Against the backdrop of the pandemic, rumours of the death of public transport have been greatly exaggerated (with apologies to Mark Twain). Yes, urban transport planners and operators are currently facing some of their biggest challenges ever: rising costs, legacy infrastructure and ever-decreasing passenger numbers. Personally, I am keen to get back to regular commuting – I've realised I miss the 'me time' at the start and end of the day – as well the role that public transport plays in seeing friends and accessing leisure activities. Meaning the essential component mass transport plays in our lives should not be written off so quickly.
Our latest Deloitte City Mobility Index (DCMI) suggests some encouraging signs for the future of public transport. We examined over 60 cities around the world to assess what works well and what does not. Decentralisation, digitisation and decarbonisation top the agenda for many city transport leaders. With improved public transport a key feature of the Prime Minister's 10 step plan for a green recovery, the opportunity for positive change looks very bright indeed.
For decentralisation, it is clear from our State of the State research that the need for quality local links has become ever more important to communities as people keep closer to home. Citizens and local governments are taking a more assertive and hands-on approach to ensure that new mobility services contribute to the broader goals of access, environmental sustainability and reduced congestion.
The use of digital technologies to improve both system performance and the customer experience has been well underway for years and will likely accelerate in the near term. We found in our DCMI research that network efficiency and how best to optimise assets will be crucial if passenger use decreases, enabling operators to get more proverbial 'bang for their buck'. Customers appreciate the convenience of being able to plan, book and pay for transport on digital platforms, and have come to expect real-time information on the timing and location of their next train, bus or even bicycle. If we want to reverse the drift back to cars caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, a highly functioning public transport service will be essential, and technology can help make that happen on both the back and front ends.
Doing all this in a way that decarbonises transport—the largest-emitting sector in the UK—has become an imperative for all. Moreover, as part of local commitments to cleaner travel, cities are giving more street space to active and sustainable modes, and the question will be whether these changes, borne of the current need to distance socially, remain a permanent feature in urban centres. Furthermore, cities are bringing forward the target dates for a clean-emitting fleet and also restricting car use in certain precincts.
The moment is ripe for a radical rethink of how we move people and goods around our cities. In the coming days, weeks and months the questions of how to improve our communities' economic and social lives must be answered: which modes get priority on our roads, what is the role of mass transport and how do we ensure a clean and healthy environment? We may not return to our old lives exactly as they were, but it is eminently possible that we will arrive at something cleaner, safer, faster and more accessible for all.
Simon Dixon is Deloitte's global transport leader, and Justine Bornstein is Deloitte's transport research leader