State of the Art Urban Transport (UITP)


Transport conferences can be technically dry affairs, policy wankfests, or both. Whilst there were a few monotone speakers at the Union Internationale des Transports Public (UITP),‎ the global bi-annual event, hosted by Montréal, Canada in May 2017 was not in either of those categories. There were more interactive panels, digital poster sessions and workshops than ‘one way’ expert-to-audience presentations, as this summit featured technology and ideas in addition to transit vehicles and components.

This summit provides an overview of the state of play in the urban transport industry, as well as what directions it will take in the coming years. We took the opportunity to review the trends, evolving technologies, and latest vehicles to preview the state of play of the world’s urban transport, in 2017 and going forward.

A North American second

Only the second UITP Global conference to be held in North America, this ‎edition attracted 2,250 participants from 80 countries (the first being in Toronto in 1999). This conference covered around 30,000 square metres and featured 280 exhibitors.

Olympic Stadium, with downtown Montréal in the distance

There were official themes and topics of course, but here are impressions of some of the unofficial themes:

Cyber security

This Summit began just days after the largest cyber-attack to date on 12 May 2017, which affected more than 200,000 companies and individuals in at least 150 countries, including some large transit systems.

But cyber security was already a major topic of the Summit, which dedicated many presentations and panels to the subject, on three common themes:

  • • There is no silver bullet or blanket solution to electronic security.
  • • Strong partnerships are key.
  • • Big Data is essential to improving security systems.

LR has covered this topic in considerable detail.

Seize the data

Transport agencies are collecting billions of data points on their passengers’ travel patterns. And as the contemporary mythology of Spiderman’s Uncle Ben advised, “With great power comes great responsibility”.

The Director of Transportation at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (Muni) stated at UITP that data is key to innovation, but that it must remain open and public: “We believe in open data. It is all public information, and I think there is an obligation to share it”.

The CEO of Oslo transport authority further clarified: “Data is the strategic core of our business. But it is our customers’ data, not ours. We are like a bank, protecting the data for our customers, using it to provide them freedom and access”.

Data enhanced ‎mobility

Speakers on this topic shared another concept: information is power, and data is the backbone of a modern mobility system. However one speaker went as far as to state “I believe in information over infrastructure… Operators should worry less about improving or adding to current infrastructure, and more about optimising transport data.”

This technological exuberance is fine to apply in vast American suburbs and third world cities, but doesn’t scale up in large cities where the streets are jammed and the steel wheel meeting the steel rail is the transport solution.

UITP Conference centre and AV bus demo track at right

Urban Mobility Innovation Index

The UITP Secretary General introduced their new Urban Mobility Innovation Index (UMii), which they developed to provide insights into urban mobility and innovation in cities across the world, and offer a guide for cities to encourage innovation in their transport systems. The initial study evaluated 30 cities from around the world. Echoing the themes of the Summit, the key messages of UMii include the importance of sharing data and strategy, and of approaching mobility in the wider context of sustainable urban planning.

The UMii framework assesses the maturity of innovation in urban mobility through a number of indicators that capture multiple features of the innovation value chain:

  1. Does the city have a clear and holistic strategic vision and a plan for mobility innovation?
  2. Does the city have the skills required to test, deploy and implement mobility innovation?
  3. How is data used to inform and enable mobility-enhancing innovation in cities?
  4. How does the city approach regulation to influence innovation?
  5. What is the city’s capacity to invest and attract investment for innovative mobility projects?
  6. How does the city engage with and act upon user insight and experience?
  7. How does the city encourage seamless and integrated mobility?
  8. How easy is for users to choose healthy and responsible travel habits in the city?
  9. How well is the city performing as for energy consumption and air quality?

It follows then that innovation means much more than adopting new technologies. Innovative cities implement new requirements and laws, adapt regulation processes and find different ways to create, plan and collaborate on services.

Whilst somewhat subjective, the index does provide a starting point to compare different cities. The US Department of Defense (DoD) uses a similar, but more sophisticated, Capability Maturity Model methodology to determine the software development capabilities of software and systems developers that bid on contracts.

