Disruptive Mobility: Help or Hindrance to Public Transport?

Vendredi 24 février 2017
Mobilité durable, Technologie, Technologie, Mobilité durable, Mobilité durable, Gestion de la circulation, Infrastructures de transport, Logistique, Mobilité durable, Viabilité hivernale, Gouvernance, Sécurité et Aménagement
Hussein Dia
Associate Professor (Transport Engineering)
Swinburne University of Technology Melbourne Australia

Disruptive Mobility: Help or Hindrance to Public Transport?

Innovations in the transport sector continue to introduce new opportunities to enhance the travel experience for millions of travellers every day. Over the past few years, disruptive technologies and innovative business models have enabled a wide range of mobility products and services which are influencing customer behaviour and expectations by providing flexible options to meet their mobility needs.

These innovations are increasingly being driven by a growing recognition that cars, once anonymous with freedom and mobility, have become victims of their own success[1]. The narrative is also changing — “transport” has become “mobility” and sustainability in the built environment is more often cited in research papers and policy documents[2].

Research is showing that car ownership is increasingly making less sense to many people, especially in urban areas[3]. Consumers are finding it difficult to justify tying up capital in an underutilized asset that stays idle for 20-22 hours every day. Digital disruptions and new business models, inspired by the sharing or collaborative economy, are encouraging a shift in consumer behaviour and have started to shape an exciting new era in urban mobility. The arrival of on-demand ride services, car-sharing, ride-sharing, bike-sharing, and other innovative solutions are all poised to change car ownership models and how people move around cities. The coming together of these trends has the potential to create much broader economic impacts and transform how people live and work.


The transport sector is the most funded industry in the collaborative economy[4]. This is manifested by one of the most promising trends within the disruptive mobility space, known as “Mobility-as-a-Service” or (MaaS). The key concept behind MaaS is to place the road users at the core of transport services, offering them mobility solutions based on their individual needs. This can be achieved by providing a single platform for combining all mobility options and presenting them to the customer in a simple and integrated manner. MaaS has the potential to fundamentally change the behaviour of people and reduce reliance on car ownership by providing easy on-demand access to a range of mobility options (Figure 1).

Figure 1: New urban mobility services
Source: Adapted from Urban mobility at tipping point, McKinsey 2015

The trend is therefore gradually shifting, particularly in the context of smart cities, from a traditional approach where governments rely on the provision of urban transport networks (i.e., buses, trams, and trains), to a focus on public-private-partnerships to introduce user-pay products and services which facilitate the movement of people and goods without significant investments in infrastructure. This allows for providing customers with easy access to services and opportunities, and puts their needs and requirements at the centre of a more considered and integrated mobility approach[5]. But at the same time, there have been some concerns expressed in recent times as to whether MaaS will disrupt existing public transport models and impact negatively on the provision of equitable transportation services, particularly to lower income groups.

Impacts of disruptive mobility: hype or reality?

In July 2016, Uber announced that it had completed two billion rides[6] since its establishment in 2010. The reported rate of growth in ridership numbers was staggering: it took Uber five years (between 2010 and 2015) to reach one billion rides, but only six months to reach the next billion! In June 2016, Uber also claimed that since the introduction of UberPool service in London in December 2015, the service reduced the total miles travelled by 700,000 miles over the six-month period[7].

Although difficult to corroborate these claims for lack of publicly available data, some recent independent research points to the disruptions caused by ride-hailing services (Figure 2). In results reported for the period of 2014-2016, research by Certify shows that ride-hailing is not only displacing the taxi industry (whose share of total rides declined by 51% over the two-year period) but is also impacting the car rental industry whose share of total rides is also declining.


Figure 2: Usage of Uber and Lyft versus taxis and car rental

Source: Special Report: Ride-Hailing Continues to Rise. http://www.certify.com/

Image Credit: Certify

Will disruptive mobility reduce social inequality?

