Traveling well: UTS challenges professional transport practice methods
For anybody who has ever wondered why some transport decisions don’t make sense, make traffic congestion worse and public transport services difficult to use, the latest research collaboration between UTS and TU Berlin on Transport Service Engineering is an eye-opener.
Dr Massimo Moraglio, from TU Berlin’s Faculty of Humanities and Educational Sciences, and Dr Michelle Zeibots, Research Director at UTS’s Institute for Sustainable Futures, are investigating the paradigms used by transport planners and engineers to plan and operate transport services.
The research explains why a lot of poor transport decisions were made in the past, but paints a surprisingly positive picture for the future.
Public transport has predominantly operated within what Zeibots terms a ‘command and control’ paradigm. The mindset results in transport operators and engineers delivering services in a way that’s easiest for them, but not convenient or ‘user friendly’ for transport customers.
‘A good example is the old practice of stop skipping — where late train services skip stations to make up time and return the service to its slot in the timetable,’ said Zeibots. ‘That’s a convenient way for operators to meet their on-time running goals, but it’s distressing for the people left behind.’
This way of thinking about transport was challenged in Sydney when Transport for NSW was formed and the customer is at the centre of everything we do became the new mission statement for all agencies within the NSW Government transport cluster. Many transport professionals had difficulty identifying what they needed to do differently to make this a reality for users, opening up a new research gap.
‘A customer service focus is not merely about asking people if they’d like fries with that,’ says Moraglio. ‘It requires change at a deeper level in practitioner thinking that focuses on people’s experience and perception of services.’
Visiting UTS as part of the Key Technology Partnerships (KTP) Visiting Fellow Program really appealed to Moraglio because he could see the value of a framework based on more customer-focused public transport, and re-framing this in terms of technology. With a background in history and political science, he brings a social historian’s perspective to the table. He says if we want to look ahead to the next 40 years, we need to look back at the last 40 to see what was happening and why the outcomes were often disappointing.
‘The digitisation of mobility is exciting for many reasons,’ explains Moraglio. ‘It makes a whole new set of social relationships possible and ways of organising and coordinating transport that was unimaginable last decade.’ He argues that this highlights the importance of understanding social, economic and cultural factors when trying to foresee how future technology will be used and received. This is where history becomes useful.
The ride-sharing app Uber was a ‘game-changer’, and a good example of this marriage between technology and the new mobility ‘sharing economy’, its fast rise to prominence has been controversial, explained Moraglio. It shook the transport industry, politicians, taxi drivers and public transport users. The communications technology that makes Uber possible changes ownership relations between people and cars. There is also an environmental dimension to these new technologies that could be beneficial for a world frightened by the prospect of climate change. Many have lower emissions.
‘Maybe in two years another new transport technology will shock the sector. If we approach it using old tools, old paradigms and old methods of professional practice, we will probably fail to get the best outcomes.’
Their current collaboration involves rethinking the European Union’s standard for customer service and Zeibots is currently using this in projects with Sydney Trains.
‘There was a lot of good work done in Europe about 15 years ago when the first attempts at redefining the relationship between customers and public transport service operators began. But we’ve learnt so much since then,’ says Zeibots. ‘It needs to be written-up and shared with practicing transport planners and engineers.’
Moraglio and Zeibots are looking to strengthen the partnership between TU Berlin and UTS. In July Zeibots will visit Berlin to teach and there are plans to offer PhD scholarships to help further development of the thinking in the area.
‘We’re looking at documenting a range of case studies that compare some of the latest technology developments in transport with examples from the past,’ says Moraglio. ‘It will be interesting to see if things have changed. We think they have because the social relationships supported by the technology are now different, potentially providing people with real choice and real service.’