After a recent study found ride-hailing apps are leading to increased in congestion in our cities, public transport networks have begun to examine how to get passengers back onboard. The problem is, nobody knows exactly how to respond to the changing needs of the ride-hailing generation.
First, the obvious truth; as people inject more cash into ride-hailing businesses, less money goes into public transport. In turn, transport fares increase, services are weakened and more people are tempted to move over to ride-sharing. Add in the increased congestion resulting from more cars on the road and public transport becomes slower, more expensive and less reliable. It’s a vicious cycle that has already seen 70 million fewer bus journeys in England in 2017 as compared with the previous year and a 45% increase in private-hire cars on the road in the US.
So what can be done to support mobility in our cities while encouraging a return to public transport? There’s no silver bullet solution, but there are measures that could help redress the balance, providing councils and transport authorities are ready to change.
In this hyper-connected, mobile-first world, travellers no longer want to rely on timetables, frequent stops and space-sharing. The growth of ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft have fed an appetite for ultimate transport convenience, where you decide the time, location and your passengers.
The past decade has seen a tidal wave of new technologies sweep the transport sector. Of course, this includes ride-hailing apps, but there’s also a vast array of innovations that, when properly harnessed, could revitalise public transport networks for a new generation.
Principal among these new technologies is data. Transport networks are beginning to move toward integrating data into their daily operations, but progress has been slow and sporadic.
“By embracing a more quantified approach to route management, scheduling and fleet-tracking, public transport networks can streamline services, better regulate fuel consumption and enhance the overall passenger experience.”
It’s not only onboard technology that needs a boost, however. Smart traffic signalization – where the timing of traffic lights change based on traffic patterns – has already been trialled in several cities, with Pittsburgh reporting a 30% reduction in congestion as a result. The result? A more reliable service, less fuel wasted and happier passengers all-round.
Integrate and update city transport networks
For many commuters, public transport falls short of their daily travel requirements simply because their journey isn’t adequately covered by one service. That’s why the proliferation of inter-linked services, where one ticket covers multiple forms of transport, is so important.
Three years after the introduction of the Oyster Card in London, for instance, the capital saw a 38% reduction in traffic. In fact, every city that has introduced some kind of ‘Smart Card’ option, has seen an increase in the number of people using public transport, but it still struggles to match the convenience of ride-sharing, with its home-to-destination service and flexible pick-up times.
So what can public transport systems do to stem the flow of commuters to the ride-hailing corporations? Some cities have already made moves to block ride-sharing, such as in the case of Uber in London – although this was due to questions around their corporate practice – while others are looking at means to integrate the two disparate transport technologies together.
“The truth is, private and public transport can complement each other providing public transport can catch up in terms of technology.”
Cities across the UK and US have begun to partner with ride-sharing companies to create ‘on-demand public transport’ in a bid to remain relevant. In Atlanta, GA, for example, the local transport app is linked with the Uber app to allow commuters to hail a ride direct from their end public transit destinations. In Nashville, Tenn., meanwhile, the civic transit agency is working with TransLoc Inc on their own on-demand van service that takes riders crosstown.
The daily commuter needs convenience. Ride-sharing companies tapped into this with their simple, mobile-first approach. For public transport to truly compete, they need to be ready to shift to a similar model. By introducing a mobile app, with timetables, routes and real-time updates, commercial transit networks can position themselves as a relevant, viable means of transport for the masses.
Invest more in sustainable transport
Just last month, fifteen of the world’s leading transport and technology companies met to discuss their response to the findings by researchers from the Institute of Transportation at the University of California, Davis. The researchers published a paper late last year arguing the use of transportation modes that would reduce air pollution have declined in cities with heavy usage of the ride-sharing apps.
The transportation companies, which included representatives from Uber, Lyft, Didi and Zipcar, signed a list of ‘Shared Mobility Principles’ to “Prioritize people over vehicles, promote equity, transition to a zero-emission future and encourage data sharing.” While these are admirable aspirations, they ignore the role their companies have had in depleting revenues from public transport.
“The only suitable response from the public transport networks is to move to invest in even more sustainable technology for their own vehicles.”
Developing more sustainable means of public transport improves the air quality of a city and simultaneously saves transport operators money, which can be invested in improving services. The issue is, however, that sustainable transport initiatives are relatively new and, as a result, costly – an expense few public transport networks outside of London can afford right now.
Instead, companies need to look at ways to integrate eco-technologies that don’t require expensive vehicle overhauls. Managing routes through data to lower fuel consumption and switching to paperless ticketing can reduce expenditure while limiting the environmental impact of the service.
Beat them at their own game
When they first came on the scene, ride-hailing companies like Uber were touted as a means of reducing congestion in urban areas by reducing the need for personal vehicles. People assumed, as a cheaper and more effective means of mass transit, public transport was in no danger of being dethroned by the likes of Uber and Lyft. We’re now seeing the evidence for how incorrect this assumption was. The economist Justin Wolfers argued that “Uber is wildly unprofitable, [which] suggests that prices will rise once they’ve succeeded at monopolising the industry.”
Others have pointed to partnerships between public transport and TNCs [transportation network companies] as being a one-sided pairing in which the TNC opts only to provide services on the most profitable routes. This is detrimental to public transport because it drains resources that would otherwise be directed to less connected, and less economically advanced areas. Greg Lindsay, Senior Fellow for mobility at the NewCities think tank, argued: “Uber and other TNCs… have always been about disrupting public transport, about privatising the pieces of public transport that they found profitable and leaving the rest to wither.”
“Public transport is still usually the cheapest option, but they also tend to be less accessible.”
So it seems clear – if public transport can’t outdo this new wave of rideshare convenience, it needs to focus on shifting towards a “mobility-as-a-service” model. This could take the form of a monthly transport subscription to gain access to multiple transport modes simultaneously. If cities can offer car-sharing, bike-sharing and public transport as one, they just might be able to build a truly connected network for the masses and tempt commuters back to public transport.
Otherwise, local transport networks and the big ride-sharing companies will have to learn to coordinate their services to work alongside each other, providing there are conditions in place to ensure the TNCs don’t simply cover the same routes as public transport, at the same time. Developing a connected service, where commuters can use both public and private commercial transport according to need, may sound like a pipe dream, but with proper coordination and regulation, it could
Even with all the potential updates and new routes, the majority of public transport networks around the world are chronically underfunded, and if transport authorities want to see fewer cars on our roads, investment must precede anything else. Features like bus lanes can cut down on delays for public transport, but they’re just a stopgap solution to the real problem. Only through integration, diversification and, most importantly, innovation, can public transport hope to ensure its relevance in an ever-more connected world.