In the last century, providing public transport has been accepted as the government’s obligation to accommodate people’s movement. The government subsidizes public transport operations in order to keep public transportation affordable. This creates a contract between the government (as public transportation authorities) and public transport operators, which mainly includes how many public transport lines and timetable hours need to be operated by the public transport operator. This results in what we currently see: the public transport operator has to operate the public transport, no matter how many passengers are transported, just to fulfill their obligation. It is not strange to see big buses operated with only one or two passengers, which is certainly not sustainable. The public transport authority and operator mostly tackle this particular situation by either lowering the frequency of the unprofitable lines or simply suspending the lines.
Here is where Uber came into and disrupted the market. Despite the mixed reactions of the market, the successful concept of Uber should not be denied. Besides cheaper than a normal taxi, it also addresses 3 fundamental needs of passengers: reliability, door-to-door, and simplicity in booking/payment. The public transport sector can learn a lot from its concept. So, how could the public transportation system address these three things?
1. Strengthen the profitable corridors
When we talk about profitable corridors, we talk about urban public transport. Imagine when public transport authorities grant traditional public transport operators (who own traditional rolling stocks, such as metros and buses) with contracts to operate public transport only on the urban corridors with high ridership, for example, corridors to the city center. There will be no more issues of cross-subsidy, where the operator’s revenue from the profitable corridors subsidizes the operational costs of unprofitable (rural) corridors. At the end of the day, this positive business model will benefit the passengers and make public transport more reliable. Strengthening such corridors with high frequency and comfort will further increase ridership.
2. Replace low-ridership corridors
The concept of on-demand and door-to-door public transport is suitable to replace the traditional public transport in areas/corridors with low ridership and/or scattered demand (over a period of time). Imagine you live in a remote rural area without access to the traditional public transport, but you have access to on-demand and door-to-door public transport, which gives the comfort of a taxi but at the price of public transport. Such a carpooling system has existed, but passengers typically need to book way in advance and do not get real-time information about the exact arrival time. Thanks to digital technology, operating such a system can be much more efficient. Using smartphones, passengers can book a trip shortly in advance, be notified when the vehicle is coming, and be kept informed about the arrival time at their destinations.
There are currently many creative and innovative start-ups that offer such carpooling concepts, but they cannot survive as they operate entirely as private initiatives without government subsidies. In other words, all risks are on them. Public transport authorities should think about how they could encourage such initiatives to participate in the public transport system, not only to subsidize the initiative but also to help them achieve economies of scale.
3. Create simplicity in payment
The public transportation smart card is currently the most used form of payment. This will soon belong to the past. More payment options should be offered to passengers, such as using a bank card and/or mobile phone, two things that are indispensable in passengers’ pockets. Bank cards as a means of payment have already been used in the London metro. Other countries should be able to replicate this best practice.
These are three main things that I can think of in terms of how public transport should respond to the new trends in travel patterns. The traditional public transport system is still essential but ought to be limited to servicing main corridors. The rest should be served by on-demand public transport supported by a strong IT system. The same goes for the payment system; it needs to be modernized and elevated to accept a variety of payment options.
These strategies might only be relevant for the next couple of years. We might encounter new trends in the next, say, 10-15 years’ time, when Internet of Things and autonomous cars become an indispensable part of our life. By that time, timetable-based public transport might no longer be needed or the public transport system may have a completely new face.