Teched-up public transport

Teched-up public transport

The world is moving towards digitalisation at an astounding rate. We look at how public transport can follow suit to ensure integrated, secure and modernised transport systems.

Commercial and passenger transport requires a network of upgrades and technological innovations at every step to become digitised, says Dr Kulwant Singh, an advisor at the Busworld Academy in India. “Digitalisation is the way forward. It can help increase the efficiency of passenger transport, enhance its quality, lower costs, provide vehicle automation, bring endless connectivity and improve passenger transport’s sustainability.”

Stefanie Holzwarth, an urban and regional planner working with the urban mobility team at UN-Habitat (the United Nations’ human settlements programme), points out that the framework for sustainable urban mobility is based on the avoid-shift-improve paradigm.

“You should first and foremost try to start by avoiding and reducing the need for motorised travel – which could be done through transport demand management,” she explains. “We would then look at how we can shift to more environmentally friendly modes – for example, by promoting more urban public transport, as well as other modes, such as walking, cycling and increased shared mobility.”

Holzwarth notes that the last step would be to look at how the energy efficiency of transport modes can be improved. “This is where fuel efficiency, renewable energy and electric mobility comes in,” she says. “Digitalisation can be an enabler for all of these different sub-categories and can have a revolutionary impact on public transport.”

UN-Habitat has been engaged in various initiatives where public transport has been optimised across the continent.

A stellar example is a public transport planning exercise that took place in Nairobi, Kenya, involving the digital Matatus route maps. “Matatus are the minibuses currently operating in Kenya,” Holzwarth says, adding that the University of Kenya started mapping the routes and stops of the minibus system. “That provided an amazing insight into an otherwise very informal system that is based on paratransit.”

She adds that UN-Habitat helped train students to assist in conducting a transport-demands study, which identified the highest demand corridors for public transport in Nairobi.

“From there we moved to develop what is called the Proposed Mass Transport Route, really looking at those corridors that have high public transport demands and then planning for those corridors to be fitted with an efficient Mass Rapid Transit system. And from there a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service plan was developed. This is a perfect example of an innovative approach towards data collection that led to BRT scenario planning.”

Another example comes from Hyderabad, in India, where a smart-bicycle solution offers first and last mile connectivity to metro commuters. “It is based on a digital platform where smartphones can be used to unlock, lock and track the bicycles,” Holzwarth explains. “The main objective of the digitalisation of public transport should be to achieve a model shift to sustainable urban mobility. Digitalisation can truly improve the quality, convenience and safety of public transport and attract more people to this mode of transport.”

A local example of digitalisation in practice is helping to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. Joe Moyo, managing director of Afri Ride (a pan-African tech company), explains: “You’re exposed when you’re standing in the queue waiting for the taxi to be filled; you’re exposed when you enter the taxi; and you’re exposed when you are paying, because there is no taxi operator in South Africa that I know of who uses smart money or EFT payment systems.

“Everything is done in cash. And this virus is very stubborn when it comes to staying on surfaces.”

Moyo cites the Afri Ride app as a ready-to-use solution to help mitigate these and other risks that the transport and healthcare sectors are facing. It also allows passengers to pre-book their seats for a predetermined time and pick-up location, so that neither the driver nor the passenger needs to wait for extended periods at taxi nodes, such as taxi ranks, and payments are made cashless.
He adds: “We wrote to the Minister of Transport, the Minister of Health and all the other stakeholders involved to say, we’re a company in Southern Africa with a tailored solution for the public transport sector, right now. We are trying to help this sector to innovate because we will forever need public transport.”

There are several benefits of implementing the Afri Ride app in the taxi industry and of partnering with government departments. First, the app could restore the public’s faith in the health and safety record of travelling with taxis; secondly, it could help the South African government track and contain current and possible future outbreaks of the virus.

“Even after the epidemic is gone, there’s going to be one big element that is going to follow us and define how people are going to live: traceability,” Moyo says. “Traceability in terms of the current epidemic that we’re facing in the world. Traceability in terms of any other future events that will unfold, be it crime, be it another epidemic – and we’ve been warned that there will be many of them – be it for any other social or security reasons. Afri Ride provides the data to aid and control security, health and safety within the public transport sector.

“If somebody in the taxi is a carrier of the virus, we are able to contact the driver as well as the other passengers to let them know that they may have been exposed to the virus. Because the driver or passenger specifies the pick-up and drop-off location, it is easy for Afri Ride to determine those two locations, and the specific times, in order to determine places and times others could have been exposed to the virus.”

Moyo says that Afri Ride hopes to get government support and approval before approaching the taxi associations. “We have decided to forgo the admin fee during the current crisis for any public transport services that would like to implement the app in their business models and services. We need all hands on deck if we plan to mitigate the spread of the virus.”

The app offers other benefits as well. “You don’t necessarily need to spend the whole day waiting to load your taxi at the taxi rank,” he says. “You can simply list your trip on Afri Ride and only travel to the pick-up location to pick up those who have requested a ride.”

Moyo predicts that the future of public transport will forever be changed as a result of the harsh lessons learnt from the current pandemic. “The sooner the industry learns to adapt and innovate, the faster it will be able to recover from its current losses.”

In the words of Singh, “This disruptive technology is here to help us out and provide a better future.”

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Focus on Transport

FOCUS on Transport and Logistics is one of the oldest and most respected transport and logistics publications in southern Africa.
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