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Disruption ahead: personal mobility is breaking down old transport divides

New technology and real-time data are breaking down the old transport system silos. Jakub Kaminski/EPA

Disruption ahead: personal mobility is breaking down old transport divides

New technology and real-time data are breaking down the old transport system silos. Jakub Kaminski/EPA

Strong divisions between various transport modes – roads, rail, buses, ferries and so on – have dominated their planning and management for decades, in Australia and overseas. Budgets are often devised and allocated with these transport modes in mind. Whole organisational structures have been created to manage each mode’s infrastructure separately.

But how people move around – to and from work, home, or for recreation – involves personal journeys. These are driven by the need to travel, by mobility, and not governed by the mode of travel.

As a result, major Australian cities generally suffer from disjointed connections between modes of travel. They lack an overall emphasis on how the whole transport system functions to aid personal journeys.

Thankfully, transport planners have been thinking a lot more about mobility, as emerging and established technologies offer huge potential for change. The wealth of new data sources – mobile phone tracking, on-board GPS and ticketing, to name a few – provides a better understanding of travel behaviour.

Increasingly, cities are realising that individual travellers care less about the operational details of one mode or another, and more about a safe and reliable journey to their destination. Rapidly changing infrastructure technology and the availability of large passenger datasets are changing the way transport professionals plan and manage networks.

All change

In New South Wales, Transport for NSW was created to better integrate the various transport agencies and modes. While that has been a big step in the right direction, technology is changing the landscape much faster than anyone expected.

Technological advance, new transport infrastructure, a quest for greater productivity and continual population growth in major cities have created a dynamic environment for traffic engineers and transport planners. They must cater for the evolving demands of transport users while exploring and understanding emerging technologies.

Passenger expectations of what a transport network should provide have also changed and grown. Improvements in vehicle technology, road, rail and port infrastructure mean we can travel further and more efficiently than ever before. Commuters now expect this efficiency while taking safety and reliability as given.

Access through smartphones and navigation technology to mobility information about traffic conditions and scheduling has bridged the knowledge gap between transport authorities and users.

The advent of car-sharing services in Australia could transform parking and road space calculations. GoGet/AAP

On top of all this, disruptive travel options – for instance, car-sharing services such as GoGet and Hertz 24/7 – have emerged. Almost 31,000 Sydney residents have joined the two services. These use 700 dedicated parking spaces throughout the city (although heavily concentrated within 12 kilometres of the centre).

In Sydney, it’s estimated a single car-share vehicle can replace up to 12 private vehicles that would otherwise compete for parking. Then there are car-riding options such as Uber, which are creating entirely new modes of mobility.

Individually, each of us can now pick and choose between competing travel options. We can also shift our choices dynamically for each section of a trip. This simple change is radically altering the behavioural characteristics of making each trip.

That has huge implications for infrastructure planning. It also fundamentally alters the capability of transport agencies managing the system in real-time.

The shift in landscape may even disrupt one of the strongest historical divides: the competition between roads and public transport. With strong feelings on both sides, divisions have tended to impede more integrated approaches – which should be the aim of a transport system driven by the need for mobility.

Technology blurs the lines

Much of the public transport versus roads argument has been unnecessary because when more travellers choose public transport over private vehicles, the remaining drivers benefit as well. Despite this logic, the divisions remain and battles still rage.

However, the evolution of technology to accommodate (and help track) passenger behaviour, coupled with disruptive new travel options, is intensifying and will have to be taken into account. Companies are aggressively pursuing solutions for real-time on-demand ride-pooling, such as UberPOOL. This allows you to share your ride and split the cost with another Uber rider headed in the same direction.

It is not unthinkable that just as the taxi industry is being disrupted by new technology, public transport could be as well. In a world where the lines between private and public transport are blurred, traditional modal divisions move from being outdated to thoroughly unworkable.

If we rethink transport as a consumer-centred experience, targeting mobility rather than mode of travel, then a truly integrated approach to transport planning would deliver the benefits of using public transport and other high-occupancy vehicle options. Revenues from public transport would increase, while road congestion would reduce with fewer motorists. This would lead to greater productivity and economic growth.

Self-driving cars available to anyone with a smartphone have been launched in Singapore. EPA/Nutonomy

The technological changes under way will only accelerate this potential. Transport agencies need to plan for it, to ensure they take advantage of these changes and maximise the benefits.

Autonomous cars – an emerging technology that is nevertheless rapidly moving toward deployment – will accelerate this trend. If a self-driving car service offers transport solutions to anyone via smartphone, then the differences between a taxi, Uber, UberPOOL and public transport begin to blur.

A world of mobility choice

The transport sector is poised to realise a true – and revolutionary – convergence between data science, communication and autonomous technology. As large-scale data collection and sharing become the norm, our mobility options could explode.

Travellers will be able to make real-time multimodal journey decisions. They will base these decisions on the attributes that matter most to them: safety, reliability, door-to-door travel time and cost.

This will help transport planners too. The data generated will allow optimised operation of the road network such as variable speed limits, dynamic lane reversal, variable message signs and ramp metering.

Clearly, the emerging data science of transport technology innovation will have a deep impact on both the user experience and the behind-the-scenes management of the network.

Ideally, to deliver this “universal personalised mobility”, cities need to integrate pricing and information delivery. Every traveller makes their transport decisions for their own circumstances given the information available to them. This might include online journey information or roadside information about travel times, speed limits or tolls.

The complete cycle of information from the network to the operating agencies and back to the traveller is a keystone of the future transport system for Australian cities, and for cities around the world. The challenge for today is to close the information gap by building on emerging technologies and shifting our focus to providing personalised mobility travel.

That’s going to take some effort and a lot of co-ordination, but the benefits of mobility versus mode of travel will become obvious very quickly. We just need to commit to it.