Transport futures same, same but different?

Maybe it has always been so. Iron age humans no doubt wanted to travel with speed and safety to attain food and tools, to gather with others and to explore. The need to move freely is fundamental to our existence on this planet and as true in a village in rural India as it is in any modern city. But regional, historical and wealth distinctions become apparent in accessibility to modes of travel and available technologies.

So, while our basic needs may be the same across time and space, transport in an urban centre like Sydney is going through widespread and fundamental change, the like of which has not been seen for over a century.

Advisian Professor of Transport Innovation Travis Waller articulates some of the challenges facing the profession in the midst of such rapid transformation: “We currently have disruptive technologies, big data, autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles, alternative fuels, shared economies, connected travellers, connected vehicle fleets, on demand public and private transport, subscription cars all happening at once.”

As the transport domain changes, engineers must let go of historical assumptions. No longer are travellers confined to a limited range of transport modes. Historically it has been a question of I own a car or I don’t. Now we move between modes more fluidly. Maybe I subscribe to a car, only using it for critical trips, while at other times I cycle or take a bus. As Waller says, “Individuals are changing how they travel, but it is government and engineers who need to plan around that highly disruptive and ever-changing reality. A daunting task, but an exciting one for researchers.”

No longer is transit design built solely around physical stations and stops. Here is the bus stop and there are only a few of them. Now with smart phones and on demand transit, any intersection becomes a virtual bus stop. Scheduling and servicing design needs to accommodate a changing and fluid on ground reality.

We currently have disruptive technologies, big data, autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles, alternative fuels, shared economies, connected travellers, connected vehicle fleets, ondemand public and private transport, subscription cars, all happening at once.


The contemporary reality is that everyone carries a data generating and receiving device. This has many implications, some of which have recently emerged, some yet to be understood. We have so much information, yet this is not a cure-all.

“I receive, through my smart phone, transport information that is reliable and correct, so, I become a better self-optimiser, better at finding a quicker, smoother, less crowded ride,” says Waller. So far, so good. When self-optimisation aligns with system optimisation that is indeed a wonderful thing. But when it differs it causes confusion. So how do engineers design a reality that aligns self and system optimisation, where the self-optimiser still helps the system? “This can be achieved,” says Waller, “ through effective development of algorithms, route and city design, quantitative tools and behavioural incentives, such as reduced pricing, that create right behaviour for the system as a whole.”

No longer is transport modelling about average conditions: “This is not what people care about. We did that historically because we didn’t have data. Now GPS means we can have second to second data about individual trips.”

No longer can we assume that public transport is a government delivered service with public good and system optimisations as its main objectives. Vinayak Dixit, Deputy Director of UNSW’s Research Centre for Integrated Transport Innovation (rCITI) believes this shift has huge implications. “If service mobility is now being provided by private players, then researchers and government need to ensure fairness of distribution and accessibility so that more mobility deserts do not appear. The complex relationship between transport and the property market needs to be analysed and factored into decision making.”

So many questions. How is technology interacting with humans? How is our behaviour as travellers changing? How are networks altered by these changes? What do we value as a society? Is it more important to get to work quickly or to be energy efficient? Is traffic flow more important than trees? Is efficiency more important than sustainability?

These are not either/or propositions, but questions that reside on a continuum of relative values: values that must be incorporated into transport modelling and planning. Tricky, delicate, time consuming.

While democracies at large must define these values, transport engineers must put numbers to these qualitative issues. As Travis Waller says “It is only when you put a number on an issue that you can enact real change. Quantitative data must be used to augment and improve survey information, but we must be careful not to let sheer volume overwhelm a balanced approach to research data.”

New operational paradigms require innovative data excavation and processing. In partnership with Google Maps Outreach Grant, rCITI is investigating emerging data sources. With access to Google data bases around the world, rCITI can create analytical profiles which are aligned with information from social media. “Someone sends a tweet. We can pinpoint an exact where and when, while LinkedIn provides socio-demographic information about that traveller, which is vital for regional planning,” explains Waller. “Looking across social media we can paint a much broader picture than our historical perspectives gleaned from surveys because they provide revealed outcomes.”

As we step fully into this new age of meta data, universities can take a leading role in the ethical implications of change. rCITI’s Vinayak Dixit has, for years, been advocating for data ownership and privacy rights, receiving enthusiastic support in theory, but only limited support in reality. “Universities demand a rigorous ethics approval process around research and we could be leaders in this area.”

And not only in this area. If so many of our historical engineering tools no longer apply, what do we replace them with? No-one has that definitive ‘something’ yet. But that’s the point of engineering: solve problems today and build tools for the future.