It would be the wrong time to cut back on commitments to build next-gen systems.

Published originally on Gulf News, October 13, 2020
By Olivier Badard, Senior VP, Asia-Pacific, Middle East, North Africa - RATP Dev

The early months of this year saw a slowing or shutting down of urban public transport networks in an unprecedented way. Since then, the question everyone has considered but cannot yet answer, is when, and to what extent, our cities will return to normal.

One of the earliest signs will be the resumption of ridership numbers back towards pre-pandemic levels. Cities which can effectively reassure customers of safety in the short-term and quality in the long-term will have a competitive edge in the post-pandemic economic recovery.

We are now entering an era when the average passenger may not have used public transport in months. Raising levels of anxiety are inevitable. As such, transport authorities and operators first priority is to ensure networks are designed in a way that secures passengers’ actual safety and also provides peace of mind when travelling.

Fear of the unknown

The International Energy Agency recently released a report which perfectly illustrates the challenge facing public transport today. In the IEA’s view, as long as the perceived chance of catching COVID-19 on mass transit outweighs the risks associated with other forms of transport, many commuters will stay away.

This will likely be even more acute in cities, such as many of those across the Middle East, where there is an emerging, as opposed to established public transport culture. Showing these commuters they can travel safely, comfortably and quickly will go a long way to slowing rebuilding confidence in public transport networks.

Over time this feeling of safety, through high quality, high-tech and clean transport, will ensure that cities which invest are happier, healthier and wealthier places to be.

Don't lose focus

In an era when the global economy continues to take a heavy hit, value for money and long-term cost-effectiveness is more important than ever. Automation is a good example of how innovation can significantly improve the value of long-term transport investment through cutting energy costs and increasing revenues with greater capacity.

Designing, building, operating and maintaining a system that considerably reduces the chance for human error, reduces the need for repairs and can offer a more seamless high-quality service to passengers can provide major long-term financial edge to transport authorities. This is drawn from our experience of being the leading operator of driverless metros across the Middle East and North Africa and one of the largest in the world.

This improvement in service quality is best achieved through close collaboration between different operators, authorities and local providers. Delivering city-wide transport infrastructure requires naturally organisations of a certain size and technical capacity to deliver.

Localised inputs

However, designing and delivering service without the input of local companies, workers and citizens is far less likely to succeed. Developing local talent and building up the skills of a locally based workforce will ensure the longevity of major projects is more robust. Technical expertise is one thing but understanding local culture and tailoring the design of services accordingly is crucial to the success of any public transport project.

The Big Data and AI- based technologies available to transport operators today gives a clearer picture than ever before about how the network is being used, identifying opportunities earlier and tailoring services to suit the demands and behaviour of the consumer. According to a recent ADL report, the pandemic provides a medium-term opportunity to harness the power of data to both increase system resilience and restore trust between operator and passengers through an anticipated provision of information.

This must be done as a partnership between authority and operator to ensure the best possible decision-making process. At RATP Dev’s operations in France’s Greater Paris Region, we have ensured the public transport authorities, they have direct access to data our local transport network is generating. This ensures transparency as well as a more joined up approach to the benefits of our passengers.

No immediate return

The global transport sector can be under no illusion that difficult financial times are ahead. Passenger numbers may not return to pre-pandemic levels until well after the COVID-19 crisis is over. However, investment in excellence now is essential to restoring trust, confidence and demand for public transport services in the near future.

In many respects, now is the ideal time for transport authorities to invest in redefining their infrastructure and services. Passenger numbers are low, giving transport decision-makers space to think longer term about what their networks should look like 10, 20, 50 years from today.

The cities that recognise this are well placed to both weather the continuing economic storm and emerge into the post-COVID-19 era more prepared and ahead of the pack.” - Olivier Badard is Senior VP Asia-Pacific, Middle East and North Africa - RATP Dev