Public Transport — A Tale of Two Cities

Public transport – a tale of Two cities

Innovation and disruptive technologies get a lot of buzz nowadays. Deservedly so, with new technologies already delivering large cost decreases and improvements in access and convenience across different infrastructure sectors (see earlier Infrastructure Ideas coverage). But the importance of good management and planning, and the risks of incompetence, has not disappeared. Far from it, as the tale of two cities’ 2018 urban transport illustrates.

Let’s look at two cities whose transport fortune have gone in different directions this year: Paris, and Seattle.

A decade ago, Paris was at the forefront of business model innovation in urban transport. Their groundbreaking concept – shared bicycles – was taking off, soon to be replicated in hundreds of cities worldwide. Bike sharing remains one of the great innovations in mobility of recent years: taking a very old transport technology – the bicycle – and marrying it with new communications and big data capacity to create something completely new. In 2018, however, Paris’ Velib program is a shadow of its former self. As can often happen, problems hit with the arrival of new management, and a restructuring plan that wasn’t as thought through as it could be, and was poorly executed (a problem, of course, not limited to infrastructure companies). The new 10-year contract for managing Velib was awarded to a different company than before, with the odd name of Smovengo. The new contractor moved quickly to upgrade the one thousand-plus docking stations across the city, and deploy a new generation of battery supported electric bikes (new technology!). Unfortunately… the bike-docking replacement program was poorly managed and executed, leading to multi-month delays and large portions of the network becoming no longer usable. The limited number of docking stations able to recharge the new e-bikes in the 14,000 or so bike fleet themselves only had enough change for the mornings. Not the kind of service customers were used to or needed. Velib in a year lost 100,000 subscribers. By April 2018, daily bikeshares had fallen from their peak of 100,000 (which is a lot) all the way down to 10,000. Technology is great – but without good planning and management, it’s not much use.

Infrastructure, more and more, also affects politics (see first of a series of posts on the mix). Problems in urban infrastructure affect city politics, and the standing of mayors. Paris is not exception. While the Velib contractor has had to pay millions in penalties for not meeting performance targets, the big loser could become Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. A part of Mayor Hidalgo’s popularity, and much of her world-wide reputation, has hinged on her efforts to reduce pollution and make Paris a more livable, less polluted and pedestrian friendly place. Encouraging sustainable, green transit and pollution reduction have been a big part of her program. The problems of Velib, combined with court decisions against her moves to remove vehicle traffic from the Seine’s riverbanks, are creating political fallout, with a current disapproval rate for the Mayor of 58%.

Conversely Seattle, the fastest-growing large city in the United States, a decade ago was facing widespread discontent with urban congestions and traffic problems. In the ten years since 2007, Seattle’s population grew by almost 20%, growth stemming largely from its addition of nearly a quarter million jobs (Amazon has completely offset Boeing’s decline). Yet, as City’s Lab’s Laura Bliss reports, Seattle has done this without gaining more cars in its most congested areas. As Laura writes, “The number of commuters driving private vehicles downtown has declined by 10 percent since 2010, even as new residents and workers have spiked. By and large, new arrivals are instead choosing to ride the bus. Seattle’s King County Metro has seen an 8 percent increase in bus riders over the past nine years and gained about 700,000 rides between 2016 and 2017 alone.” This is the more impressive when one looks at the state of bus transport across US cities. Over 80% of US metro areas reported declines in bus ridership in 2017. As a Washington DC area commuter, I’ve observed the number of people on my regular bus dwindling, with those who look like “public transit by choice” riders virtually disappearing. Bus ridership, in fact, is at its lowest level in 30 years. That the bus is an old technology, and the availability of new mobility technologies has exploded, is certainly a big factor. But studies show the biggest factor in declining ridership is, in fact, declining service quality. The buses tend to get older, less attractive, less reliable, and are often caught in more and more congestion.

Seattle shows that good management can tackle these problems, and buck the trends to deliver increased mass transit ridership. Good management, including making smart use of new technology. Or put more accurately, marrying an old technology (the bus), with new communications and big data technologies – well managed, this is a recipe for success. Sound familiar? This was Velib’s recipe for success a decade ago. Seattle has rolled out the ORCA card, the tap-card fare payment system that’s usable across multiple area transit agencies – buses, streetcar, light rail, even water taxis. These cards, increasingly in use across urban transport systems globally, draw on new and still-improving data management technology. Smart management – creating dedicated bus lanes, effective bus modernization to improve client service, and a zoning approach that concentrates large employers in a small number of locations make a big difference. As does a type of Public-Private Partnership. Seattle’s involves urban transport agencies partnering aggressively with private employers across the metropolis to encourage employer support to public transit – and 90% of the city’s largest employers offer transit benefits to employees. Well-managed public programs also are more likely to draw funding support. In 2016, voters said yes to Move Seattle, a nine-year, $930 million transportation levy for street safety improvements and redesigns that give pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders more room. The results of good management in Seattle’s urban transport can be seen on the streets, and at the ballot box.

An even bigger city is trying to learn from these kinds of contrasting examples. New York City’s buses are the slowest in America, averaging less than 6 miles an hour in Manhattan. The city’s bus system has lost 100 million riders since 2017. While cutting-edge New York may eventually become a city of driverless cars, package-carrying drones, and flying Uber taxis, for now it is banking more on improving the old technology of the bus. Reviewing and reconfiguring routes based on data, getting buses that have a read-door as well as a front one, introducing a cashless fare system to speed people getting on and off, working on dedicated bus lanes. The New York City bus plan centers on taking an old technology and marrying with new communications and data management capabilities. Whether it delivers or not – well, that will depend on good management. Infrastructure always will, even as technologies keep evolving.