THE International Association of Public Transport (UITP) has been staging its bi-annual summits around the world since 1886. But for most of this period the rate of change has been relatively sedate, apart from during the 1950s and 1960s when an explosion in private motoring had a dramatic and often devastating impact on public transport and the urban landscape.

ARMA 19More recently, attitudes to public transport have swung back in its favour in the face of chronic urban congestion and rapidly worsening pollution. But we are now entering another period of profound change driven by technology which is transforming such things as fare collection, passenger information, and the way people use transport. This has created an environment for organisations like Uber to develop rapidly and is facilitating the introduction of autonomous road vehicles.

“Mobility has changed dramatically over the last 15 years,” Mr Alain Flausch, the UITP’s secretary general, told delegates attending IRJ’s International Railway Summit in Paris in February. “Now green and smart mobility is one of the top priorities for politicians. In cities it is about space and capacity, and people want 24-hour services. We know we are not always the best. Muscat in Oman is an example of a city of where it is very difficult to organise public transport. But the answer is not the car; we cannot flood our cities with cars.”

Flausch points to Copenhagen where he believes the Danes have got it right. Public transport accounts for 25% of mobility, cars another 25%, cycling 30% and walking the remaining 20%. “This makes it a pleasant city in which to live and work, with children playing in the streets again,” Flausch observes.

Autonomous vehicles

But the introduction of autonomous-driving cars could threaten the achievements in a city like Copenhagen if these vehicles become very easy and cheap to use, and the users no longer have to worry about parking as the vehicle will find somewhere to park on its own and return when summoned. Flausch has a nightmare vision of hundreds of empty autonomous vehicles (AVs) roaming the streets in search of a parking space, which is why he is advocating a managed approach to their introduction and use.

“We must convince people to make a shift to the shared use of AVs,” he says. “If we have sharing of AVs combined with public transport, we could reduce the number of cars on the roads by 90% and cut CO2 emissions. This is why we are advocating a partnership.

“Technology will allow us to aggregate the players on the market to create something that fits people’s needs. But we must be realistic, public transport is mass transport, and only public transport has the ability to move thousands of people quickly.

“When we move to AVs, we want it to be organised properly so that it doesn’t become a mess. We want to give users as many options as possible, especially in the developed world.

“We are trying to tell the industry not to be reluctant, but to take the lead and get into the driving seat.”

Flausch believes operators need to have a dual strategy for the future. Public transport needs to be automated as much as possible to enable it to operate as flexibly as possible, and much of the technology to do it already exists. Secondly, operators should obtain fleets of AVs which they would run themselves. The first trials are already underway with small AV buses. Paris Transport Authority (RATP) is operating an AV shuttle between two main line stations, for example. “Manufacturers would love to sell fleets of AVs initially, so we are trying to push the industry to get used to this idea,” Flausch told IRJ. “Operators could introduce a feeder service to a metro station or replace a bus route at night with AVs that are more flexible to operate. 70% of the cost of operating a bus is the driver, so the idea of running a bus late at night with only one or two passengers on board is crazy. Buses are too inflexible for such services.”

Some operators can already see the benefits of AVs. Singapore, for example, has difficulty in recruiting sufficient bus drivers, so AVs could be a solution. Indeed, Flausch argues that AVs could also be a way to extend the reach of Singapore’s rapidly-expanding automatic metro network by providing shuttles from outlying areas to metro stations. AVs are an opportunity for public transport to finally provide a comprehensive door-to-door service.

“We believe public transport operators in cities should take the lead and be the aggregator of systems in a city,” Flausch says. “There will be a learning curve - transport authorities will be afraid of running the show - but manufacturers could become operators.”

Flausch says the industry has already made significant progress in its outlook, and can do so again. “Before 2000, we were engineering driven and the customer was just a pain in the neck. Now we value the customer. As an industry, we are very good at getting money for capital investment, but we are not very good at generating revenue and being entrepreneurial.”

Flausch fears that the pace of change is much faster than transport authorities are currently able to cope with. “Public transport authorities and operators are not characterised by speed - it takes years to build a new metro line. Our challenge is to get the message through,” Flausch says. “In the new situation we could be dead in 10 years.” He says it is now time for action and to become a bit more aggressive.

“If we want to survive we must become agile in mind and muscle, and less risk averse.”


North American challenge

ALAIN Flausch regards the decision to stage the UITP’s latest summit in Montreal as a breakthrough in North America for the UITP. He believes its ability to exchange knowledge and best practice between its 1400 members in 96 countries could prove a real benefit to North American operators.

“We are not trying to create a new Apta,” Flausch explains. He says there are several old rail systems in the United States which are “in trouble” and need to be modernised. “They are suffering from the Buy America Act, and there is a lack of political support from the state capitals.”

“The reason why Uber is so strong in North America is because generally public transport is relatively poor,”
he says. “So we want to bring in some outside expertise.”