Technology curves

The technology industry, specifically software, has seen its share of tech development emotional roller coaster rides‎, with promising startups flaming out suddenly.

So technology research firm Gartner developed their Hype Cycle graphic representation of the maturity, adoption and commercial acceptance of technologies.

Explanation of the Gartner Hype Cycle

This graph can also be thought of as a technology maturity curve, and whilst not part of the US DoD Capability Maturity Model, each part of the curve represents a different phase of the evolution of technological maturity:

  • • Technology Trigger: The technology breakthrough or product launch that generates significant press and interest.
  • • Peak of Inflated Expectations: Marketing and publicity generates over-enthusiasm and unrealistic expectations. Some technology applications may be successful, but more are failures.
  • • Trough of Disillusionment: Technologies fail to meet the inflated expectations and quickly become unfashionable. The press turns negative on the technology. Becomes the Valley of Death for those technologies that crater commercially.
  • • Slope of Enlightenment: Some businesses continue with technology application trials to determine the practical benefits and limits of the technology.
  • • Plateau of Productivity: Mainstream adoption starts as the criteria for assessing and applying the technology are more clearly defined.

Electric and autonomous vehicle (AV) buses technologies are racing up the initial slope, as are large capacity vehicle electricity storage and fast recharging systems.

The billion pound question is, of course, when will they make it over the Peak of Inflated Expectations, and which will fall back into the Valley of Death.

The Electric Bus

Commercial electric bus services were pioneered in Italy’s historic city centres in the 1990s in an effort to reduce pollution. By 2015 there were 173,000 electric buses in service worldwide, but 98% of them were in China.

Furthermore, the International Energy Agency predicts that traffic on urban roads will increase by 60% by 2025, only seven years from now, and that this will drive up greenhouse gas emissions up by around 30%.

As diesel pollution dangers grow, and battery and rapid recharging ‎technologies advance, there has been a viral explosion of research and development into expanding the range of this class of clean vehicles.

It remains to be seen how many electric bus advanced components, such as longer life, higher energy density batteries and rapid recharging infrastructure, make it over the Peak of Inflated Expectations and survive the Trough of Disillusionment to commercial service. Even then, it is not yet possible to predict whether electric buses will universally replace diesel ones, or remain a niche premium solution mainly for polluted cities.

A recent report predicted that the global market for electric buses will grow to £128bn in the next ten years. The Electric Buses 2017-2027 report by IDTechEx Research also identified China as a dominant force in this industry, as the country is a leading manufacturer of such vehicles.

Clearly many manufacturers, operators, and investors ‎believe that improved battery technology, augmented by rapid battery recharging at stops or stations, will produce electric bus systems that approach diesel and diesel hybrid range and durability. Many different battery and quick recharge bus makes and models were presented in Montréal, but as individual routes are only now being equipped on a trial basis, it is still too early to say when the technology will be ready to replace diesel and hybrid buses in regular service.

An important benefit with electric vehicles is that they use the ubiquitous and proven electricity distribution infrastructure, unlike the next technology.

Hydrogen fuel cell

There was a Ballard hydrogen fuel cell (remember their last ride on the Hype Cycle curve in the 2000s?) booth at UITP, but the lack of others exhibiting similar technology belies the much lower overall investment in this technology, in turn demonstrating its perceived lack of promise.

Building a safe hydrogen generation, storage and distribution from the ground up has a number of factors working against it – hydrogen is the smallest element (atomic mass of 1) and is odourless, so it is expensive to detect, confine and safely distribute. If hydrogen escapes, it is explosively flammable.

Autonomous buses

The mania for AVs at UITP and in society in general echoes the illusion many have that Uber, Lyft et al are a viable form of mass transit.

However autonomous buses have fewer variables to deal with, such as regular, pre-defined routes, and lower operating speeds, meaning their widespread introduction into society may well precede autonomous cars.

Two autonomous small shuttle buses were demonstrated on a small circuit outside the UITP conference, carrying attendees and the public. These two buses (from Easymile and Navya‎) are limited to 20kph, which seems to be the common working speed for such buses. Helsinki and Paris have similar buses in trial service.