A recent study[8] by the International Transport Forum (ITF) found that replacing traditional buses with shared buses and taxis can help reduce social inequality while making cities more sustainable and liveable. The implications of the ITF report is that significant benefits can be accrued if the new mobility solutions are shared. In the ITF report, the researchers compared existing bus, rail, and metro transport modes in the city of Lisbon to a hypothetical scenario where metro and rail services are complemented by fleets of on-demand eight- or 16-seater taxi-buses which can be summoned using mobile applications on smartphones. The researchers found that with shared mobility, the city’s transport needs could be met by a car fleet that is just three per cent of the size of today’s fleet. More importantly, it would make it easier for low-income people to access jobs and other essential services.

Will disruptive mobility complement or hinder public transport?

Decision-makers and leaders who run our complex cities are increasingly recognizing the role of disruptive mobility in improving the efficiency of urban transport. The opportunities enabled by MaaS can significantly improve operations, reliability, safety, and meet consumer demands for better services with small levels of public expenditure compared to investment in new infrastructure. At the same time, there are some legitimate concerns and arguments being put forward by some leaders who predict that disruptive mobility could be the biggest threat to public transport, particularly buses and shuttle services. Recently, the managing director of surface transport at Transport for London, Leon Daniels, expressed his concerns about these trends and how they are likely to be the biggest threat to buses[9]:

“Any time of the day or night diesel-hybrid, clean Prius, or similar is available to you in this city, and increasingly in other cities… It will take you to where you want to go. This is your biggest threat in the commercial bus sector. It’s cheap and it’s even cheaper if there’s more than one person travelling, and in many places it comes with an optional ride share scheme. So for three people travelling, whether they are friends or strangers, you can travel nearly as cheaply in many cases as you can on the bus network. And it’s on-demand, and it’s any time of the day, and it’s personal to you, and it’s door-to-door, and you are literally in a modern saloon car with air conditioning and even your own music channel through Spotify.”

These innovative mobility solutions keep fares down by making the utilization of vehicles very high (typically on hire for 50 of every 60 minutes). The prediction is that in some selected markets, these vehicles will also soon start to carry parcels as well as passengers. Leon Daniels further warned:

“Believe me because I have it in London already, that competition from personal mobility, app-based very efficient cars, through the taxi and licenced and private hire markets, is coming down the road to the commercial bus sector in cities and in our rural areas right now.”

Potential changes in the role of public transport

It can also be argued that new mobility solutions such as those that will become available through MaaS may provide an important complement to existing public transport systems. Related evidence may be drawn from some of today’s cities where technology-based car-sharing and ride-sharing is popular. Results from studies in San Francisco, for example, suggest that there hasn’t been a significant negative effect on public transport usage thus far. As of December 2013, Uber was already providing 160,000 trips per week in the Bay Area, a number that has likely increased in the subsequent months. Those trips, however, do not appear to have reduced public transport ridership.

According to statistics from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), ridership on buses and trains operated by all four of that region’s major transit operators increased between 2013 and 2014. It is suggested that the prices being charged for these taxi-like services may be too high to displace most people out of public transport for their daily trips. When autonomous driving becomes available, however, the cost parameters will change and autonomous on-demand shared mobility may very well challenge the status quo given that prices will be much cheaper because there is no human driver labour involved.

For other tech companies, the developments vary considerably. Lyft in the U.S., for example, recently launched a program called “Friends with Transit” which advocates partnerships with public transport agencies to enable riders to use Lyft in conjunction with fixed-line transit. The company sees ride-hailing and public transport working in tandem, and is a big advocate of increased spending on public transport. The thinking is that the public sector can handle the multi-billion dollar infrastructure and fixed-line investments in rail lines and subways that the private sector will never be able to do, while ride-pooling and on-demand rides (supported in the future by autonomous driving) fill in gaps and handles the first-mile/last-mile problems.

While it is still too early to draw conclusions, available research shows that in terms of city-wide impacts on mobility, public transport – particularly high-capacity for longer distances – will still have a strong role to play in urban mobility. Low-capacity public transport modes such as buses, shuttles, minivans, and school buses may however be impacted and replaced with MaaS, particularly for those trips that are too long to walk and too short to drive. Although MaaS could fill some of that gap, it’s hard to see it replacing public transport bus routes entirely.

