Five key takeaways from IT-TRANS 2016

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The 2016 edition of IT-TRANS (1-3 March) in Karlsruhe was the most diverse edition yet and gathered leaders of the IT industry and the public transport sector together with new players and providers of digital services. The biennial event attracted almost 500 conference delegates and 210 exhibitors (up from 162 exhibitors in 2014) from 34 countries as well as 5,000 visitors (up 36%). Here are some key takeaways:

1. It’s all about the customer
If there was one word that came up again and again at the 2016 IT-TRANS, it was the word ‘customer’. Rapid urbanisation, the insatiable rise of the smart phone and the emergence of the sharing economy are all changing the way that people use public transport and their expectations of it. The public transport sector is already rising to the challenge.

Nicolas Furgé CEO of Kisio, part of the Keolis group, explained: “Customer service is now at the top of the agenda and this is being pushed by services like Uber and BlaBla Car. The customer will ultimately choose. It’s a matter of simplicity first because users will adopt it.”  

“The customer wants simplicity and legibility; if we don’t integrate these, we have failed,” added Timothy Papandreou – CIO, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. “It’s a symbiotic relationship that we have with our customers now. It takes us so much time to get loyalty from people that if we make one big mistake we’ve lost them and their family for about a year”.

Above: Rahul Kumar, Transdev

The constant and rapid evolution of IT technologies mean that today’s public transport customers are more informed than they have ever been before. “We’re heading towards the 4th Industrial Revolution – customers have a huge amount of devices in their hands,” said UITP President, Masaki Ogata.

This radical transformation means that we are seeing the development of a C2B model in the public transport sector, according to Transdev’s Rahul Kumar: “It’s probably the number one challenge we face in our history. We need to change before we have to,” he argued. Cinzia Farisè, CEO of Italian rail operator Trenord was unequivocal on this point, arguing that good customer service is non-negotiable: “We don’t manage trains, we manage people’s time. Being innovative in customer relations is essential to being competitive.”

Putting the focus on the customer is something that has not traditionally been at the forefront of considerations in the sector and Rosina Howe-Teo, LTA Singapore’s Chief Innovation Officer had some words of advice for transport authorities: “The authority has to get its hands dirty and get to know its customers, although it’s not something we are comfortable with. We can’t run away from it,” she argued.

2. Autonomous vehicles are coming…and they’re going to be disruptive
Be under no illusion, autonomous cars are coming very soon to a city near you. What impact then will they have on cities and on traditional public transport networks?

They may not be the panacea the car industry would have you believe: private cars spend 95% of their time stationary and are on average 80% empty. Going autonomous would not help solve this and cities would still be faced with the scourge of driverless congestion.

Let me tell you: the autonomous car is really coming

At IT-TRANS there was a shared feeling that driverless cars could be harmful for public transport: unless they can be put to shared use. “Let me tell you: the autonomous car is really coming and I don’t know if governments are really ready for it,” warned keynote speaker and US mobility visionary, Gabe Klein. Whilst private autonomous cars offer no solution to congestion, shared vehicles could cut traffic drastically: “Six or eight passenger vehicles could become transit vehicles,” he explained.   

Above: Timothy Papandreou, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency

“Shared and autonomous meets our cities’ goals and enable us to give some much needed public space back to our city and citizens,” added Papandreou.

Driverless vehicles will ultimately blur the lines between traditional public transport and the private car, causing us to rethink how we operate. “Nothing can replace the core urban capacity [of public transport] but maybe that poor suburban bus service can be done better and cheaper by autonomous vehicles,” said Klein, with digitalisation providing a helping hand to better match supply to demand. “We need to look at where people are going to live and what infrastructure they need”.

3. Mobility as a Service: it’s the next big thing
The rise of the shared economy is transforming the way we think about access to goods and services and causing us to reconsider the need for ownership, particularly of the private car.

“The world’s population cannot continue to drive around in their automobiles, it is just not going to work,” said Klein. “Ownership is dead in many ways: shared mobility and public transport are the future and Ford probably won’t be making cars in 50 years”.

People don’t want to own a car because it’s an annoying hassle to have in the city

Mobility as a Service (or ‘MaaS’), could offer an attractive alternative to owning a car, particularly to urban dwellers. “Our behaviour is changing: the sharing economy is making a real difference,” said Moovel’s Thomas Friederich. Innovative services such as Hannover’s ‘Mobility Shop’ encompass registration, routing, booking and invoicing for various modes of transport, including traditional public transport, taxis and car- and bike-sharing.

“People don’t want to own a car because it’s an annoying hassle to have in the city,” Papandreou argued. “Access is becoming more important than ownership. Cars are such wasteful, stupid and energy-inefficient things to have in cities.”  

4. Make IT work for people
Gabe Klein’s keynote speech was heavily focused on designing urban environments that prioritise people over cars and throughout the course of IT-TRANS, participants were keen to stress the need to put people before technology. “If we make the same mistake as in the 1950s by putting technology in front of people we could be heading towards a dystopian future,” said Klein. “We need policies and technology that prioritise people’s happiness”.

Above: US mobility visionary, Gabe Klein

Innovation for innovation’s sake is only useful if it helps solve real-world problems and offers quality of life solutions. Giuseppe Attoma Pepe of the Attoma consultancy gave delegates a useful reminder that the end user of IT solutions for public transport is the customer: “We always create problems today, but are they real problems? If there are solutions, will people actually use them? Let’s design IT systems for humans, the most important part in the transport business”.

5. The role of public transport in tomorrow’s cities
With the arrival of autonomous cars and the unstoppable rise of ride-selling services, it might be tempting to wonder how traditional public transport fits into this brave new mobility world.

We need to embrace the IT revolution

The ace card public transport has up its sleeve is its ability to transport vast numbers of people, enabling it to play a ‘backbone’ role in cities. It will, however, need to develop inter-modal platforms and integrate new mobility players to truly reply to customers’ needs and ensure that ride-selling services are just part of the picture and not the only show in town.  

“We need to embrace the IT revolution to lead the pack and become the backbone of urban mobility through the use of all these new tools,” said UITP Secretary General, Alain Flausch.

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