When transport and technology collide: an interview with Louise Baker, Opus

4 November 2014

We interview Louise Baker, transport scientist at Opus, to find out more about the nexus between transport and technology.

What does your role at Opus involve?

I work for Opus both as a Project Manager and a Principal Transportation Consultant. I run project controls on some of our large and complex jobs, and each year I also lead a few travel behaviour change projects for clients around New Zealand. I also do a bit of carbon accounting, give advice on developing environmental management systems and other sustainability projects, and contribute to transport research. I’m on the Opus Women in Leadership Committee too.  My work is really diverse and I enjoy it a lot.

Why are you drawn to technology?

I’ve been interested in technology since I was a child. My Dad worked for IBM, so we grew up with computers in the house, and working for Orange straight after university meant that I had a cellphone before most of my friends did.

Recently, I was feeling a bit out of touch technically, and after years of being someone ‘in the know,’ that was an uncomfortable place. There seemed to be a big change coming, but I didn’t feel like I was part of it. I didn’t have a Twitter account, I wasn’t sure what the difference was between crowdfunding, crowdsourcing and crowd-sensing, or between an API and an app, so I went looking for information. I started by reading Nick Harkaway’s book “The Blind Giant- Being Human in a Digital World”.  This made me feel confident that I wasn’t alone, and also that I could catch up and keep up if I just put in a little effort, so I asked Opus for support to write a paper on transport in the digital age.

How do you think transport professionals can catch up?

Not everyone’s getting left behind: I know from Twitter activity that many NZ transport professionals are up to speed and I’ve learnt a lot from them.

I’d encourage everyone to embark on a journey of digital discovery. If we don’t, we risk distancing ourselves from millennials in particular. For leaders and managers, this might mean you don’t tap into the potential of your younger team members, or that you use out-of-date thinking to make key strategic decisions. You also run the risk of not providing relevant and up-to-date websites, services and outcomes for your customers.

So if you don’t have one, get a Twitter account – it’s a great way to get the news first and to stay up to date. I’d also suggest reading and watching a few things. Last year I wrote a paper for IPENZ called “A Travel Demand Management (TDM) Digital Safari” (click here to view). This paper was intended to be (and still is) an introduction to transport-related digital developments.

The digital world moves really quickly, so a lot has happened since I wrote it. Last year the U.S. PIRG Education Fund published a paper called “A New Way to Go – The Transportation Apps and Vehicle-Sharing Tools that Are Giving More Americans the Freedom to Drive Less.” This goes into some of the policy problems that the US government is facing in this area. It’s also well worth watching Tony Seba’s Auckland Conversations talk from earlier this year on Clean Disruption, and of course, keep up to speed with the SBN’s Accelerating Smart Transport work stream.

How has technology advanced more sustainable transport options?

That’s a big question! Location-based applications (this means the tools on your smartphone or websites that use a digital map) make it much easier to share information, find each other, and get to places.

I think that Nick Harkaway is right when he says that social media is a real area in which democracy can happen. The tools are here which allow us to own fewer cars, share more and even design our own public transport system. Your Drive allows you to rent your car to others or hire one. Uber is already operating in Auckland, and I expect to see UberPool here soon, which lets you share an Uber taxi with others, so potentially people could start to build shuttle routes where they actually want them.

There are public transport apps that successfully capture real-time feedback from users. You can tag problems on Fix My Street and report issues as them as you see them. Big Data is pointing us to where our real problems lie on the transport network, which is much better information than a model can provide. We could be making decisions and prioritising transport projects based on real-time congestion data, instead of modelling.

A couple of months ago, the German city of Wiesbaden was voted the worst city in Germany for cycling, so a local creative agency created an app to help plan its bike paths. As cyclists rode down city streets, the app traced each route and added it to a giant crowd-sourced map of suggested bike paths in the city.

The change in electric vehicle and self-driving technology is coming. Author Tony Seba covers this topic really well and offers a vision of a future where social media, location based technology, clean energy and autonomous vehicles are all working together.

Why does transport planning need to catch up with technology?

