You Say You Want a Revolution

Some say there’s a revolution in transport. But to have a revolution, you need revolutionaries.

Transport is certainly undergoing a transformation in the digital age, forging ahead rapidly in the buzzwords of ‘big data’ generation and the development of ‘Internet of Things’ connections. Transport has become ‘smarter’, i.e. more automated, more dynamic, more shared, and more personalised, such that ‘mobility as a service’ (MAAS) is billed as the ‘mode’ of travel of the future. But is MAAS the transport revolution of the 21st century in the same way that the train or the automobile revolutionised transport in the 19th and 20th centuries by creating mass markets of revolutionaries willing to adopt new ways of getting around and even new lifestyles because of the new transport technology?

According to Professor Cristina Pronello of the Université Technologique de Compiègne and Politecnico di Torino, MAAS will only revolutionize transport and travel behaviour if it is developed in a ‘user-centric’, transparent and integrated manner. Which, she said, means MAAS should not be developed and imposed on society by the big corporate players such as Google, Amazon, Apple, etc.

In a talk she recently gave at the University of Greenwich, she compared the tech company travel solutions to an app which was developed for Turin, Italy as part of a European Commission-funded project she led. She called her app an urban navigator, not a journey planner, and pointed to the depth of real-time, multi-modal feeds and customization it offered to users to support their travel decisions.

This ticked the user-centric and integrated boxes, but the Professor admitted difficulty both in establishing data-sharing arrangements with the various transport providers to build truly real-time integration and also in recruiting participating travellers to ensure user-centricity.

I couldn’t help thinking that Google Maps has none of these problems. Most people have it pre-loaded on their smartphone, and the company set the original standard for open data feeds. And if it has not quite the depth and real-time reactions of the app she discussed, I have met Google employees and am given to understand that they are constantly improving the multi-modal integration and accuracy of their mapping – journey planning – navigation tools through validated historic trips which users have themselves tracked and reported.

So what about transparency? There’s the rub. The European project embarked on numerous contracts, enforced a standard data format, and created an open data portal. Anyone with the skills could see where the data was coming from and how it was driving the app’s results. The tech giants are much more opaque, and most would agree that they are more motivated by the bottom line and intellectual property rights, than by a public service mission.

Yet, as was discussed in another presentation in Greenwich, traditional methods and local governments can fail to address social equity in their transport provision as much as corporations do. Although statistical methods tend to be based on assumptions about behaviour in the pursuit of explaining why travel patterns occur and how societal trends may influence those patterns, they are rarely then used to influence decisions to create more equitable patterns. And the models themselves are often black boxes, with calculations undertaken within proprietary software.

In contrast, the algorithms of data analytics are based on no assumptions at all. They seek to learn patterns to accurately make predictions, not to explain how or why those futures have come to pass. If such patterns are most likely to create a viable, successful Mobility as a Service, then transport practitioners should surely be turning to algorithms instead of assumptions, and perhaps also to companies like Google for their expertise – and for access to all those potential revolutionaries already using Google Maps or paying for multi-modal transport on their smartphones.

And yet. Maybe the companies of the digital age should only be supporting the revolution, not leading it. If they are producing the algorithms and finding the patterns, there is still a place for transport planners, land use planners, and civic society to shape those patterns to be more equitable, more affordable, more sustainable. The beauty of those algorithms is that if they happen to find a pattern in the shape of a virtuous circle, they’ll advertise it and disseminate it without asking why, and that really would be a revolution.

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