Reimagining travel: how can data technologies create better journeys?

Light-streamed highways heading towards the city

By Steven McGinty

From steam trains to electric trains, bicycles to Segways, the transport sector is constantly innovating. Although much of the excitement revolves around high profile developments in self-driving vehicles and private space travel, there are many up-and-coming technologies that could make a great deal of difference to both transport professionals and the average traveller.

The driving force behind these innovations is data.  By gathering, analysing, processing and disseminating travel information, we can make better use of the transport infrastructure we have around us. Developing new technologies and business models that use transport data in innovative ways will be key to improving journeys and creating real benefits.

Managed Service Providers (MSPs)

Many companies – such as Masabi and Whim – currently offer ‘mobility-as-a-service’ apps that allow travellers to compare journeys on different modes of transport. Travel agents purchase tickets in bulk and monitor real time travel data from airports and other transport operators. And travellers can use ‘digital wallet’ services such as Google Wallet to store their tickets in their smartphones. However, these services can be complex to navigate, and don’t always offer travellers the option to update or change their tickets in real time. The MSP concept involves utilising the transport infrastructure that’s currently in place, but also providing travellers with the flexibility to change their planned journey if conditions change e.g. cancellation of a service.

There is also the potential for ‘insured travel’, where MSPs could guarantee that a traveller reaches their destination by a specific time. This, according to professional services firm KPMG, would be more complex, as it would require using big data analytics to estimate the risk of delay and pricing the journey accordingly. In Holland, travellers are already able to purchase insurance along with their railway ticket to Schiphol Airport. If a train is delayed – resulting in a traveller missing their flight – the rail operator will book them onto the next available flight.

Data and traffic management

The development of ‘connected cars’, which transmit real time location data, and greater coordination between smartphone and satnav providers, will mean that transport professionals will increasingly have access to a wide variety of travel information. As a result, a more ‘holistic approach’ can be taken to traffic management. For instance, public sector road managers could group drivers by certain routes, in order to avoid or worsen traffic congestion problems.

Cloud Amber is one of the most innovative companies working in this area. For example, their Icarus passenger information and fleet management solutions enable professionals to view real time locations of all vehicles within their fleet, integrate traffic congestion into predicting vehicle arrival times, and create reports replaying vehicle journeys.

Flexible resourcing at airport security

Gatwick Airport has been involved in trials which monitor data and gather intelligence on the traffic conditions which may affect passenger arrivals. KPMG have suggested that combining data on current travel conditions with historic data could lead to airports becoming better at predicting the demand at the arrival gates. Having this knowledge would support airports in providing appropriate staffing levels at arrival gates, which means fewer queues, and a better experience for travellers.

Public / private collaboration

Sir Nic Cary, head of digital transformation at the Department for Transport (DfT), has highlighted the need for the public sector to embrace new ways of working or ‘risk being led by Californian-based software companies.’

In his keynote speech at a recent infrastructure conference, he explained that the public sector needs to get more involved in digital transformation and to have a greater focus on user needs and working collaboratively.

As a good example of this, Cornwall Council recently engaged Idox’s digital agency Reading Room to look at how digital services could encourage existing car drivers to use public transport in a sustainable way. There was a particular interest in engaging with 18-25 year olds.

Cornwall is a county where over 78% of all journeys are taken by car – with only 1% of journeys taken by bus and 3% by train. Following Government Digital Services (GDS) guidelines, Reading Room embarked on a series of activities to understand how public transport is perceived by Cornish citizens.

The user research explored barriers discouraging them from using public transport; online/digital tools they may use already to plan journeys; and their experience of public transport. Reading Room also reviewed and made recommendations to the council around the brand proposition for public transport. The user insights are now being taken forward by the council.

Security implications

There is, however, a risk in integrating data technologies into transport systems. For instance, smart ticketing, traffic lights, signage, and automated bus stops, are just some of the technologies which present potential opportunities for malicious hackers, or those looking to commit acts of terrorism.

Last year, San Francisco transport systems suffered a cyber-attack, where hackers demanded the city’s transportation agency pay 100 Bitcoin (about $70,000). The incident had no impact on the transport system, but over 2,000 machines were hacked. As a precaution, the agency shut down the city’s ticketing machines, which led to customers being able to travel for free.

