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Pain points, politics and the future of transport

SmartCitiesWorld talks to Paul Comfort about the themes of his new book, The Future of Public Transportation

Pain points, politics and the future of transport

The Future of Public Transportation is based on interviews with over 40 industry CEOs and experts. It examines how operators can adapt to new trends and understand the potential impact of technologies such as autonomous vehicles, hyperloop and mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) apps.


SmartCitiesWorld talks to the book’s author, Paul Comfort, host of the Transit Unplugged podcast, vice president of business development at Trapeze Group and former CEO of the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) in Baltimore.


Sarah Wray (SW): What are the main trends which are going to affect public transport operators in the near future?


Paul Comfort (PC): There are key trends for transit CEOs to watch in America and Western Europe.


Transit system ridership has declined over the last five years. A few systems have figured out a way to increase ridership, and they’re all basically doing the same thing they’re rebuilding their bus networks. A lot of the bus route networks have not changed much in 30 years but cities change and people don’t need to all go to the central business district anymore.


[Cities are] now rebooting those networks, taking people where they want to go today. As part of that, the heaviest-use routes need to have higher-frequency services. People do not want to wait for buses anymore and the smartest systems now are adding routes that are 10 to 15 minutes in headway frequency.


The other thing cities are doing to increase ridership is reducing friction – for example, adding bus-only lanes. They’re also improving fare-paying – Transport for London (TfL) got rid of cash completely several years ago. Other organisations are also moving to e-systems, proximity readers and wearables, to make fare-paying easier and quicker for people.


The other key trends are autonomous vehicles and mobility-as-a-service (MaaS), which is changing the role from transit provider to mobility aggregator and including private, for-profit companies offering scooters, bikes and taxis all in one app, run by the transit system.


The bonus trend is electrification.


SW: There are many simultaneous shifts happening: how can cities and transit operators make sense of it all to plan a clear way ahead?


PC: Most transit system CEOs focus on what I call pain points. Right now, the pain point is coronavirus and they’re putting all their effort into that.


As a former CEO, I can tell you that you can really only shine your spotlight on one or two things at a time. When this passes, just like prior to this, there will be other pain points such as a cleaner environment. Funding is increasingly being tied to environmental targets and using zero-emission buses, for example. Or funding won’t be increased if ridership is lower so that becomes the pain point and the driving factor in helping to make a decision.


"Most transit system CEOs focus on what I call pain points. Right now, the pain point is coronavirus."


Where the pain is coming from a lot of times leads to the decisions on how to adopt new technology.


The new technology and trends that are driving what’s happening in our industry are also impacting the skill sets that are necessary. Moving to zero-emission buses means you retrain all of your mechanics, for example. Moving to autonomous vehicles also requires a different skill – you’re looking for someone who can interact well with the public and be more like a concierge.


SW: We hear a lot about new forms of transport, from urban air mobility to hyperloop. How realistic is all this?


PC: Both of those are becoming more science than fiction. These are within our grasp.


Things are moving fast with hyperloop and they have a test track running in Las Vegas, and Dubai and places across North America have stepped up and put investment behind [the technology].


We don’t have the sub-sonic speeds yet but companies are working on it in a race to see who can be the first one to make it happen. It’s an exciting competition.


The technology is real and I think we will see hyperloop for transportation between cities within this decade.


When it comes to urban air transportation, that is also fast-moving and it’s actually happening already in some cities in California, for example. Drones are also being used to transport medicine. It’s a short hop, skip and a jump until they’re transporting people.


I think within the next six years, you’ll be able to call an unmanned drone to your front yard to pick you up and drop you off on the top of your building for work every morning – via your phone, like you would an Uber or Lyft.


And just as with all technology, the price will reduce the more it’s adopted.



SW: Based on the wide range of companies you spoke to for your book and your own professional experience, what would your message to transit CEOs and city transportation leaders be?


PC: Bold leadership is required. My first book is called Full Throttle and I still firmly believe that the only way we are going to adapt to everything that’s changing so fast is for us, as CEOs, to really be full throttle, to have our foot down on the pedal, really quickly adopting these new technologies. We must make sure that we keep our boards and our political upline fully apprised of what’s happening with all the new technologies that are available to us so we can show them all the improvements they could deliver.

The technology is real and I think we will see hyperloop for transportation between cities within this decade.

CEOs need to not just be skilled at running a transit system; they really need to have softer political skills as well. We live in a political world, and we need to make sure that we’re adapting to the needs of those who are funding us and directing the policy toward us. This way, we can create an amazing mobility service for the public that will capture their imagination and make them really want to use public transit.


This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.


Other contributors to the book include: Paul Skoutelas, CEO of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA); Marco D’Angelo, CEO of the Canadian Urban Transportation Association (CUTA); Rob Puentes, CEO of the ENO Centre for Public Transportation Association; Scott Bogren, CEO of the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA); MJ Maynard, CEO of the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) in Las Vegas and Phil Verster, CEO of Metrolinx in Toronto.


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