Why public transport is getting personal: Christopher Niesche

Why public transport is getting personal: Christopher Niesche
Why public transport is getting personal: Christopher Niesche

As Australian cities grow larger – and denser – pressure is increasing on public transport infrastructure to address congestion, meet new demand and ensure our cities capitalise on the benefits of population growth.

Transport planners are responding by providing personalised journeys, incorporating ride-share services and partnering with the private sector to induce more people to take public transport and help governments make the most of existing transport assets.

Two key trends are influencing the way that public transport is being built, says Terry Lee-Williams, strategic transport advisor at engineering firm ARUP.

The first is a recognition from planners and policymakers that public transport is a better investment in terms of driving economic growth than more highway capacity. This has led to an “explosion in investment” in heavy rail, high capacity bus, and tram and light rail services.

Secondly, there is a focus on personalisation, which is giving rise to mobility-as-a-service – the integration of various forms of transport services into a single mobility service accessible on demand, often via an app.

“How can you make the individual feel like their needs are being catered for?” Lee-Williams says. By encouraging people to make choices that are in the greater public and economic interest, rather than making choices which are solely about their comfort, which tend not to have the same economic benefit, he explains. Chief among these choices is the decision as to whether or not they drive their own car for a journey, instead of taking public or shared transport.

Planners in cities, including Helsinki, Stockholm, Vienna and Austin, are focused on mobility-as-a-service and how to make it work, with the dual purpose of providing convenience for citizens and, importantly, extending the life of transport assets.

Nudging people out of their cars is a central aim and on-demand services form an important part of public transport strategy, even for mass transit services. “With rail obviously that's a challenge, because a train carries between 800 and 2000 people depending on its size,” says Lee-Williams.

In Sydney, the solution is the new Metro rail service, which will ultimately connect the north-west region with the south-west via the CBD and will have trains arrive every four minutes. “If you have a train every four minutes, that's as close to on-demand as you ever need to get. Frequency is the substitute for personalised demand-driven service in the rail space,” Lee-Williams says.

On-demand services fill in the last mile

The Victorian government is building a similar metro system in Melbourne. The Suburban Rail Loop will be in addition to the existing ‘hub and spoke’ rail lines connecting the suburbs with the CBD – instead it links the city’s middle suburbs in a loop around the CBD.

Despite the interest in new public transport applications and infrastructure, Lee-Williams isn’t certain that investing in new transport applications makes good sense. “There's a lot of venture capital being burnt through off the back of people thinking that these are solutions, when they haven't defined what problem they are solving,” he says.

Uber, for instance, is burning through cash and is yet to turn a profit, despite its huge take up around the world and its disruption of the taxi and automotive sectors.

More opportunities come from the development of land that has been opened up to a larger population as a result of new mass-transit infrastructure, or from developing the land and airspace above a railway station, which is valuable real estate because of its convenience.

States including Queensland, Victoria and NSW are using the mobility-as-a-service model for on-demand public transport, which allows users to book a shared ride from their home or office or another location in a similar way that people book Uber. Unlike Uber, however, it operates in a specific geographic area and is designed to fill in gaps to work with the existing public transport services, as well as offer customers a better service.

In particular, passengers are provided with what’s known as a ‘last-mile’ service, where they are picked up from their homes, or another location, and dropped at a transport hub such as a train station or a bus stop from where they can use a mass-transit service. The idea is that the convenience will induce more people to leave the car at home and take public transport instead.

Seamlessly stitching ride share and mass transit together

In Sydney, private sector-owned Keolis Downer, GoGet cars and Transport for NSW have teamed up to trial on-demand services in two locations, known as Keoride.

In the Northern Beaches, Keoride provides first and last mile connections from Palm Beach to North Narrabeen to bus stops on the Northern Beaches B-Line using GoGet passenger cars. In Macquarie Park in the city’s northwest, Keoride operates a service to transport workers living within the Macquarie Park employment precinct using small vans and shuttles. 

These services help the existing public transport system do more with less, says Sue Wiblin, Manager of New Mobilities at Keolis Downer.

For instance, the service is flexible and adapts its itinerary in real-time, based on customer demand. The journey is more efficient and convenient for travellers.

“What that means for the public transport authority, is that you can build patronage in a way that you could never do with the old service. You’re creating more revenue, not only to your own demand leg but into your network generally,” says Wiblin.

The services – which commuters pay for the with same Opal card as they use for bus and rail travel – cost about the same as a bus or train fare and are subsidised by the government. Wiblin says all public transport services need some sort of subsidy and on-demand transport is no exception.

For instance, the Northern Beaches service operates with about the same sort of subsidy as a low-performing bus route would receive. “You can replace a low-frequency, low-performing bus route with an on-demand service for about the same price,” she says.

Additionally, such services can significantly increase patronage and thereby reduce the cost per passenger. They also help get more cars off the roads.

For customers, the ability to travel when and where they want is a big benefit. It contributes to changing the perception of public transport and encourages more people out of their cars. It also creates more social inclusion by helping people who might otherwise be stuck at home get out and about, says Wiblin.

Governments seek private sector involvement

Underpinning new transport systems globally will be developments in mobile phone apps, which seamlessly sew the various mass transit and ride-share transport legs together, allowing the consumer to automatically plan and pay for their trips.

“At the end of the day, it is all about convenience and being able to access different opportunities in the most convenient and cost-effective manner,” says Praveen Thakur, Lead Partner for InfraTech and Future Mobility at KPMG in Australia.

The apps incorporate both private and public sector transport legs and represent a coming together of the two previously separate parts of the transport infrastructure. “If having the private sector involved provides a better outcome for citizens, then that is a good approach for the public sector or the government to pursue,” says Thakur.

There’s also another advantage, says Thakur. The more public transport authorities can incorporate private transport, the more they are able to squeeze out of existing transport assets and the longer they can delay the cost of upgrading.

Transport for NSW is taking such an approach. By opening up its trip and scheduling data to the private sector, it’s giving developers the chance to provide new services. “We're trying to achieve better outcomes for customers, and really it's finding the right capability to be able to do that,” says Micah Starkis, Director of Open Data Apps and Innovation at Transport for NSW.

One recent success is the TripView app, which provides travellers with a range of trip-planning and timetabling services on their phones, including the ability to see how much space there will be on the next bus and the expected arrival time at their destination.

Data-sharing with the private sector is part of an increasing willingness of government transport operators to work with the private sector, both in the digital world and in incorporating private sector transport legs such as ride-shares into journeys.

The data also helps transport operators optimise the use of their networks to make them run more efficiently and respond to customer demands. “There's only so many cars that can fit on the road, and we’re continuously working on ways to optimise the network more effectively to manage the growing population,” says Starkis.

Ultimately, it’s about getting more people from A to B with mass public transport as the main pillar. “What we're really focusing on at the moment is delivering services that are more convenient, so customers have a viable alternative to taking single passenger car trips,” he says.

“With concepts like mobility as a service, if you can go to one app and just walk out the front door, it's suddenly more convenient to use your phone and an app than to walk to your garage and jump into your car.”

Christopher Niesche is a a business journalist and content producer.

This was first published on Westpac IQ

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