James Datson

UK & Europe

James Datson was part of Atkins’ Intelligent Mobility (IM) team. Intelligent Mobility is about connecting people, places and goods across all modes of transport. James worked across the business streams in Atkins IM and with over 15 years’ experience in transport consultancy had a wealth of experience.

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The potential of “Pop-up transit” is now starting to feature in the thinking of authorities and operators responsible for managing some of the five billion or so bus journeys that we make each year in the UK. What may be exciting to these policy makers, regulators and procurers of mobility, is the emergence of Pop-up transit operators such as Bridj in the US, and Kutsuplus in Finland, and what this means for the UK. So what is Pop-up transit? 

There is no common definition for Pop-up transit, so it is perhaps easier to describe what it looks like from the passenger perspective. Imagine using an App to request a bus ride when you want it and where you want it – you may pay more than you would on a traditional bus, but less than in a taxi.

A key feature that differentiates Pop-up transit from existing demand responsive transit (aka dial-a-ride) is the ability for bus routings to be dynamically managed using a range of data sources. The use of data analytics to efficiently service real-time demand is crucial to offering passengers a competitive tariff whilst also providing as close to a “door to door” service as possible.

Much of what is new about the Pop-up transit model is enabled by innovation using the same data and communication technologies that are supporting adoption of Intelligent Mobility in other parts of the transport industry. This means that it may be that the policy and politics holds back progress rather than the technology itself.

The potential market for Pop-up transit is significant given the key reasons travellers use the car are flexibility and convenience, and it is against these features that Pop-up transit is positioned. Recent research commissioned by the Transport Systems Catapult shows that being able to travel when you want is the most important attribute to travellers (49%) and public transport is more likely to be chosen when it is easily accessed (47%). It is not surprising then, that the flexibility and convenience of Pop-up transit could be an attractive proposition for many of us, especially in our urban areas. 

It is too early to tell if Pop-up transit will become wide-spread. Moreover the operators, new business models and most importantly the policy and regulation influences, need to be considered carefully. Atkins is currently exploring these issues with our clients, particularly around the devolution agenda and changes in funding models.  

Meanwhile on the operator side, new entrants to the market will need to focus on managing the PR and politics risks that could otherwise constrain growth, and there may be lessons learned from Uber in this respect.

With uncertainty ahead, it is important for authorities to investigate rather than ignore the potential for Pop-up transit so that future investment, public or private, provides both economic as well as social benefits on the ground. Looking to the future, is it likely that pop-up transit will become the cool cousin of the bus, or will it be part of business as usual for our existing operators? How far can it support the policy objectives of our city authorities, and will it be effective in eroding the dominance of the car on our daily journeys? Perhaps most importantly, the question is whether Pop-up transit will be embraced by our policy makers and supported by the industry regulators over the next few years, or will it be left to its own devices?

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Interest in Intelligent Mobility is rapidly developing in the freight sector as operators, transport authorities and consumers look to new technologies and business models to achieve better outcomes.

To date, innovation in the freight sector has been a key focus of the operators themselves; improving cost efficiency, fuel efficiency, payload maximisation and journey time reliability.  This has undoubtedly had beneficial impacts, however there remains significant potential for further innovation.

We are seeing many signs that in the future, freight operators will offer a more integrated and consumer centric service.  This is will lead to highly individualised delivery options, reverse delivery services (where you can “send from your door”), and new ways of supporting the brand value of the products delivered.

Intelligent Mobility (IM) will undoubtedly continue to drive innovation in the sector and the near-term IM market opportunities include the growth of peer-to-peer delivery platforms and innovation such as:

  • Shutl – a service which offers a platform for buying and selling empty space on freight vehicles
  • Picknpass – an App that “hires” people moving from A to B as part of their daily routine to deliver goods to business and private customers
  • CycleEye – a road user safety technology which uses sensors to identify cyclists in potentially dangerous proximity to HGVs and is of particular interest to highway authorities.

Longer term opportunities are likely to develop as part of the growing sharing economy and we expect autonomous vehicle technology, on land and in the air, to play a bigger part in the sector.  There is also an exciting development to use underground tunnels to move bulk goods under full automatic control – the Innovate UK-funded Mole project.

Regardless of which IM technologies rise and fall in the market, the potential for data platforms that “understand” the supply and demand for freight look extremely interesting.  Future innovation in this space may mean that authorities can visualise empty space available in freight vehicles, and use sentiment mapping to analyse levels of HGV driver frustration in congested networks.  Such information is likely to attract political interest in supporting the industry to provide better value to our urban systems.

There is significant opportunity for IM to transform the freight sector and we see the following key building blocks as important steps to engaging authorities to help achieve success:

  • Building evidence to support change: quantifying existing inefficiency in the city/freight system
  • Partnership working: between urban authorities and the freight sector
  • Leadership in policy and regulation: cities must consider their role in leading on Intelligent Mobility adoption.

So to conclude, some of the outcomes of the predicted changes to the industry will undoubtedly require strong political leadership, but the gains that IM capabilities can deliver, in terms of less congestion, safer streets and economic growth, warrant close examination by key stakeholders in the industry.

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For decades local authorities have invested heavily in collecting motor vehicle count data on their networks. Such data is the life blood of our transport models and is vital to help traffic managers make decisions on how they manage the highway. But to date many authorities have struggled to make the case for monitoring the behaviours of an often equally important user – the cyclist and pedestrian even though understanding these users could help attract significant funding.

Why is this? Well the obvious answer is that these active travel modes make up a relatively small proportion of highway users and therefore don’t warrant data collection investment. Other arguments are linked with the challenges of obtaining statistically significant results on what can be a relatively small number of journeys. Furthermore, there can be many measurement points that need to be monitored to get a good understanding of the route choices made by pedestrians and cyclists and this can make monitoring too expensive. These types of arguments can be bundled up to often mean that for reasons of “proportionality”, active mode data collection doesn’t happen. But the counter argument is that to make more liveable towns and cities we need to support active travel modes, and political will to do this has been sustained for some time, from the Prime Minister down.

From DfT and Highways England, down to individual borough councils, we consistently see policy aspiration to do more for active travel modes. So is now the time to fill the gaps in the data used to understand our pedestrians and cyclists? We think so, but key questions must be asked around which technologies work and does the business case stack up to use them.

One progressive authority in this area is Transport for Greater Manchester where we have recently won a commission to trial a new type of vision based count technology. The technology has the potential to count pedestrians and cyclists in near real-time by recognising the shapes of these users just like a human enumerator would. The technology uses machine learning to learn what a pedestrian and cyclist looks like amongst a mix of traffic and because the marginal costs are low we may see this type of technology being used to offer a Data as a Service model to our clients. Even if a DaaS model doesn’t gain traction, the technology could offer advantages over traditional data collection in terms of reduced error rates, larger sample sizes and more robust data to support to our models.

Ultimately such technology may help our clients develop a better understanding of the preferences and behaviours of cyclists and pedestrians. Better information will undoubtedly result in more informed decisions and help the active modes be better represented our investment decisions.

We are looking to build the capabilities of this type of technology through a number of future trials and in parallel with this investigate the business case for investing in DaaS type services. What is particularly interesting is the potential to find new ways of funding more sophisticated data collection e.g. by using existing CCTV assets. And we may find new revenue streams for authorities to sell their data to third parties such as retailers and those responsible for monitoring the security of our urban areas.

How do you see better data collection technology supporting the needs of pedestrians and cyclists in our cities?

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