Final thoughts

Improving how people get from A to B is one of the key challenges for cities. If data technologies can play even a small role in creating better experiences for travellers – by providing more reliable and flexible journeys – then the transport sector and the public sector should look to invest and create partnerships which encourage innovation.


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Are cars the enemy of liveable cities?

by Morwen Johnson

Traffic jamWhat makes a town or city liveable? And what part does transport play in placemaking, if our ultimate aim is to create vibrant, liveable places which work for residents, businesses and visitors?

These questions were at the front of my mind after I saw a lot of social media coverage of Helsinki wanting to go car-free by 2025. Reading beyond the headlines of the Helsinki story, it seems that the city actually plans to test whether it could integrate public and shared transport options to such a degree that owning a car would be unnecessary for its residents. But the story revealed strong opinions on how cars impact our quality of life in urban areas and the dominance of car-centred urban planning.

Then last week I went to a talk organised by Glasgow City Heritage Trust and Architecture & Design Scotland on traffic management in historic cities.

This talk, given by Pierre Laconte, President of the Foundation for the Urban Environment, looked at examples of medium-sized cities which had found practical solutions to handling traffic within the context of enhancing place quality.

Some general themes which jumped out at me were:

Traffic management must be seen as a holistic issue which takes account of the needs of public transport users and pedestrians. In many towns and cities, traffic control aims to achieve a ‘green wave’ – where lights are coordinated to allow continuous traffic flow of cars/road traffic over several junctions in one main direction. In contrast, Zurich introduced short traffic light cycles (e.g. 55 seconds). This meant less waiting and shorter journey times for all, not just car users.

Taking a new approach to traffic management requires political will and a long-term approach. The initial regeneration and vision for Bilbao stretched over twenty years. Copenhagen has been rolling out pedestrianisation and the regeneration of waterways across the city centre since the 1960s. Making small, incremental changes which all contribute to a wider, consistent vision can be just as effective (and in many places, more practical) than masterplans which take a knock down and rebuild approach.

Creating quality places to live often depends on value creation. High density housing and commercial development can contribute to liveable cities if the financial returns are invested in infrastructure, public realm improvements and public transport. In Bilbao for example, tramlines were built from the proceeds of increased land value.

Increasing public transport use is a mind game. If an individual is committed to the idea that cars are the quickest, cheapest and most convenient form of transport then they won’t consider alternatives. Initiatives such as Southend-on-Sea’s award-winning Ideas in Motion behaviour change project try to tackle this.

Planning for linear development is an approach that can more easily adapt to fast or slow growth. Copenhagen has used public transport routes as arteries for urban growth, as did the Brussels suburban new town of Louvain-la-Neuve. In America, Portland is a poster-child for transit-oriented development with light rail, commuter rail and streetcar systems all supporting urban regeneration and development.

It seems that the question of whether towns and cities can come to a compromise where cars and people successfully co-exist is a challenge that everyone responsible for designing, maintaining and governing our urban spaces needs to face.

 

Note about the event:

This blog was prompted by a lecture organised by Architecture and Design Scotland and Glasgow City Heritage Trust and held in The Lighthouse, Scotland’s national centre for design and architecture, on 16 Jun 2014. Pierre Laconte, President of the Foundation for the Urban Environment, spoke on traffic management in historic cities.

 

Further reading (you may need to be a member to access some material):

Funding urban public transport: case study compendium

Portland: planning for legacy, IN Town and Country Planning, Vol 82 No 1 Jan 2013, pp47-50

Transforming Brussels into an international city: reflections on ‘Brusselization’, IN Cities, Vol 29 No 2 Apr 2012, pp126-132

Urban road building and traffic congestion: what went wrong? IN World Transport Policy and Practice, Vol 17 No 3 Nov 2011, pp6-26

Bilbao city report (CASE report 43)

Beyond moving people: excavating the motivations for investing in urban public transport infrastructure in Bilbao Spain, IN European Planning Studies, Vol 13 No 1 Jan 2005, pp23-44