February 15, 2018

“Public transport is at a turning point in its evolution”

Written by  Mohamed Mezghani
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Mohamed Mezghani, who took over as secretary general of the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) on January 1, outlines the trends and challenges that the public transport sector faces at what he feels is a critical juncture for global urban mobility.

DEMAND for mobility is growing. As populations continue to increase and more and more people descend on cities to seek employment and opportunity, the pressure is mounting on urban infrastructure.

Many large infrastructure projects are underway to meet this need. Most notably in India and China, but also in other cities across all six continents.

However, building infrastructure is not enough. It is also important to manage demand to make sure that these systems are used effectively, especially in countries where car ownership is growing rapidly.

MezghaniWhile increased digitalisation can help public transport authorities achieve this, it is leading to the growing development of flexible mobility services and platforms. Ride-hailing and ride-sharing apps, which contribute to the rapid growth of on-demand transport, are challenging conventional public transport.

Yet on-demand transport by itself will never succeed in satisfying the full mobility needs of large and medium-sized cities. Whether we like it or not, this is a paradigm change that requires public transport to encompass both conventional mass transit and on-demand transport such as bike-sharing and ride-hailing services. This evolution will have an impact on governance, business models, and service to customers, employment and more. For this reason, I believe that public transport is at a turning point in its evolution.

Several trends will dictate this continuing evolution over the next five years.

Digitalisation will remain the main trend affecting urban mobility at different levels: from the relationship with the customer, from whom data is collected and exploited, to service operation and maintenance.

Electric vehicles, both buses and cars, supported by regulations aiming to limit air pollution, will grow rapidly. Simultaneously there will be ever greater restrictions on car traffic and parking in favour of cycling and walking. We will also see the first regulation of dockless bike sharing to avoid wild parking.

We also expect the continuing development of autonomous vehicles and more shared driverless shuttles which integrate with public transport networks. The first trials of applying blockchain technology in mobility services for shared services and for ticketing are also expected. And with gender politics becoming an increasing global concern, we expect to see more commitments and probably regulatory instruments to ensure women’s security and safety in public transport.

There are also likely to be changes in the public transport ecosystem as certain actors strengthen and others lose ground. Indeed, a major challenge the industry faces is the growing multiplicity of players, from different industrial origins, looking to capture the potential value in the mobility market.

The public transport industry is used to dealing with very few stakeholders in each city: an authority, one or more conventional mass transit operators, and the supply sector. However, the emergence of new players such as tech companies, power utilities due to the growth in electro mobility, and the strategic repositioning of others such as the automotive industry, are redefining traditional roles and powers and challenging the existing regulatory framework. Traditional public transport operators are similarly diversifying their activities and changing their approach by increasingly exploring partnerships with start-ups.

In this climate, public transport operators must not lose sight of a second major challenge: the capacity of the industry to answer the growing demand for mobility.

Race against time

Designing and building a mass transit line still takes years to complete. But with traffic congestion continuing to increase, we need to find ways to shorten timelines for delivering public transport systems - whether this is through reducing the bureaucracy relating to tenders, or working in partnership with suppliers and system providers. First and foremost, though, we need to be creative and innovative. It is a race against time.

Digitalisation is increasing the customer’s expectations of public transport’s capabilities. Having sufficient people with the correct skill sets to build, manage, operate, and maintain the network is therefore critical to provide the expected level and quality of service.

New technologies are inevitably changing both professions and expectations over issues such as security. Some jobs may soon become obsolete while others are being created which require skills that are not traditionally associated with the public transport sector.

Public transport needs to create a positive image for itself and carve out a reputable ‘employer brand,’ which inspires data scientists, software engineers, and telecoms experts to consider a career in the industry. This is imperative given the already strained labour market.

Attracting the right talent and skills is a global challenge and we need to encourage a radically new business process organisation. We also need to consider the long-term relationship between operators and suppliers.

This is again particularly apparent when it comes to digitalisation. The industry clearly understands the benefits of digitalisation - notably the increased reliability (RAMS) and cost-effectiveness offered by the wide deployment of big data and the internet of things to assets, both fixed and mobile. There are also many examples of smart operation and enhanced maintenance.

On the service supply side, most operators now recognise the necessity of embracing new digital mobility options. Some operators are engaging in strategic alliances with digital companies, with many acquiring stakes in these firms as well as building up their own solutions. Trial and error is in use to a certain extent, which is unavoidable, particularly given the emergence of a completely new mobility ecosystem, in which traditional public transport stakeholders must maintain a leading role.

