Mobility Goes Digital, Connected and Electric

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Special Guest Editorial

For several months now, not a week has gone by without news on autonomous vehicles or innovations in ride-selling or ride-sharing apps and other so-called ‘new mobility’ services.

Digitalization has come to the transport sector and is paving the way for services that are breaking new ground – a development that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. With the help of a smartphone and an internet connection, users/customers/passengers/people in many cities around the world are now within just a few clicks of finding out which mobility option best suits them at any given moment, together with journey times and prices.

Digitalization is clearly a major driving force behind the recent emergence of new services, new players, and new business models. The surge in car- and ride-sharing is challenging the market dynamics. At the same time, other services will expand the scope and role of the sector, namely:

  • App-based on-demand transport – imagine a bus without any stops, routes, or timetables. Relying heavily on IT and data for service operation. The rise in app
    based, on-demand transport is opening new perspectives and leads to rethinking of service definition and network design. Local/regional transport authorities could, for example, procure such on-demand mobility services, which in certain cases might enable the provision of more efficient and/or less costly services than what currently exists.
  • ‘Mobility-as-a-service’ (MaaS) platforms – bringing together multiple modes, together with routing, booking, and payment options, in a single app or interface. A model of urban mobility combining public transport and shared modes, MaaS, or ‘integrated mobility platforms’, potentially offer citizens the travel flexibility and convenience of the private car without the negative externalities of congestion, emissions, and space wasteful parking.
  • Autonomous vehicles offer the potential to provide public transport ‘last mile’ services. The technology is here and is being tested on the roads now. The challenge is to anticipate the future role and impact of this new transport mode in the wider urban mobility picture. Uber’s announcement of the launch of its first commercial service of driverless cars in Pittsburg and the testing of autonomous taxis in Singapore perfectly illustrate the innovation race ongoing in this field.

These tech-driven developments are also intrinsically linked to urban trends at large – namely traffic congestion, urban population growth and rapidly shrinking public space, concerns over air pollution and its impacts on health.

The transport sector accounts for 19% of global energy use and 23% of energy related CO2 emissions. It is the sector with the fastest growing levels of energy consumption and related CO2 emissions. Transferring car-based trips to public transport will consume less energy and avoid carbon emissions. As will the adoption of cleaner propulsion systems electric and hybrid drives, renewables, and hydrogen – a direction public transport has already been following for some years now.

Digitalization and electrification are disrupting mobility, redefining the role of the car, and impacting the way public transport is operated.

This move away from fossil fuels has been further boosted by COP21 and the wider sustainable development agenda. The climate summit served to establish future political direction, with all national governments having since agreed to decarbonize their economies. This will require a strong focus on establishing solutions for decarbonizing the transport sector as a whole, with public transport playing a key role.

Public transport has been a pioneer in using alternative fuels: metros, tramways, and trolleybuses have been serving millions of people daily on all continents for decades. Today, electric and hybrid buses are developing rapidly. Zero emission declarations and visions are being announced and debated, and strategies implemented. Such visions across the regions, including America, Europe, and East Asia, are the push behind trials on the ground to assess the different technologies in real-life operations. The EU-funded project ZeEUS (Zero Emission Urban Bus System), led by UITP, has identified five challenges as key for the uptake of electric buses in the years to come:

  1. Cost: an electric bus costs twice the price of a standard (diesel) vehicle, with its batteries representing up to 45% of this cost, not to mention the investment needed for the charging infrastructure and its installation
  2. Operation: operational range, or autonomy, without opportunity of charging) and the flexibility of operations with dedicated infrastructure
  3. Tenders and contracts with regards to the higher cost of electric buses, financial risk sharing between operators and their transport authorities, and consequences on the service contract
  4. Interoperability and flexibility in terms of charging infrastructure and methods, for example standardization, fast- versus slow-charging, safeguarding the versatility and flexibility of the bus (one of its key strengths)
  5. Energy provision in terms of availability, distribution, regulation, pricing, location of charging points, safety, and so forth

The trends touched upon above – digitalization and electrification – are disrupting mobility, redefining the role of the car, and impacting the way public transport is operated. This will lead to significant changes in our cities in the coming years, indeed some of them are already noticeable. The main challenge will be to ensure these trends benefit the citizen who wants to travel door-to-door, at an affordable price, in comfortable and safe conditions. It will be up to the numerous mobility actors to find the right ways – institutional, operational and technical – to meet these expectations.

These trends and others will be described and analyzed in the upcoming edition of the Public Transport Trends Report to be published by UITP in January 2017. Enjoy reading!


Writer: Mohamed Mezghani

Mohamed Mezghani has been working for 25 years in public transport and urban mobility related fields. Since 2014, he is Deputy Secretary General of the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) .

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