As well as planning for infrastructure, transport planners also work with communities to reduce solo car trips. Digital technology has opened up a lot of potential to make that work even more worthwhile. Six years ago we didn’t even have Google Maps, Apple Maps or OpenStreetMap automatic programming interfaces (API), so if a travel plan or transport strategy hasn’t been updated since then, it’s time to take a fresh look. The carpool databases launched in the previous decade really don’t have the potential that the new social-media based apps have, like Carma. Carma allows users to build groups of ‘trusted strangers’ to pool with. Widening options like this gives users the flexibility that they’ve been asking for.

The corporate giants like Uber and Lyft can hold their own when they turn up in New Zealand, but transport professionals need to reach out and connect with the really awesome digital technology developers that we have here.

If developers were well-connected with transport planners and scientists, we’d be able to stimulate needs-based innovation, which could help great ideas and apps to become successful. We could also seed developers with ideas and grow jobs in this area. And we don’t need to wait for self-driving cars and electric vehicles; there’s a lot we can do right now.

How can the data used in transport planning get up to speed with real time transport situations?

I’m concerned that the evidence base for some travel behaviour change approaches is out of date. For example, evidence to support the effectiveness of personalised journey planning comes from before the launch of online journey planners.

We’re still carrying out paper-based public transport customer satisfaction surveys. If we want to respond to feedback quickly, that’s something that might benefit from an app-based approach that collects feedback in real time.

I see a huge role for transport planners in steering us through change or disruption. I don’t think that order is going to emerge from the bottom up for the transport app economy, and I think that transport planners need to help travellers to find the tools that work best. Leaving travellers to hunt around in the app store isn’t very responsible, it’s bewildering in there!

Travel planners can also help to build online communities of commuters, whether this is geographic, employer or education-provider based. Making data open is a part of stimulating development, but we need to help good ideas and apps to thrive too.

Why is Opus interested in speeding up and scaling smart transport in New Zealand?

We see this as an emerging area of business and one in which we want to remain involved and be seen as thought leaders. As well as having transport engineers, planners and a geospatial team, we have a team of urban scientists within Opus Research that have already worked on papers which cover traveller information systems; what young people want from transport in the future; and the future of parking.

In Auckland, our transport planning team recently included a digital section in a transport strategy for a university, and we wrote a paper for Auckland Transport on potential tools for business travel.

We’re also funding some research of our own for Auckland, called “Beyond the Storage Box Suburb”. The title is inspired by Stephen Burgess’s description of suburbs being places that we keep people overnight until we need them the next day, so the opposite of a vibrant neighbourhood. With this research, we’re hoping to develop some current Auckland-specific evidence to help tackle this known problem. This ties in to one of the SBN’s Accelerating Smarter Transport labs. 

How is technology helping to speed up and scale smarter transport?

Social media is helping to build online communities, which can be a base from which to launch ride sharing, or vehicle sharing applications, or even share your car park using apps like JustPark, I believe some of the social media based carpooling apps are talking with the likes of Nextdoor. Ridescout is neat (although not yet in NZ), it’s an app that makes hunting for a ride easier by aggregating trip options for a traveller, so it brings carpool rides, bus and train real time trip options together.

Can we expect disruption in our transport system?

Yes. Disruption is coming: electric vehicles, self-driving cars, the sharing economy, peer-to-peer communities, and location based apps will upset the status quo, it’s just a matter of when. We should welcome this change and get ready for it and it will be business that leads and drives this change.

Tony Seba likens the change that’s coming to be as big as the change from horses and carts to the motor vehicle. Last week Mercedes reported that they’re working on a self-driving truck; there are electric vehicle charging points going in at New Lynn and Sylvia Park malls. The Google car is already on the road, there are self-driving shuttles at Heathrow… change is coming!

What can people do to harness the power of technology as it relates to transport?

Stay informed! Millennials in particular are ready for these changes and tend to think outside the box a bit more when it comes to getting around, and they’re always online.

When it comes to electric vehicles, that’s going to be an easy choice as the cost of solar energy comes down and technology gets cheaper. It’ll take a little longer for attitudes to shift from private ownership to shared fleets, but making such changes will help households to save money on transport. This change is not just about getting around differently –  it’s about joining a community, it’s about sharing and giving, it’s about being freer. These things are good for the human spirit and make our cities and planet a better place to live.  

To find out more about SBN’s Smart Transport workstream, click here. To get involved as a project partner, contact Matt Ayers. Follow Louise on Twitter: @digital_TP