What is the future for public transport?

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From Hyperloop to drone taxis, spectacular technological transport projects are flourishing. But what about the reality of future public transport for everyday life after the Covid crisis?

Public health emergency: sea change or simply a bump in the road for shared transport?

In 2020 and 2021, we have seen a rethink of some of the usual modes of transport during the public health emergency. Soft mobility has benefited massively from modal shifts during the crisis, particularly for short distances, and above all cycling in major cities. Helped by new temporary or permanent cycle-ways, in the wake of the crisis its use has grown strongly. Private car use also picked up strongly between the lockdown periods until it returned to its normal level on the Paris ring road in September 2020.

But public transport has suffered greatly from the crisis: the Paris Region Institute notes, for example, that public transport use in the Ile-de-France has stagnated since November 2020 at around 50% of its usual level; at the start of the school year in September 2020 and with no health restrictions, it had peaked at 65% of the norm.[1] Is this rejection purely specific to the health situation or is it destined to last?

Before the Covid crisis, public transport was still mode of transport mostly used in large cities. In France, according to INSEE, it is most widely used in the Paris catchment area, where it is the daily mode of transport for around 44% of working people.[2] But outside Paris, it involves only 14% of the working population in urban centres, and only 2% of the working population living in communes outside urban areas. We do not yet have enough hindsight to measure the reality of the urban exodus that was reported in the media during the Covid-19 crisis; however if it turns out to be true, it will probably not be to the benefit of public transport, whose coverage is poorly developed in sparsely populated areas.

Private vehicles versus public transport

In 2019, Tesla’s media-friendly CEO Elon Musk publicly complained about the difficulty of deploying electric vehicles and charging stations in Singapore. The city-state’s official response: “Elon Musk wants to promote an individualistic lifestyle (…) while we want to promote public transport”.[3] Whether combustion-engined or electric, the private car is no longer welcome there. This vision sums up the opposition between private and collective vehicles, which can be found in major European cities: among others in Paris, London and, in a much more radical way, in Oslo.

Let’s go back to Singapore: transport has been centrally planned there since the 1970s. The transport authority supervises both public transport (including the MRT metro) and the road system throughout the city state, but also taxis. A planning policy is deployed to tax and discourage the use of the private car while financing a dense and efficient public transport network. The goal is simple and ambitious: by 2040, any journey in the state should be possible in less than 45 minutes.[4] This will require huge works: the 182 kilometres of metro lines in service in 2014 will have to be doubled by 2030.

Metro-city: a globalised mass-transit model

These ambitious works can be found in many Asian cities, first and foremost in China: in 2019, more than 970 kilometres of new urban rail networks were inaugurated in 40 cities of the People’s Republic… In one year[5]! A high rate of deployment to meet the mobility needs of recent, numerous and densely populated cities, for which the metro is a response with an efficiency that is difficult to match. This is why it can be found in more than 150 cities worldwide (in 2018), mainly in Asia (54) and Europe (46). With more than 194 lines created or extended between 2010 and 2014, this mode of transport is progressing rapidly and has great prospects for the coming decades in developing countries in particular.

But the development of these networks is not limited to developing countries. Both the greater Parisian and London areas are deploying new, highly ambitious lines in an attempt to free themselves from the limitations of their respective networks while enhancing their territory. In Paris the Grand Paris Express, consisting of four new metro lines, mainly in an outer ring, totalling 200 km, planned to open between 2024 and 2030, should resolve the difficulties of travelling by public transport between districts in the inner suburbs. In London the Crossrail Elisabeth Line, a 118 km cross-city line using certain sections of existing lines, should reduce the saturation of the network and facilitate East-West traffic. These projects are also designed to enhance the value of certain areas of land, develop new neighbourhoods and enhance the value of existing areas, but for which the change in property prices around stations remains difficult to predict. Construction budgets are also difficult to estimate accurately.

But metros are not feasible everywhere. In less densely populated cities, or those of smaller size, the bus wins out, adaptable to any road network it is the most widely used means of public transport in the world. The tram, which is lighter than the metro and of higher quality than the bus, is also more widespread than the metro, with 388 cities worldwide in 2018. Some exclusive right-of-way buses achieve the efficiency of trams or metros in some cities, at a much lower cost. We should also mention informal public transport (shared taxis, vans, collectivos, etc.) which account for a large share of journeys, particularly in developing countries.

Urban cable cars are sometimes advantageous solutions for cities, especially when they cover a significant difference in height or when they fly over restricted areas (infrastructure, wasteland, cemeteries, bodies of water, etc.). For cities where bodies of water, rivers and canals can be used as infrastructure, new concepts of urban river transport are appearing: for example, the SeaBubbles tested in Paris at a speed of 40 km/h as opposed to the 12 km/h currently allowed, or the Flybus, which resembles 49-passenger vaporetti but is much faster. Lastly, daily car-sharing, although it is struggling to develop for home-work journeys, could represent an alternative to individual travel… using private vehicles! Should shared cars, such as the “Uber Pool” scheme suspended during the Covid-19 crisis for health reasons, be counted as collective transport?

