How could public transport be run better?

Right now we are seeing our transport authorities losing staff and revenue spending while still needing to deliver efficient and effective transport networks.  These transport networks are critical to the health and wealth of our towns and cities.  They are expected to work – and develop – even through tough times.  So how can this be effected?

This ties in with the smart cities agenda – how do you make cities work better? By working smarter? And what does that mean?? Well, the multiple networks that make up a city all have multiple interfaces – from a transport perspective, successful transport can support health outcomes, economic outcomes, environmental outcomes and social outcomes.  Therefore by integrating policy development, decision-making and implementation in a cuter way, you can create efficiencies, better decision-making to deliver optimal outcomes.

So back to transport.  The conundrum is how can we deliver more for less?  This is actually not as tricky as it first seems.  The key is information.  Firstly accurate, real-time information is not just key for the passenger experience, but it actually leads to better management of journeys and the network, better asset management and better planning for policy and provision of the transport system.  Secondly, understanding where the demand is and what it is doing (i.e. the key trip generators and routes, the key times of day, the flows – along with the wider values for supporting jobs, social, health and environmental outcomes) can ensure a better plan of supply to match it.  Thirdly, by understanding the network and the demand, you can then start effecting change to that demand to optimise your transport network.

What on earth does that mean?? Well, with this scale of information all available and integrated (through a mapping system) you can understand in much greater detail how your city is working and what the objectives of your transport network are.  You can then see not just where the difficulties are, i.e. traffic hotspots, but also where there are opportunities – for example, rapid transit potential because you can make a much better business case by understanding the demand, the scale of the flows and the potential for change and what the benefits you could realise will be on a broader level (i.e. social, economic, environmental).

One example of this is in Detroit where the Detroit Department of Transportation has partnered up with Transit Labs who are a transport analytics company.  This partnership is working on exactly this idea, that by actually collecting, integrating and analysing the data available you can significantly enhance your transport network by achieving the efficiencies available within the system.  This information will help to understand how the system has worked, what it is doing now and how to improve it, as well as more accurately modelling future growth and potential for development.  This is not rocket science but a practical implementation of harnessing big data and analysing it to achieve real wins for passengers in a relatively cost-effective manner.  The potential is enormous but currently not fully understood.

In the past, transport has been very good at fudging and pretending that the only way to improve things is to chuck major capital expenditure to raise capacity while ignoring the basics.  That applies to the experience for customers as well as the running of the network.  Customers want accurate real time information, they want their options for journeys and fares on one single platform.  This is all achievable but needs the will for the various parties to come together and understand that there are some huge gains to be made through collaborating and through a much more intelligent approach to managing and developing our transport networks.

So, well done Detroit and the other places around the world looking at this – I hope my home patch of the West Midlands and everywhere else will follow suit!

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