Suppliers are also engaged in this process. A company like Alstom is becoming less and less a railway company. This may not yet translate in terms of turnover, but their strategic decisions show a new positioning and understanding of the market.

Technical challenges

Yet a number of technical challenges remain to completely embrace the benefits afforded by digitalisation. For instance, we are currently seeing the deployment of very fragmented solutions and tools, which are often linked to specific suppliers. To be truly effective, there is a need to integrate multiple source data into larger and open suites.

One example of this is the ITxPT initiative, which is a spin-off of the European Bus of the Future project. This standardised architecture for onboard software attracted the attention of several rail suppliers, which have joined the platform. Cyber security is another critical issue to understand and manage, along with the availability of secured communication bandwidth for vital and non-vital data communication. This is essential for the future of train operation and the UITP is working hard to ensure that rail’s needs are understood and recognised by telecoms regulators and the ITS industry.

Greater standardisation is also crucial if we are to deliver improved integration between different transport modes and offer a truly seamless door-to-door travel experience, defined by a single ticket and information system, and with short and convenient transfers. Each time a new technology improving the service to customers is developed, there must be a consensus to say that it must also improve integration. It has been the case with contactless ticketing, journey planners, and the numerous apps helping to navigate through the network. And it is continuing with the development of on-demand and shared transport.

But these are only tools. They can make integration easier to implement but they don’t deliver integrated services spontaneously. What is needed is a governance framework that formalises integration by providing the appropriate conditions to make the different pieces of the puzzle fit. It is essential that mass transit modes are fully coordinated in a unique network and that any new mobility service is integrated under the same system. This will make it easier to travel door-to-door using the best combination of modes and services.

By offering mobility packages which combine mass transit, on-demand transport, shared modes and car rental, Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is a remarkable approach towards full integration. Cities such as Hannover and Gothenburg, led by their respective transport authorities, have pioneered the deployment of MaaS. It will be interesting to see its impact in Helsinki and the British West Midlands where the business models for the platform are very different.

Inspired

I feel lucky during my professional life to have witnessed events that have proven significant in the growth and development of public transport. Bogotà’s BRT development, which has inspired many other cities, is one, along with the birth of automatic metros with the Vancouver Skytrain and VAL in Lille, and the automation of conventional metros in Paris and Nuremberg. Hong Kong’s Octopus smart card platform has become popular all over the world since it was rolled out in the 1990s, while Singapore pioneered the congestion charge in the 1980s, which has since been imitated in London, Milan and Stockholm.

More recently the emergence of electric buses, and now autonomous vehicles, is changing our approach to mobility. I also believe the growing prevalence of shared and on-demand mobility systems are a turning point in our field.

Similarly, I have had the opportunity to follow closely the stages of the evolution of urban transport in Dubai, Moscow and London. Here I have come to realise how political will is essential in our sector, whatever the institutional context.

Indeed, in spite of the numerous innovations, there are fundamental aspects that haven’t changed over the years. Only a handful of mayors and politicians have dared to take courageous decisions to implement policies restricting car use and which give priority to public transport. Unfortunately, too many are still sceptical about the benefits for the environment, society and the economy.

As we enter this critical period of rapid urbanisation and demand for mobility in a society increasingly concerned about global warming and energy use, we need to engage with politicians more, and repeat more or less the same message that has been conveyed since the first oil shock in 1973: that public transport is the best means to save energy.

Strong political will is a must, but too often politicians are focusing on short-term actions which deliver results during their elective mandate, rather than thinking about what will benefit the city in the long-term. We must change this outlook.

 

Profile: Mohamed Mezghani

MOHAMED Mezghani was appointed secretary general of the UITP on January 1, succeeding Alain Flausch. Mezghani has more than 25 years of experience in public transport, including the past 18 years at the UITP, where he served as deputy secretary general since 2014, and previously as knowledge director and head of department. He set up the Centre for Training in 2014, and was responsible for the extensive development of the MENA office’s activities, working in Dubai for four years. Previously, Mezghani worked as an independent consultant and adviser to the UITP on technical assistance and training projects in Africa and the Middle East. Mezghani has dual Tunisian- French nationality, and graduated with a degree in Industrial Engineering (1987) from Ecole Nationale d’Ingénieurs de Tunis, Tunisia. He also has a Masters in Transport (1988) from Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées, Paris, France.