Cities need to push the boundaries of the transport ecosystem constitutes to meet changing needs.
The evolution of technology is impacting how mobility and infrastructure providers create improved transportation networks, which offer new kinds of services and build resilience to benefit citizens and businesses alike. Transport for West Midlands is a transport authority serving a population of 2.8 million people in the Midlands of England and operates bus, rail and Metro networks. SmartCitiesWorld recently spoke to Mike Waters, its Director of Policy, Strategy and Innovation.
Graeme Neill, Editor, SmartCitiesWorld: To begin with, you have quite a unique take on what constitutes the transport ecosystem - can you explain what it means to you?
Mike Waters, Director of Policy, Strategy and Innovation, TfWM: The transport ecosystem is just an evolving view of what integration really means in transport. We’ve spoken about integration for decades. Previously, its focus really was just on those physical aspects, around how we mesh infrastructure and services together. It was very engineer-first thing thinking about reducing interchange penalties.
I think we really need to push the boundaries further. And certainly in the West Midlands, we’ve taken a lot of inspiration from the work of people like Glenn Lyons, who talk about this triple access system where physical mobility, digital connectivity and the spatial proximity act together. We are thinking about how those three things affect accessibility. We’re accessibility planners, not transport planners.
But that just still deals really with the supply side and we wanted to start thinking about the demand, where we mesh the infrastructure and the mode [of travel] with the energy systems. Then from an industrial perspective, we started to think about Industry 4.0 initiatives, how that works with facilities, and then the digital integration of that. So the definition, the breadth, of the transport ecosystem suddenly goes a lot wider.
And what personally interests for me are things that I don’t think we’re really exploring enough but which are part of that ecosystem. You start to think about privacy because this becomes very much more a digitally enabled and facilitated ecosystem. Then we’ve got several axes within privacy, which I don’t think the consumer or the industry have switched on to enough, around what you do with information or privacy, which as we deal with connected and autonomous vehicles, mobility as a service, this service level, the entry in the transport ecosystem brings a whole extra dynamic as well.
Neill: Can you tell me more about TfWM’s approach to this kind of transport ecosystem and how that fits within your focus on local people and the local economy?
Waters: Transport is very much about meeting a need so it’s clearly going to be thought about very much in the local context. There’s an awful lot of global best practice from all around the world and some phenomenal things going on which we learn from every day. But unless we convert those and apply them in that local context, then it fails.
For us in the West Midlands, it’s this industrial heartland of the UK, it was there with the Industrial Revolution, the manufacturing and traditional industries legacy drives through our economy but also our skill sector and what we’re actually excellent at doing. That [thinking] really led the start of our transport innovation programme where we were looking at what could we do in the transport sector to support things like the automotive industry. So that was one of the big motivators for getting very into the connected and autonomous mobility space.
Then that journey has taken us more widely into looking at how we really integrate industrial strategy and economic strategy properly into what we do when we’re pushing the boundaries of the possible in how we shape the transport system. From a sustainability point of view, there are very few models of sustainability that don’t put economic prosperity as an essential factor in having a sustainable system of any kind.
But fundamentally, the other layer, the local people, it transforms a very engineer led industry. People in transport tend to assume that everything happens through logical reasons. If I pull this lever, then that will happen. But fundamentally it is a consumer led thing and the designers and providers of the system often fail to recognise that. So we’ve been doing a lot to improve both our generalised understanding, just lift in best practice from the retail sector, the banking sector, and then moving on to personalising that understanding so that we can move ultimately towards some kind of level of predictive understanding around people. How do they feel? What are the emotions? What’s their experience? In 25 years of transport planning it’s only in the last couple of years that we’ve really started to push into that.
Neill: Can you talk about other aspects of the TfWM vision, your priorities and the projects that are linked to this where you have been working with Accenture?
Waters: There are a lot of things that we’ve started and been running over the last five years. There’s the connected autonomous mobility lab, future transport zone, a digital data exchange called conVEx, we’ve got the UK’s largest 5g mobility testbed; we’re doing all sorts of things with other local authorities and police to develop and integrate data and services. There’s a lot of activity.
What Accenture really helped us do is when we took a step back with them we held a global benchmarking exercise to really recognise that across the world, there’s some amazing good practice. There are some people that, in some cases, we’re going to be a follower of but in other cases, we might actually be able to provide some leadership on.
With Accenture, we have really talked about how the West Midlands can start to become a global hub for clean mobility. What we have been speaking about is accelerating towards a much more human centred, inclusive design philosophy around mobility that delivers those real benefits. Accenture really just helped us think that through from a slightly external perspective.