Some studies have also suggested that disruptive mobility (particularly under autonomous driving) may also alter the public sector’s role in the provision of public transport. For example, governments may switch from subsidizing services for everyone to providing MaaS vouchers for disadvantaged groups. This would require a significant public role through subsidies if mobility for low-income people is to be maintained. This would raise many challenges for governments around the world e.g., how would those subsidies work, and would people have access to unlimited trips and travel distances?

Another area where public transport may be impacted is government- subsidized mobility services to people with disabilities. Some services provided by many cities in North America already offer eligible customers a point-to-point alternative similar to what can be offered by autonomous MaaS in the future.

Impacts of autonomous vehicles on public transport

Any advances in technology that provide for automated cars could also result in automated public transport vehicles, potentially saving significantly on the cost of operations by eliminating the need for driver labour. Automated trains are already common for new subway and elevated rail systems with some train lines in cities like Paris already converted from driver to automated operation. Buses moving around the city with no drivers could be more frequent because of reduced labour costs, and certain bus lines could probably be operated more profitably. Vehicle automation could therefore have a genuine competitor in automated public transport.

But automated buses and trains, much like automated taxis, do come at a cost: significantly fewer jobs in the transport business. This would pose a big societal question: is this a trade-off worth making? Is the robotization of transport labour a benefit for society as a whole in that it will reduce the cost of getting around and create more jobs in other industries? Or are the well-paid jobs in transport worth retaining as an essential pathway to the middle class? While these are all valid arguments about autonomous driving, the evidence so far[10] suggests that for dense urban neighbourhoods and major job centres, public transport (particularly high-capacity mass transit) will likely remain a big component of mobility options in cities.

Summary and future directions

Providing access to high-quality urban mobility services requires a variety of planning and operational innovations, as well as an in-depth understanding of travel behaviour, operational processes, and the factors which affect these issues. The convergence of physical and digital worlds continues to create new opportunities to improve the travel experience for customers. Cities around the world are expected to benefit from the use of MaaS but they must first overcome a number of challenges related to regulations and a better understanding of their impacts, particularly on equity of transport services. Available research suggests that deployment of these technologies, complemented by appropriate governance and regulatory changes, will deliver substantial benefits to customers such as personalized services that are seamless, well-functioning, and reflective of users’ diverse needs and requirements. For the public sector, full deployment of MaaS would improve the effectiveness of the whole transport system resulting in more efficient allocation of resources, improved traffic flow and incident management, and a more reliable transport system. For businesses, the benefits would include new markets and business models for mobility services and smarter transport connections for users.

Hussein Dia

Associate Professor (Transport)

Swinburne University of Technology

Melbourne, Australia

Hussein Dia is a civil engineer with credentials in smart mobility and transport planning and modelling. He has 31 years of engineering experience in the public and private sectors. His research interests are in next generation smart mobility systems and the convergence of technology, infrastructure, and human elements in urban environments. He is a Chartered Professional Engineer, Fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Fellow of the Institute of Transportation Engineers, and Fellow of Engineers Australia.



[1] Smart mobility (2015). Deloitte. Available at http://dupress.com/collection/smart-mobility/

[2] Bruun, E., and Givoni, M. (2015). Sustainable mobility: six research routes to steer transport policy. Nature, vol.523, 7558, pp.29-31.

[3] Private car ownership is on the road to becoming a rarity (2015). Available at: http://www.marketwatch.com/

[4] Owyang, J (2015). Ten ways mobility-as-a-service changes your lifestyle. Available at http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/

[5] Burrows, A. (2015). Journeys of the Future: Introducing Mobility as a Service. Atkins. Available at www.atkinsglobal.com

[6] Uber Hits 2 Billion Rides As Growth in China Soars—For Now. Available at: http://www.wired.com/

[7] UberPool has been used more than 1 million times in London. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/

[8] International Transport Forum (2016). Shared Mobility: Innovation for Liveable Cities. Available at: http://www.itf-oecd.org/shared-mobility-innovation-liveable-cities

[9] Uber is biggest threat to buses, says TfL chief (2016). Available at: http://www.passengertransport.co.uk

[10] International Transport Forum (2015). Urban Mobility System Upgrade. Available at: http://www.itf-oecd.org

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