The best of both worlds?

And there are many future transport projects that are difficult to classify as individual or collective. According to some, they combine “the best of both worlds”. For others, they can also be costly megaprojects that do not address the real mobility issues of the majority of people. Examples include Next’s modular taxis, Fünambul’s giant wheels on rails, OTO’s bubbles that move horizontally and vertically through buildings, and the suspended skyTran. What these projects have in common is that they require dedicated infrastructure, favour isolated spaces for one or a few users, while grouping several modules on certain sections of the routes to gain in efficiency.

But new vehicles can also be used on existing road infrastructures: many projects are based on the vast change in individual transport represented by autonomous driving. Tested for several years by Tesla, Uber, Google and Waymo for Alphabet, but also by the French companies Navya and Renault, among others, the ability of vehicles to operate without a driver opens the way to many new services installed in vehicles: mobile offices, but also libraries, leisure and party spaces… This makes the autonomous vehicle a shared mode and not an individual private property. Although this is unlikely to reduce road traffic – some experts say it could even increase it – city centre car parks could be affected and free up space for new uses.

Some want a more elitist approach by proposing to develop urban air transit. Where on the one hand Aeromobil or Pal-V “flying cars” require a pilot’s licence and are therefore unlikely to develop, on the other hand Uber, Airbus with Vahana, and Lift Aircraft with HEXA, have a shared ambition to use autonomous and unmanned vehicles. These giant drones would be assigned to dedicated platforms and would therefore not be able to land just anywhere… Which makes them as inflexible as an underground network! Their future remains uncertain, although Uber is adamant that they will be flying around town in a few years’ time. These experiments are in fact reminiscent of urban helicopter routes, such as the one that existed in New York City between the airport and the roof of the Pan-Am building in Manhattan between 1965 and 1968 for business class passengers, or the route that still links Nice airport to Monaco “at the unbeatable price of €140 one way”.[6] A mode of transport that does not seem to be suitable for everyone’s day-to-day needs, for reasons of either cost or capacity.

Lastly, there is the rise of numerous rapid inter-city public transport projects as an alternative to conventional trains, using magnetic levitation in particular: Hyperloop, planned in California for a speed of up to 1,220 km/h; the Chuo Shinkansen or Tokaido Shinkansen Bypass connecting Tokyo to Nagoya in 40 minutes in 2027; the HTT being tested in Toulouse, or the SpaceTrain, based on Jean Bertin’s French monorail aerotrain project of the 1960s-1970s, reaching 700 km/h and for which testing is being resumed on the monorail near Orléans. But are these new developments really necessary when high-speed trains are available and when some believe that demand for mobility could decline?

Towards demobilisation?

All these projects offer different perspectives for the development of urban transport. As a complement to soft mobility, public transport can be light and dedicated to short and medium distances (buses, informal modes), or more massive and efficient but requiring significant investments (metro and more generally rail modes). New technologies could provide new solutions, although those in the pipeline today do not seem to meet the needs of the majority of people immediately. In the background, the transformation of vehicles to autonomy could lead to new configurations. But that is not all.

The refocusing of the city on short distances, embodied for example by the concept of the Quarter-Hour City promoted by Carlos Moreno, also offers an interesting alternative. It allows more services to be offered over short distances, thus reducing the need for mobility and ultimately the need for new modes of transport, both individual and collective. This demobilisation could therefore go hand in hand with rethought proximities, as we analysed in 2018 in a trend booklet “Cities and mobility, reinventing proximity”[7] In addition, the development of teleworking could reduce the need for day-to-day mobility, and consequently its carbon footprint, although this must be qualified as mentioned in a previous article.

Finally, we could imagine, in the manner of François Bellanger[8], new soft mobility, supported by hygiene infrastructures and inspired by urban sports: swimming, sailing, running, urban hiking… as the means of travel of tomorrow.



[1] Source: Institut Paris Région, Tableau de bord de la mobilité en Île-de-France, May 2020 https://www.institutparisregion.fr/mobilite-et-transports/deplacements/tableau-de-bord-de-la-mobilite-en-ile-de-france/

[2] INSEE, 2021, https://www.insee.fr/fr/statistiques/5013868#titre-bloc-9

[3] South China Morning Post, 22/08/2019, https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/3023835/singapore-hits-back-elon-musk-saying-electric-cars-are

[4] Land Transport Authority, Land transport master plan 2040, 20-minute Towns and a 45-minute City. https://www.lta.gov.sg/content/ltagov/en/who_we_are/our_work/land_transport_master_plan_2040.html

[5] According to the Chinese Association of Metros.

[6] https://www.monacair.mc/fr/routes/helicoptere-nice-monaco/

[7] https://www.bouygues-construction.com/blog/fr/non-classe/villes-mobilites-reinventer-proximites/

[8] Notably in the framework of the think-tank and the Transit-City blog: http://transit-city.blogspot.com/