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Intelligent mobility: a new direction

Atkins | 02 Apr 2015 | Comments

Is technology prompting a shift in commuter behaviour? How is this likely to affect the transportation sector in Asia Pacific and what might the future look like?

Imagine a typical city in Asia, with unexceptional transport links, heavy traffic during peak hours and a growing population. For residents, getting from A to B isn’t a question of luxury or convenience: for most, it’s a necessary daily grind.

This situation is particularly true in many emerging Asian Pacific economies, where rising wealth and vehicle ownership has far outstripped infrastructure investment, leading to crippling bottlenecks.

What could be done to change that picture, in a sustainable way, for everyone’s benefit? As technology evolves, the answer may be just around the corner.

Technology is already influencing commuter choices and behaviours in many cities in Asia Pacific from the growth of online taxi booking offered by innovative companies like Uber to the rise in smart journey planners, but these individual activities also reflect a potential new approach to travel planning.

The emergence of “mobility as a service” (MaaS) – the interaction of information and technology, coupled with a rise in sharing-based economies – offers a new and more connected approach to influencing travel behaviour and the players in the industry, policies, and vice versa.

MaaS provides a single platform that combines all transport options in a simple and integrated way. Its aim is to get customers from A to B, rather than focusing on individual transport modes and services.

How will MaaS change the way we view our travel options? We asked three experts in Asia Pacific for their views on this changing transport landscape.


Jonathan Spear, technical director with Atkins in Asia Pacific

Mobility has already undergone several revolutions. During the first industrial revolution in Europe and North America in the 19th century, railways and fixed public transport networks supported the concentration of population and employment within newly emerging cities.

In the 20th century, the emergence of mass produced private motor vehicles underpinned the suburbanisation of these cities and decentralisation of activities into the surrounding countryside, encouraged by growing consumer choice, freedom of movement and desire for an enhanced quality of life.

Yet the growth in travel demand, combined with rapid motorisation, has also led to pressing and universal urban challenges for travellers, communities and public agencies. Traffic congestion has become endemic, imposing costs and inconvenience on private and public transport users alike. Rising car ownership and urban sprawl have eroded the countryside and stretched the physical and financial viability of fixed transit networks. Hundreds of thousands are killed or seriously injured in road traffic accidents each year and those without access to a private car have seen their access to opportunities fall behind. And the reliance of the transport sector on fossil fuels has contributed to deteriorating air quality and growing greenhouse gas emissions, with implications for public health, ecosystems and the global climate.

Intelligent mobility offers a new, exciting and rapidly accelerating paradigm – through increasingly autonomous, connected and clean vehicles, personalised travel information and demand-responsive travel. While the range of new business models and players, blurring of the public and private sectors and the sharing of data will inevitably be disruptive, the ultimate prize is to put customer choice and experience first, deliver sustainable economic growth, and equalise and democratise opportunity for all citizens.

It is clear, however, realising these benefits cannot rely on the old methods; cities will need to scan multiple technologies, anticipate a range of potential future outcomes, continuously innovate and reinvent themselves, and assemble collaborative partnerships across government, academia and industry to drive effective action. As different approaches and business models are tested, a body of best practice, adapted to local circumstances and consumer markets, will eventually start to emerge. In that respect, the next two decades promise to be very exciting indeed.

In Asia Pacific, urbanisation is taking place faster than anything ever seen in Europe or North America, producing massive mobility challenges. In developing solutions, cities are likely to grasp the opportunities of intelligent mobility at different extents and speeds. The region already includes recognised cases such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul, which have achieved world class outcomes in terms of urban mass transit, transport demand management and integration between land use and transport.

Moreover, with high levels of smartphone take-up, Asia is home to many current and yet-to-emerge technology companies and service providers that will power the new mobility revolution, support infrastructure investment and enable journeys which are increasingly informed, personalised and adaptive. To this extent, many Asian cities and their citizens will prosper from the new paradigm.

Other cities, crucially many in China and India, will struggle – especially those most vulnerable to ecological degradation and climate change. This is a result of limited data processing and communication technology as well as inadequate financing and delivery models for multi-modal infrastructure and operations. Moreover, inflexible regulatory frameworks can stifle innovation and weak institutional arrangements do little to promote collaborative behaviours between public agencies or with the private sector.

Latterly, it is these policy, legal and regulatory factors, together with the absence of strong civic vision and leadership and system-level stakeholder collaboration, which will be as decisive in determining successful outcomes in the brave new world of intelligent mobility as the adoption of any given technology, infrastructure or system solution.

Jonathan Spear has more than 20 years’ experience in transport policy, strategy and institutional advice. He has worked for Atkins in London, Dubai and is currently based in Hong Kong. As well as representing the company on the Council of the European Transport Association, he has actively supported the work of two Technical Committees of the World Road Association, focused on institutional integrity and multi-modal governance.


Andrew Hodgson, associate director with Atkins in Asia Pacific

In Asia Pacific, transport choices often relate to far more complex considerations than time, cost and accessibility. Climate also plays a key role, as do cultural considerations, which influence how people view modes of transport, whether it’s the perceived prestige of car ownership in many emerging economies, or religious sensitivities of men and women travelling together on public transport.

MaaS is an interesting response to these issues, and looks to the private sector to spearhead a revolution in transportation.

