Last year was obviously a challenging year for public transport. Ridership dropped substantially and new passenger preferences and patterns may have changed ridership forever. Before the pandemic, it was already acknowledged that public transport was playing a major role in achieving societal goals such as accessibility, liveability and sustainability. Worldwide technology developments, such as automation and sharification, offer new opportunities. Dr Niels van Oort, co-director of the Smart Public Transport Lab at Delft University of Technology, is curious as to how these developments and trends will or can help us reshape the landscape of mobility and performs related scientific research. His quest, with a team of 25 researchers and 20 students annually, is to find the optimal mix of modes to achieve the planned societal goals, especially in the post-Covid era. Van Oort is also the chair of the local public transport committee of the ETC conference. This committee is responsible for the review and selection of submitted papers and organises the conference stream on public transport. At the annual conference in September, researchers and practitioners share their experiences and research findings, “Both theoretical findings and lessons learnt from practice will help to reshape public transport and shared mobility services according to the needs of society.”
“The main objective of our research is to find the optimal mix of modes,” says Van Oort. “In the diversity of vehicles and services, all have potential contribution to both individual and societal goals. An interesting development is that due to technical advances, new modes emerge, such as micromobility (for instance shared bicycles and scooters) and autonomous vehicles. New concepts, such as Mobility as a Service (MaaS), also have the potential to support cities and regions in reaching their policy goals, for instance with regard to climate agreements.” In Van Oort’s research agenda, the 5E model plays a key role.
The 5Es are:
- Effective mobility
- Efficient cities
- Environment (and health)
Van Oort developed the model in cooperation with Dr Rob van der Bijl when investigating over 60 light rail projects around the world. “We see that public transport and shared mobility services, thus wider than light rail only, could contribute to multiple societal goals, including the efficient usage of space in cities, the environment and public health and social inclusion. However, in many discussions about investment agendas and policy priorities, the main focuses are only the costs and travel time gains. By introducing the 5E model, we wanted to bring attention to the wider range of potential impacts. Not every public transport project or system contributes to all 5Es but it is important to consider them while designing and evaluating. By applying the 5E approach for all (emerging) modes in multiple contexts, the optimal mix of modes, for both cities and regions, can be determined.”
During the coming ETC conference in September, the above-mentioned trends and emerging modes will be discussed in multiple sessions. “I see a great potential in the emerging modes and concepts but I also see that concepts like MaaS and autonomous driving are much hyped, thereby overestimating the positive impacts. To plan our mobility systems according to our individual and societal needs, it is important to have an honest discussion about the pros and cons, varying per context and budget.” During the ETC conference, multiple presentations and discussions are scheduled on emerging modes. For instance, there will be a session dedicated to autonomous shuttles. There are many pilot schemes worldwide but the implementation and integration into existing public transport networks is taking much more time than expected, according to Van Oort. “It is of great importance to share our experiences, instead of inventing the wheel over and over again.” It is similar for demand responsive transport (DRT) systems. “This decade, we are seeing a lot of developments and interest in on-demand services since new technology enables more efficient planning and easier communication with passengers. However, we are also seeing many of these DRT pilots fail. In addition, reasoning from societal objectives, shared systems are to be preferred while, in practice, individual services are much more successful. During the conference, we will learn about the do’s and don’ts of designing and implementing these systems. “If they are designed well and the objectives (according to the 5E model) are clearly defined and agreed on, DRT could, for instance, contribute greatly to accessibility in rural areas,” says Van Oort.
The recent introduction of new modes, including share bicycles, has also increased attention on the first and last mile of public transport. This is also reflected by the number of related presentations in the ETC programme. “If we want our mobility to be more sustainable, a shift to walking, cycling and public transport is needed,” thinks Van Oort. “Electrifying the car fleet is an important step towards sustainable mobility but given the other aspects of the 5E model, such as efficient space usage, it won’t be enough. In our Smart Public Transport Lab research agenda, there is a dominant role for the bicycle. Of course, the bicycle in itself plays an important role in the optimal mix but it is an essential mode, also as a complement to public transport. By providing good entrance and exit to public transport, the complete door-to-door journey can be improved and public transport network efficiency can be enhanced. By unlocking the strengths of both worlds, the combined bicycle and transit mode offers comfortable, reliable and fast connections for the main part of the journey, complemented by flexible, healthy and cheap options from and to the origin and destination. Van Oort is convinced there is a lot of potential all over the world for this combination, especially given the rapid development of shared bicycles, and to a lesser extent, e-scooters. Even in the Netherlands, where already almost half the trips to a railway station are made by bicycle, there is still much to gain. The bicycle proved to be successful in improving door-to-door train journeys, and I see similar potential when looking at high level local and regional public transport, such as metro, light rail and bus rapid transport.”
Another important part of the 5E model is equity or inclusive mobility. Many sessions during ETC will be on the question of how everybody in society, independent of their backgrounds and social position, can have proper access to, for instance, jobs and schools. “Next to climate goals, I think this aspect is the main one to consider when planning and designing future mobility systems, also with regard to digitalisation and people that cannot follow. A good research agenda and knowledge exchange is indispensable, since current knowledge is limited.”
Last but not least, all these challenges and trends will be discussed during the conference in the context of the Covid pandemic. Research all over the world shows that passengers expect to change their travel pattern in the post-Covid era, especially due to the discovered opportunities of teleworking and a modal shift to car or active modes. “This is the moment for the public transport industry to rethink and redesign the networks and services. Given the pre-Covid trends, this will be challenging but will also offer opportunities to make concrete steps towards the optimal mix, including emerging modes, thereby serving the societal goals as expressed by the 5E model. ”