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The changing nature of public transport

9 April 2019
From our ‘Thinking outside the box’ series
The public transport industry has changed considerably recently with the emergence of trends such as personalisation and shared transport solutions, writes Professor John Nelson, Chair in Public Transport at ITLS.

The nature of public transport has changed considerably over recent decades with a gradual move away from the traditional focus on fixed route, fixed schedule bus services provided by large vehicles and heavily subsidised bus and rail services. With an increased passenger preference for personalisation of travel opportunities (initially encouraged by mass motorisation and now facilitated by ICT applications and the continuing improvement of Apps) and the emergence of shared transport solutions (what some have described as the “uberisation” of transport services), it is imperative that the public transport sector confronts the changing nature of the business and determines what the future of public transport could look like.

Public transport operators, policy makers and researchers can all contribute to the debate on the changing nature of public transport. One important component of this is to appreciate and build on the traditional ingredients of success. These are many and include good service design (for both fixed and on-demand services), awareness of and responsiveness to customer needs, deployment of technology as an enabler (bus operators were early adopters of vehicle locationing technologies), partnership working and the generation of considerable benefits for the economy, environment and society.

Another important component is to understand the external factors that are shaping the future of public transport, such as the emergence of the sharing economy which continues to disrupt traditional businesses (like public transport) and which has led to the blurring of the boundaries between public and private transport with the widespread emergence of the “new mobility modes” (such as car sharing, carpooling, ride sourcing etc). The external factors have been nicely captured by ITDP / UC Davis (2017)[1] as the “three revolutions in urban transportation” (the 3Rs) of electrification, automation and sharing and it behoves the public transport sector to draw out the potential benefits that arise from the juxtaposition of these influences. Given these developments it is not unreasonable to ask where public transport fits within the future of mobility.

In taking this future look we should also be mindful that the future for public transport in urban areas is likely to be very different to that in suburban/peri-urban environments. In the case of urban areas there will likely be greater emphasis on MaaS-type solutions which provide opportunities for public transport to be at the heart of the mobility offer and, if the ingredients are right, MaaS may defer the need for car ownership. As a simple example one might foresee, with the appropriate organisational arrangements in place, car sharing bringing much needed first / last mile connectivity solutions for journeys by public transport. Indeed, a public transport operator could also manage a fleet of car share vehicles, the subject of recent discussion in Europe.

For suburban areas there will be a need for more intermodal journeys perhaps involving car legs. It can be expected that car ownership will remain high, but the possibility exists for shared modes to be used to access public transport corridors – a point which is elaborated on below; and for autonomous vehicles to be used by public transport operators to serve traditionally hard to reach areas. The situation in rural areas will be different to urban and peri-urban areas; we can expert car ownership to still dominate and public transport increasingly to serve only main corridors to/between large cities. Local services, where they exist, will need to be heavily subsidised to serve socially excluded segments.

Some encouraging findings for suburban areas have recently been reported by the European Commission-funded SocialCar project which explored the evolution of intermodal journey planning that incorporates carpooling with public transport in the transition towards MaaS. A new journey planning App (known as RideMyRoute) allows users to discover and make connected journeys involving carpooling and public transport. Results from a trial of the RideMyRoute App in four European test sites (Canton Ticino, Brussels, Zagreb and Ljubljana) revealed that the App was able to suggest trip planning solutions which included carpool options for one in five journey planning solutions and that the majority (85%) of these were solutions that involved connection from carpool to public transport. This is a significant advance on what is currently available through existing carpool provider systems or journey planning apps/services since RideMyRoute generated almost seven times more travel solutions involving carpooling than carpool only systems. So, while spatial density remains a factor in finding suitable matches, it is much less so with the new App than with conventional carpool matching services. This means that carpool initiatives can be targeted more towards commuters who fit the ideal carpooler profile and who have access to direct routes or near-direct fast routes on public transport.

Might it be far-fetched to consider that the blurring of the boundaries between public and private transport should be seen as an opportunity not a threat?