Transport network companies

This conference also addressed the issues of urbanisation, digitalisation, advances in green energy and the emergence of new mobility players like Uber, Lyft et al, now grouped under the generic label transport network companies (TNCs).

Carpe Datum – Last mile technology

Fortunately large transport agencies and tech companies are attempting to face the challenges of Uber-isation head on. Many large US cities are seeing their transit ridership decrease, likely because American cities have a higher road to city space ratio than cities in most other countries, except for New York of course.

The idea that established transport companies and agencies should partner with the new mobility and technology companies to provide a door-to-door mobility solution and to reduce car dependency was a major discussion topic at the Summit. Also discussed was the ideal scenario in which TNCs are restricted from operating in areas where public transport is strong, leaving them to serve the (much larger area) final mile.

However it was realised that developing effective legislation and bye-laws to encourage and enforce this will be difficult to achieve, especially over municipal, city, county and region boundaries.

Transit Apps

Door to door transit planning and information apps and systems, on demand bus services and Big Data prediction and optimisation, are increasingly called Mobility as a Service (MaaS). Extending this concept were a multitude of smart multimodal solutions at exhibit booths, promising to help create integrated ‘smart’ cities.

Some partnering with technology companies has already started, such as RATP Dev group buying shares in California startup Swiftly to have a hand in the latter’s real-time modelling and transit fleet management software.

From booth competition…

UITP Montréal saw the usual heavyweight booth competition between vehicle manufacturers. Buses, hybrid and electric, had been rolled in, with rail cars represented by models, virtual reality and the occasional walk through passenger space mock up.

…to tech competition

However it was clear at the Summit that public transport is no longer an old fashioned industry, having embraced technology, data and innovation.

A key example of this was the Summit’s hosting the world’s first ever Global Transport Hackathon (a hackathon is a physical meetup of programmers who collaboratively code up programs from scratch to solve a particular issue). UITP had backed local hackathons in more than 20 cities across the world (including Cambridge and Manchester) to foster new mobility technology concepts, with the additional goal of encouraging young programmers and entrepreneurs to get involved in the sector.

Transport user experience (UX) design

‎Modern UX and passenger flow mapping processes and tools can be used to streamline older metro systems and avoid the information mismanagement problem – typically service disruption data not provided to passengers in a timely or useful manner.

Who was there – and who wasn’t

When throwing a party, or receiving an invitation to one, ‎the first question people often ask is “who else is going?”. UITP Montréal was notable ‎in who wasn’t there in the expected large numbers – the Americans.

Whilst there were indeed some American companies with booths, and American delegates, they were not a noticeable presence at an international conference so close to the Homeland. One delegate posited that part of the reason for this was that any foreign trip, even a short few hours away, was difficult to authorise for major US transit agencies and for some companies. The spectre of looming massive transit grant cuts from the new administration likely also precluded senior company officers from attending this Summit. Another reason is that the American Public Transport Association (APTA)’s annual conference in October in Atlanta was about three times larger than this Montréal conference.

This leaves the impre‎ssion that America is becoming ever more inwardly focused, having already lost much of its own bus and rail vehicle manufacturing base.

Judging by the exhibitors at this conference, venture capitalists appeared to be more interested in the next Uber, Lyft, and ‘smart city’ type applications to optimise existing transport options, than investing in traditional transit industries. Such technology is fine for uneconomic suburban transit areas, but does little to improve light and heavy rail capacity issues or limited street capacity.

Le style du Métro

To end on a heavy rail note, Montréal’s Métro system is relatively new, its first section having opened in time for Canada’s 1967 centennial and the Expo 67 World’s Fair.

But what is notable about the Métro is that each station has unique architecture, uses different materials, and features bold colours.

New Azur train and Métro architecture

The brand new Bombardier Azur Métro walk through trains take this a step further, having lights that change colour to indicate when the train is approaching a station and when the doors operate.

Interior of Azur train

Written by Long Branch Mike