Data is the key to MaaS, and there are few places in the world where technology and the “internet of things” are more prevalent than Asia. 4G data connections are common in underground metro lines and free wifi is often available in shopping malls and public districts. Across Asia, people are highly connected, whether sitting in restaurants posting images of their meal or watching high definition TV while sitting on a bus.

Live data is everywhere and people already rely on it heavily in their daily lives. Even within economies under state-enforced restrictions or coping with rudimentary infrastructure, innovative ways are often invented to circumvent problems. The question for this region is therefore less about the availability of data, but more about how it will be embraced by society and governments alike.

In Hong Kong, for example, the public transport network is already incredibly advanced and, alongside the high cost of car ownership, this has led to a real estate premium in being close to mass transit. Octopus travel cards allow travel across multiple public transport modes (train, metro, tram, ferry), and can just as easily be used to buy a pint of milk or open the security gate in your office building.

The line between transport and society is blurred, where cheap and accessible public transport is already approaching commoditisation. No better example is the MTR Corporation, which operates the city’s metro infrastructure. The majority of the organisation’s annual profit (a word not normally associated with public transport agencies) comes from property development associated with their stations.

The question is, how will people respond to a new approach to transport? One of the most important considerations would be how MaaS could put in place a service level agreement to a subscriber, without knowing the exact journeys they need to take and when they need them.

This could require extra (and often redundant) capacity in the system, although incentives would go some way in converging demand and supply on a continuous basis. Incentives are already commonplace in advanced transport systems, such as the ERP charging tariffs in Singapore, or the travel card touch-points on key streets in Hong Kong, which incentivise walking to the metro. It is therefore important to research the potential demand response as MaaS becomes more sophisticated, and more importantly to determine how this differs from region to region and country to country.

The other angle is, of course, how governments will respond to a change in the status quo. An often cited early entrant to this market is Uber, which is already operating in Hong Kong. However, as existing taxis are ubiquitous and cheap, and mass transit even more so, early signs are that this is becoming a service restricted to less accessible destinations, or where a more prestigious journey is sought. So far there is little sign of a need, or desire for, a greater step change to develop an integrated public/private transport system.

In other Asian countries, the potential government response is also unclear. Should MaaS be met with restrictions rather than collaboration, it may need to first develop a critical mass. A number of cities, for example, already have a black market of taxi drivers, recognisable solely by the small red lights hung from the interior mirror. While not an image of best practice, like the innovation shown by users wishing better communications access, alternatives will clearly be sought.

But more importantly, should MaaS be able to demonstrate a social, financial and environmental benefit, this may be the missing piece in the jigsaw that is needed to cut the regions crippling congestion, tackle the dangerous levels of smog experienced in Asian cities on a daily basis, as well as becoming an exciting prospect for emerging economies that rely heavily on foreign investment to pay for much needed infrastructure.

Andrew Hodgson has over 14 years’ experience in network planning and demand forecasting. Previously managing Atkins’ specialist Pedestrian Planning business in London and Transport Planning team in India, now from a Hong Kong base he is leading transport planning advisory projects, predominately for mass transit feasibility studies and private developer investments in Asia Pacific.


Cameron MacDonald, associate director with Atkins in Asia Pacific

Cities in Asia Pacific vary considerably in their transport offerings and, therefore, in their likely responses to the provision of MaaS.

On the one hand, cities like Hong Kong and Singapore provide affordable, connected and integrated multi-modal public transport networks supported by policy frameworks that complement low levels of car reliance and ownership. The case for MaaS is perhaps weakened in societies that are already highly mobile, although citizens of these cities are certainly wedded to their smart phones, and bespoke services such as Uber have managed to make an impact and find a particular niche in Hong Kong. The challenge for highly regulated Singapore will be to what extent such systems will be permitted to operate autonomously.

On the other hand, developing mega-cities such as Ho Chi Min City, Bangkok, Jakarta and numerous others in China, which are groaning under the weight of private motorised transport usage, have already become victims of “unintelligent mobility”. While these cities seek smarter means of mobility, they have to cope with weak institutional arrangements and inflexible regulatory frameworks, along with a relative lack of data and processing. These will challenge the introduction of MaaS concepts. That said, one of MaaS’ apparent strengths is its use of private sector resources to address these challenges.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in implementing MaaS in Asia Pacific is in effecting the transport network capacity enhancements implicit in the literature. Incentivising peak spreading as a way of making better use of existing transport infrastructure is laudable, but cultural sensitivities around working hours may hamper the best intentions of service providers. Also, while increased sharing of vehicles may well result in more efficient means of matching transport supply and demand, it will not necessarily limit traffic congestion in cities where the morning commuter peak in particular is rigid and pronounced.

Asia Pacific is tech-savvy and progressive, providing an ideal platform for MaaS. With the right mix of private sector ingenuity, bespoke regulatory reform as well as consideration of cultural sensitivities peculiar to the Region, MaaS presents as an interesting approach to addressing the mobility issues of Asia Pacific’s cities.

Cameron MacDonald has worked in the region for over 20 years and witnessed first-hand in that time the deterioration in life quality in many of its cities in terms of increasing traffic congestion, community severance and environmental degradation.

For more information on MaaS, you can download a new white paper, Journeys of the Future, written by the UK Transportation’s intelligent mobility team at Atkins here.

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