January 20, 2016

Public transport must push home its advantage

Written by  Alain Flausch
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THE COP21 verdict is a boost to the future ability of public transport to meet the needs of growing urban populations, according to UITP secretary general Mr Alain Flausch.

Flausch says in the run-up to the Paris summit the UITP attempted to align attendees on the same message so they could make the right arguments in favour of public transport. However, with the agreement now in place, he is forthright that the sector cannot rest on its laurels and must continue to push for action.

"Most of the states understand that they have to do something to develop public transport," Flausch says. "The message went through and now we need to push for action. The whole idea as an advocate for public transport as a solution to climate change is for real progress to be made in 2016-17-18. We are pushing for this and for cities to adopt a real sense of urgency in developing their plans."

AFlauschFlausch admits that in some areas selling the benefits of public transport is often hard to achieve. While in cities like Vienna and Stockholm, public transport is considered the backbone of the city, and a service available to and used by all, it's a harder sell in other areas of the world. Despite progress in the past 15 years, he says the "glamour of the car," backed up by expensive advertising and grand product launches, continues to reign supreme. Owning a vehicle is considered a status symbol, even when it is not practical to use it because of intense traffic congestion.

"We need to promote the wider economic benefits of public transport and look at who public transport is for," Flausch says. "There is a perception that it is for poor people. However, public transport offers fantastic leverage for jobs and economic activity and many businesses are now basing their decisions on where to locate and are buying property due its proximity to public transit. This is helping cities to understand that this is the way to go."

As a result a priority for the UITP in 2016-17 is to improve the relationship between public transport providers and "the decision makers," an association that is often not as strong as it might be.

Flausch says that a city's long-term needs can be overlooked and, while planned, the projects that can deliver the required mobility benefits do not receive sufficient support to get off the drawing board.

"A major difficulty is that politicians are running for office and they want results next year, not in 20 years when they will not be around," Flausch says. "But then we have the issue that what we are delivering is too late to meet demand. If you add an extra lane to a road very soon it is full with traffic. It's the same if you build a new metro, the line is always full because people want to and will use these services."

Flausch says the UITP is attempting to bridge this gap by providing the forum where its members can access and share ideas with decision makers.

The UITP is also continuing to advocate its PTx2 policy to double public transport's modal share by 2025, using the success of some cities to inspire others, Flausch says there is no silver bullet for achieving PTx2. However, in general he says success does relate to a general understanding of the UITP's notion of Avoid, Shift and Improve.

'Avoid' recognises that cities should not be designed for a single mode of transport but instead offer a range of transport options, including last mile, and a regular round-the-clock service so people can always rely on public transport. It also emphasises densification in city design and living which will help to minimise commuting by reducing urban sprawl.

Flausch says that a close relationship between urban planners and public transport is integral to the success of this avoidance strategy. Munich public transport provider MVG has been very successful at this by communicating clearly with the city on the condition of the system and its future needs. Having cities and planners in tune with public transport needs can also result in policies like congestion charging. In addition, Flausch argues that following the recent fall in fuel prices, it is time for governments to end fuel subsidies.

"We need to move money that goes towards subsidising fossil fuels and use that money to develop renewal energy sources," he says. "Unfortunately there is still a lot of work to do to convince governments that this is the path they should take."

'Shift' relates to changes in how public transport companies perceive themselves, and how they are thought of by their passengers. Operators should look to become a complete service provider that improves lifestyles by utilising technology to offer a higher quality service.

Flausch says digitisation should force public transport companies to go back to basics by emphasising quality in their service offerings. And while the threat from electric and automated cars and other clean transport is very real, "a green traffic jam is still a traffic jam."

"In my opinion, we want to offer excellent, efficient and alternative service that gets new people onboard," Flausch says. "Technology is important when it can improve things and we should not be blind to this, but it is just a tool and not the core of our business."

Indeed the notion of 'improve,' while relevant to each of these points, extends to a public transport operator's culture and having a better understanding of passenger experience. As the industry heads into 2016 buoyed by the opportunities presented by COP21, this might be the place for public transport to start to give it the best chance to deliver on its potential.

"CEOs need to know more about what is going on," Flausch says. "Unfortunately too many are still using private cars to get around, even when they run a railway."

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