Mobility: a major urban challenge

Throughout the world, transporting people is one of the major challenges in urban areas. Congestion not only has significant environmental impacts, but it is also having unprecedented economic and social consequences.

In Montréal alone, the financial impacts of traffic congestion are estimated at between $1.8 billion and $2.5 billion per year (source: Le Devoir). Given that by 2050 more than 66% of the world’s population will be living in cities (source: United Nations), there is a pressing need to rethink mobility.

In response to urban densification and the pressures created by the need for transportation, new services, products and business models are emerging that seek to contribute to better urban mobility. On-demand transportation services, of which Uber has become emblematic, are attempting to maximize the utilisation of existing assets owned by individuals. The automobile industry, long in decline, is now in an accelerated innovation phase. It seems that mass marketing of autonomous vehicles will become a reality much sooner than most experts expected. This surge in innovation is no longer being led only by car makers, but also by important players in the technology industry, whose financial resources seem almost limitless. Finally, the integration of all mobility services into a single commercial offering – the Mobility as a Service model – is moving from the drawing board into real life.

Public transit organizations are confronted with an entirely new reality. These key players in mobility, which have often been in place for decades, know that their role has to evolve and they are asking themselves questions as a result.

But how can public transit authorities and agencies better position themselves to become mobility managers for their region?

How can they achieve their primary mission as transporters of people in a dynamic ecosystem where new technologies, new players and new business models bump up against each other?

1. Adopt a Door-to-Door Vision of Mobility

In recent years, the public transit industry has made considerable efforts to put its customers first and improve the quality of the services available to them. One need only think of the advancements in customer information, electronic ticketing, social networks and a whole range of other services intended to improve the customer experience.

However, in a context of increasing multimodality, an individual service provider’s customer focus could have the unwanted side effect of undermining the vision of integrated mobility. Of course, every business, whether public or private, needs to provide high-quality customer service. Nevertheless, today’s mobility offering is more complex, diversified, and in greater flux than in previous years. In addition, people’s mobility habits are changing rapidly. With this perspective, could a single-minded focus on a particular service provider’s “customer” be counter-productive? If a train is late, but the bus waiting for it at the station leaves on time with the intention of providing good service, does it really improve the passengers’ experience? Should public transit companies, who historically have been evaluated on passenger load and on-time performance, adopt new mobility performance indicators such as the seamlessness of transfers, total travel time or the overall experience of passengers in a context of door-to door transportation? This question may not be new, but it is now as relevant as ever.

With a view to improving service, it is important for public transit organizations to adopt an overall vision of people’s mobility and that they broaden their concept of mobility to extend beyond the limits of public transit. They must take into account the passengers’ overall travel chain – which will include using traditional public transit such as bus, metro or train as well as other modes such as on-demand services and self-service vehicles – and even, to a certain extent, the private automobile. By adopting a complete vision of the situation, it opens up a new mindset in which public transit is the backbone of tomorrow’s mobility.

2. Plan an Integrated Offering that Goes beyond Traditional Public Transit Services

This broadened vision can come about, in part, by planning a public transit offering that takes greater account of the entire mobility ecosystem and passengers’ overall travel chain. A few years ago, when the transportation offering was less diversified, public transit planning was focused inward: that is to say, with the aim of offering a level of service balanced between demand, the availability of resources, and the territory to be covered. This is still true today, but the new mobility ecosystems open up new opportunities for public transit organizations to rethink their offering.

If a territory (e.g. an industrial zone) has reduced demand in the evening or on weekends, is it not more appropriate and efficient for taxis or on-demand services to provide coverage, rather than traditional buses? And if such services are already in place, are they optimal? Could a public transit company convert certain fixed bus routes into on-demand services, such as Helsinki’s experiment with the Kutsuplus service? Or could it enter into arrangements with providers of services such as Uber, Lyft or Bridj to round out its service offering? In fact, GIRO is helping some of its clients to examine these issues and experiments are under way.

Redesigning the offering in this way has the potential to free up resources to increase the level of service where demand is strongest, for example, on major arteries during the rush hour. Applying a new integrated vision of mobility can begin upstream. Of course, there are many challenges. It is essential for the integration of new services to be carried out within a valid regulatory framework, paying attention to social equity and with a view to optimizing human, financial, and technical resources.

3. Optimize the Overall Travel Chain for Effective Mobility

The expansion in the transportation offering, whether public or private, increases the pressure on the travel chain. The use of public transit usually fits into a broader sequence. A user might, for example, drive to the station, board a train and then either walk to their destination or take the metro or bus. Each change of mode has the potential to break the travel chain, reducing mobility and having a negative impact on the passenger experience. It is therefore essential to ensure smoother intermodal transfers, whether they only involve public transit or not. It is important to bear in mind that solo driving, even though it has its share of inconveniences, generally offers uninterrupted travel. With the advent of autonomous vehicles, if they are promoted with the promise of even greater freedom, this perception of unimpeded travel could be intensified.

Today, new technologies and optimization engines are available to public transit organizations to minimize the impact of intermodal transfers. By combining the use of these optimizers with the data-processing capabilities of the most recent platforms, service can now be adjusted so that overall travel time including transfers can be minimized. Such an exercise used to be difficult or even impossible for large networks, but it can now be carried out regularly as the transportation offering evolves. The result is a more integrated, seamless and optimized public transit service. For example, some tools will be able to “learn” passengers’ habits in order to optimize their multimodal trips. Or operators will be able to offer services to passengers with reduced mobility by combining paratransit with “traditional” public transit for a single trip.

4. Adopt a Culture of Innovation that Creates New Practices, Services and Tools

The best-known companies in the world are those that have adopted a culture of innovation. Companies such as Apple, Facebook, Airbnb and Amazon have all revolutionized their respective industries’ business models as well as their offerings. In transportation it is Uber, Tesla and Google who have become the symbols of the new mobility. Of course, these are private businesses whose financial capacity is much greater than that of public transit organizations, which are largely financed by the state.

Nevertheless, these industry leaders are adopting approaches that could be of benefit to public transit. They engage in a continuous process of experimentation, which at times is highly successful and at other times less so. These companies are betting that the benefit to their clients from their innovations outweighs any inconveniences. They take the view that tolerance for risk can increase as a result of perceived value. The public transit industry is now presented with a unique opportunity to redefine itself and take a more innovative and entrepreneurial attitude. Public transit organizations have the possibility to embrace innovation as a lever of transformation and position themselves as mobility leaders in their own regions.

Never before has transportation been such a core concern for people, cities and key players in the industry. Public transit organizations are faced with an extraordinary opportunity to play an increased role in improving mobility. By adopting a broader vision, a culture of innovation and by using the most recent technological advances, public transit organizations will be in an excellent position to act as mobility managers in their regions and to structure the transportation ecosystem for the coming decades.

Note on the author: Alexandre Savard is a Senior Manager at GIRO, a Canadian company that is a world leader in software solutions for planning, optimization and operations management for public transit and postal organizations. In business for over 35 years, GIRO supports more than 300 organizations in more than 25 countries and employs more than 350 specialists.

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Source: Canadian Urban Transit Association (

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