasing number of city dwellers who might be looking to move to public transport, so more public vehicles will need to be put into the network. Secondly, a lot of legacy public transportation is very polluting in itself, which doesn’t help the climate situation.

To replace whole fleets with more eco-friendly vehicles would be very costly and probably unfeasible for most governments. While the additional vehicles could be better for the environment, the likelihood is there will still be large numbers of polluting vehicles carrying people around cities.

Reduce congestions to increase public transport efficiency

One way to tackle the issues stemming from the mix of the new trends and existing transport challenges is to decrease congestion and have a connected public travel system, through which public transportation vehicles and networks can communicate with one another.

This may sound costly, but if we look at smart city concepts, there are already cases where the public sector is collaborating with private businesses to help the city run more efficiently. Existing dedicated traffic camera solutions can be complemented by modern technology, such as IoT connected cameras from all sorts of businesses and stakeholders can be used to feed data in to a central system for multiple applications, including traffic management, without stretching the city’s budget too much.

By collating data from points all over the city, traffic flow can be vastly improved. Increased visibility into bottlenecks and pinch-points in the traffic flow can be managed across the day, ensuring busy routes don’t grind to a halt. For example, unplanned events such as a lorry spill will mean a road will be blocked for several hours. Once identified, a message could be pinged to all public transport vehicles so they can recalculate their routes based on GPS location data. If too many vehicles take an alternative route another message could be sent alerting other services that route is busy, so they should find an alternative, less congested way through. This smart traffic management helps to solve the issues around autonomous and flexible public transport vehicles getting stuck or lost while in service.

Smart analytics for a greener city

It goes without saying that if less public transport idles in jams, fewer fumes and pollution will be created. But there is another layer of environmental management that can be achieved by using smart analytics on connected cameras when paired with other devices in the network.

For example, the traffic statistics the camera network records, such as details of roadworks, deviations, accidents and congestion can be combined with 24/7 real-time data from connected weather stations to give readings on particles, gases, wind speed and wind direction. This big data could deliver an accurate analysis of the actual correlation between air quality and pollution sources. If authorities can assess the real-time impact of pollution caused by public transport and city traffic, they can manage it more efficiently. They can also, if needed, use real data as the basis to plan any countermeasures to reduce pollution in the city, making the measures more likely to be effective and thus spending budgets more effectual.

Of course, these examples are all hypothetical at present, but, as some of the Axis team discovered at Smart City World Expo 2017, it is something that is becoming more of a consideration by public service planners, including the public transport sector.

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