Developing the tech behind the traffic

Transportation needs continually evolve. The authorities are shooting for a more efficient, pleasant and environmentally-friendly travel experience for the city's commuters.

IN 2018, Singaporeans clocked up 7.54 million rides a day on the country's MRT and buses. This is a new record and the 14th consecutive annual increase in public transport ridership.

This performance suggests that the island state's investment in public transport is bearing fruit. In fact, a 2018 study by McKinsey rated Singapore's public transport system among the best in the world.

Singapore's first MRT line began operations in 1987. Lengthy studies had concluded that the republic's limited land resources meant it could not keep building more roads to meet the rise in transportation demands, and that the solution therefore was to commit S$5 billion to building a rail-based mass rapid transit system.

The transport authorities faced the same challenges as those of any major metropolis - quite simply, how to get people to the places they need to go. As a McKinsey study notes, the world's cities are facing an urgent set of challenges when it comes to ensuring that fundamental right of urban living: getting around.


Urban transport is more than just getting from "A" to "B" - it is a vital part of the living, beating heart of the city. The McKinsey study says that one hallmark of great cities is constant movement, but sometimes that movement falters, and with it, the dynamism that defines them. Polluted air plus the economic costs and personal stress associated with traffic jams combine to make it imperative for city authorities to solve the transport challenge.

This challenge is complex, since it reflects the human reality of city life. Speaking at a forum in April last year, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: "The public transport system is an important piece of the 'grand project' to rebuild and reinvent Singapore. It is a 'multi-level design' issue that requires engineering, economic and socio-political solutions."

Cities know they must work towards reducing the number of cars and develop efficient public transport solutions. Subway and bus/tram networks certainly help ease congestion, but they must make financial sense for both passengers and operators, and must operate efficiently and sustainably so as to deliver pollution-free cities.


Public transport networks must also reflect and facilitate the evolving transport demands of city residents. With the rise of the millennial generation, there has been a dramatic change in the nature of work - the gig economy, more flexible working styles and the growing move to co-working spaces are contributing to changes in how, and when, people move around the city.

The expectations of this digitally connected generation have significant implications for public transport. Passengers today expect their transport choices not simply to take them where they want to go, but also to reflect the expectations of their lifestyle. Like their homes, workplaces and options for leisure, they want their transport to be technologically advanced, efficient and sustainable. Fortunately, advances in technology are delivering innovative transport solutions that can well be termed "smart mobility".


The technologies that are leading to smart-mobility solutions reflect the trends we see across society - they are disruptive of traditional transport models in the same way that new ways of working, shopping and relaxing upended earlier, more constrained lifestyles.

Disruptive trends are user-centred, integrated and intelligent. They involve new models for pricing and payments, and bring together private and public innovation. These trends are being leveraged to foster seamless integration between different modes of transport in order to achieve smart mobility and improve the individual's travel experience. Smart mobility strives to integrate all modes of transport, to provide a seamless end-to-end journey.

In practical terms, this means a multimodal system that maximises integration between bus, train and commuter rail systems to increase the range of accessible destinations, thus improving the competitiveness of public transport compared with the private car.

Such a network needs to include not only hard assets but an integrated digital platform that enables passengers to access and pay for different transportation services.


As Greg Lindsay, Senior Fellow at NewCities, observed, multimodal transport must accommodate the needs of multiple layers of people moving at different speeds, for different purposes. Heavy rail will always be essential for the core trunk routes - to get commuters from the suburbs into the city - but beyond this, transport authorities can introduce measures such as dedicated bus and bike lanes, and even autonomous electric vehicles.

A smart city that helps people move across it more efficiently will bring people together and help them find and access the goods and services they need and encourage greater citizen participation by expanding the city's usable space and linking disconnected neighbourhoods to the rest of the city, said Mr Lindsay.


What makes a multimodal transport service possible is the availability of big data and the opportunity to analyse it. Managers will have access to data on everything from traffic optimisation to intelligence on people flow, to updates on the city itself, be it road works and weather forecasts or accidents and crowd incidents. The real-time analyses of data from IoT sensors, telcos, car navigation applications and even third-party travel planner apps, will enable city managers to better predict and allocate resources, as well as respond to emergencies and uncover trends that would otherwise have been invisible.

Crucially, these smart digital solutions can boost the efficiency of existing high-capacity public transport modes, without the need for massive financial investment in new mass transit systems. They can improve the capacity and fluidity of an existing asset through a number of different capabilities, such as advanced signalling, predictive maintenance and centralised operation control centres.

The benefits to passengers of such a connected system include information on their options in the event of extreme circumstances which affect mobility arising, like public transport strikes or adverse weather. Passengers increasingly expect transport services to anticipate heightened traffic and suggest alternate routes via different available modes - be it bus, bike or taxi.


One gap in urban transport systems has been the first mile/last mile connection. Traditional solutions have included feeder buses and car- or bike-sharing systems, while more recent innovations are shared personal-mobility devices (PDMs) and electric autonomous shuttles.

Singapore is facilitating a smart first mile/last mile by changing the infrastructure - the authorities are building a cycling network across the island and redesigning streets so pedestrians, cyclists, buses and cars can co-exist.

There is no one-size-fits-all smart transport solution. Today's public transport managers and city planners recognise that multi-modal systems must always be changing and adapting to the needs of the city's residents. Getting people where they want to go demands a dedicated collaboration between multiple stakeholders to design, develop and implement a cohesive network of interconnected travel options. The result will be a more efficient, pleasant and environmentally-friendly travel experience for the city's commuters.

  • The writer is senior vice-president for the Asia-Pacific at Alstom


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