Smart Transport: Moving from assets to citizens

Shamit Gaiger

Writing for Smart Transport journal, strategic transport leader Shamit Gaiger argues for transport planners and decision-makers to develop innovative smart transport solutions that focus on tackling user challenges and service improvements, arising from shifting economic, social and demographic changes.

Like many sectors, transport is being transformed. Automation, robotics and digital technologies — such as Artificial Intelligence — are revolutionising transport modes, data analytics and the customer experience. Building on these trends, several disruptive business models are emerging to challenge existing transport solutions and systems. Capitalising on the shift to a sharing (asset-light), information-rich, digital market, companies, such as Lyft and Sharoo, are growing year on year in cities. This is alongside UBER and Citymapper who have taken a significant share of the transport market globally. While Tesla, targeting customers looking for a premium experience, secured a £1,000 deposit from 400,000 customers in the first week of their Tesla Model 3 launch.

As a result, much of the debate about future transport has focused on the impact of these innovations rather than user challenges and transport outcomes reflective of wider, ongoing, structural economic and social changes.

A changing population

According to the King’s Fund, the population aged over 85 in England is set to increase by 106 per cent between 2010 and 2032, with the combined share of the population over 65 growing faster than those of working age. At the same time, more people — especially those under 65 — are moving to live in urban areas, which means that our rural populations are getting older and growing more slowly.

Together, these demographic changes, alongside other economic and lifestyle factors, are combining to change the ways in which we live, work and connect with each other.

For example, the number of one-parent households in Great Britain has tripled since 1971. In addition, more young people are entering the job market later, extending their time in formal education, as well as needing to work longer and continue to retrain throughout their careers, due to the rise in the state pension age.

The rise of the flexible workforce

Economically, the fourth industrial revolution promises to boost productivity, yet is also likely to reduce employment in some industries and broaden income distribution. As workers and consumers, we’re already seeing its impact, with the emergence of the sharing (asset-light), information-rich, gig economy.

Our workforce and work patterns are becoming more flexible. A Forbes study estimates that, “One-third of all workers are freelancers.” And, by 2020, it projected that “half of us will be [working] in the gig economy”.  While, increasingly, consumers expect to access what they need, be it information, goods or services, at the touch of a button, with often devastating consequences for the high street. For the first time in 2017, footfall to public places reduced by three per cent. Crucially, with the public’s trust in institutions continuing to decline, consumers are turning away from what they perceive to be ‘marketing’ to rely on a smaller group of influencers, who have high credibility, for information.

All these forces will impact significantly on people’s travel behaviour, transport solutions and community needs. For example, it’s likely that travel for leisure will increase in the years ahead, but any such rise needs to be balanced against income distribution and the reality that self-employed workers typically make less than half the number of trips compared to full-time PAYE employees.

Such is the speed of these changes that policy makers and regulators are running to catch up. But once the policy direction is set, transport’s next big shift is likely — with disruptive technologies coming of age — to only increase in speed.

To stay ahead of the curve and secure value for money, therefore, it’s imperative that transport planners, consultants and providers consider the following strategic approaches:

1/ Be solution agnostic

Although important, too much of a focus on the latest technologies and innovations can distract us from identifying travel solutions that responds to citizen needs, changing lifestyles and travel behaviours. In other words, the industry conversation must move beyond debating certain assets/solutions to become solution agnostic. Transport is not an aim in and of itself, rather it’s a powerful enabler to access employment, education, leisure activities, opportunities, goods and services. Especially for those individuals and communities sometimes underserved by public and private mobility solutions. This includes women, whose travel patterns don’t always match fixed routes and schedules, older people, and those with low incomes, with disabilities or living in rural areas. As part of this, a move to describe transport in the context of accessibility rather than mobility is essential.

2/ Know your customers and potential customers intimately

To ensure transport investment is centered around citizens and communities’ changing travel needs and behaviours, decision makers need to improve their understanding of who exactly their current and potential customers are. Insurance, retail and supermarket businesses do this well. For example, using the masses of data now available, they can predict their customers’ behaviour in detail. Transport consultants, planners and providers need to work to develop that depth of insight.  This includes understanding not just how people might travel but also why, recognising that every citizen will have different reasons and expectations for different trips at different times of the day on transport systems.

3/ Take a more holistic approach

Traditionally, the transport investment and/or planning process has focused primarily on improving service levels or producing analysis to accommodate a fixed estimate of future travel demand/activity. To ensure transport objectives continue to evolve in line with future community needs and priorities, the process will need to open up and integrate other disciplines. This could include: land-use planning, housing, industrial strategy and economic growth; and environmental (noise, congestion, air quality), climate change (with over 100 councils passing climate emergency motions so far), energy and agriculture policy. In addition, it could also involve expertise covering health and wellbeing, equality, safe neighbourhoods; and access to jobs, schools, leisure and healthcare.

Most importantly, this kind of holistic approach will help to identify the competing objectives, trade-offs and priorities that need to be clarified and addressed to futureproof transport solutions.

4/ Break down silos

For that to work, we need to break down the silos in which many across the industry still work. Insular and fragmented ‘structures’ restrict information flow and make it hard to coordinate action and adapt to change, often leading to delays, escalating cost and, ultimately, sub-optimal solutions.

A business case/application often goes from department to department, office to office, with each separately looking at the proposal only from their silo’s perspective — without understanding, or even necessarily caring about, the trade-offs between different departmental objectives. It can be very easy for this kind of review to generate a long list of department-specific concerns, prohibitions and “must haves” or worse still ignore it all together. It’s also easy to miss the larger opportunities and the potential overlapping aspirations of other departments. This is not helped by fragmented and, at times, conflicted local and national policy frameworks and priorities that can make complex transport investment decisions even more complicated.

Tearing down the figurative walls between disciplines and departments and building better multidisciplinary partnerships is necessary for better planned, designed and delivered transport systems. It involves partnering and bringing the different disciplines together, alongside citizens, to focus on community needs and the challenges involved, from the initial concept developing a SHARED multidisciplinarian vision, objectives, and clear outcomes.  As most transportation decisions are societal choices informed by subjective as well as objective rationales, it is important that priorities are set, and trade-offs accepted.

To this end, breaking down silos between departments and disciplines is more than just process restructuring — it takes a real culture change.

A futureproof way of working

To stay relevant in the face of increasingly accelerated disruption, decision makers need to rethink how they develop transport solutions and acknowledgment that the transportation decision process involves clarifying changing community and citizen needs and balancing competing objectives, not pursuing the correct engineering “solution”, but being solution agnostic. That kind of transformation requires a collaborative effort from all policy areas, businesses and government departments alike, no matter how different their processes, systems, and cultures have been in the past. If we’re not there yet, we must keep working at it, every day. It’s a perspective and culture that can take significant energy to achieve and great attention to maintain. We need to become a citizen-focused industry, working together across policy setting, strategy, implementation and operation to deliver the transformative shift required to ensure that our transport solutions are relevant, accessible and affordable.

As a sector that is focused on speed, let’s make sure we transform our approach in time.

This article originally appeared in Smart Transport Journal, September 2019.

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