When you get close to it and you’re doing it every day, it’s quite easy to lose a bit of perspective. Just stepping back and providing a bit more of a structured framework for that, looking at what our pathways can be based on that kind of international benchmarking exercise as we evolve as an area and as a transport system. That’s been really good and then we’ve just really drilling into looking at what are the critical enablers. What are the critical success factors within how we actually do that? This has almost been an organically grown but still cutting edge [transport network]; we’re still one of the strongest areas in the UK but rapidly post-rationalising some of the good moves we’ve made has helped us set a much clearer, more coherent path forward from this point.
Neill: Can you give an outline of the work done in the Future Transport Area and what other cities can take from it?
Waters: It’s probably worth setting a brief context. The UK Government set up a programme of these future transport zones. There are five in total. The West Midlands helped develop the concept with the Department for Transport and became the UK pathfinder programme for these. We started probably a couple of years in advance of some of the other areas in the UK.
For us the kind of the vision around that is that the zone exists to help us empower and enable people to make more sustainable travel decisions. This is because I think, as anybody involved in transport recognises in trying to tackle sustainability, decarbonisation, all of these things, fundamentally the way we travel today is not sustainable.
We’ve had a very practically driven programme and drilled right down into this understanding of people. We’ve been working with companies like Experian to develop a much better view, developing detailed personas and evidence around what people think and feel, how will they travel, and we’ve strengthened our smart payments platform considerably. We’re the largest smart payments platform in the UK outside of London and been levelling up to the London level of system, which is much more challenging because we operate in a deregulated transport market where bus operators are commercial and not commissioned by the cities [unlike London]. So that’s quite complex.
We’ve been doing a whole load of experience-led initiatives, mobility credits and demand-responsive transport to really engage with the traveler and understand what initiatives work and what don’t because transport needs to be designed in a local context. We can take best practice, try it, apply it.
We’ve also been at the vanguard of the UK in experiencing what e-scooters can do for the transport system and then we’ve put a lot of effort into digitising the transport system as well.
A frightening amount of transport is run in a context where people think that PDF-ing something is digitising it. But actually taking it and making it properly machine readable and optimising processes is one of those foundation stones for them being able to move to apply predictive understanding, both to support the operational and tactical side of running a transport system and operating it, but also to help us plan those big interventions in a much more targeted and intelligent way.
It’s quite a complex programme. We’re spending £22 million over four years and doing things like developing a new layer of 5G-enabled sensors so we can see and understand what is happening on the transport system with a lot more confidence driving that into the service information. It’s fascinating - you’re absolutely loving it.
Neill: How is TfWM dealing with the effects of Covid-19, which are still affecting us all at the time of recording?
Waters: It’s an epic challenge, isn’t it, for anybody. As a transport authority, we’re some of that integrating glue in the heart of all of those actors in the transport system that are having to grapple with this. In the West Midlands, as with most of the areas in the UK, a lot of the actors in the transport system are commercial and so they’re facing a whole set of new realities around what that looks like.
So a lot of the practical side of what we’ve been doing is acting as that integration of the support that national government has been providing to transport operators and working with the transport operators to really make sure that with fundamentally essential services, there is a minimum level of service operation going on so that those who don’t have access to a car can still get around safely and cleanly. There’s been a lot of effort gone into both the data and the intelligence around how we do that. Keeping that network running every day, we operate a lot of bus stations and the tram system.
As well as supporting the operators, we’re also an operator and we’ve to be making sure that cleaning regimes go up. We’ve managed to keep tram patronage higher than most the other modes of transport by really good communications. Just letting the public know what they can do, supporting our highway authorities as they do things like road space reallocation, [and developing] an action plan.
I mentioned e-scooters; we went from zero to deployed across a large area in the space of about three months as a direct response to Covid. It’s just a terrific operational effort there ultimately, making sure we keep things safe, putting on emergency public transport services to get key workers to hospitals, and converting bits of the transport system that to do that.
But this is the interesting bit, I think that while that’s the immediate response, there’s a question of whether as tragic as the outcomes of Covid are, is it an opportunity in us looking at how we can live life differently, as we look at a new future towards the decarbonized transport system. Is it an opportunity or a threat [to transport systems]? At this moment is hard to make a call; it could go either way.
Clearly we want to look at how we can cement some of the better current behaviours where people can shift their way of travelling or avoid it at all, as we’re doing now by speaking over Zoom and the like. We’re looking to have a very much deeper conversation with the travelling public and trying to strengthen our emphasis on freight and logistics because there’s been this massive boom in e-commerce. It’s that that has had a profound impact on the transport system in terms of goods, vehicles and the amount mileage going on.
But there’s also looking at what we can do to support the localism agenda to really bring forward this concept of 15-minute neighbourhoods. So we’re doing a lot of work around mobility hubs. What do you really need those to look like for them to work? How can they meet people’s needs? How does that work with an increased e-commerce economy? We’re all on a learning journey, as every other city in the world is at the moment around this. Forums like SmartCitiesWorld are really interesting to help us learn together.