What does the future of transport in developing Asia look like?
Experts say technology alone will not save us from our past transport sins
The basics of urban transport are quite old and have hardly changed over the past hundred years. If we look back at the 1920s, we used the same modes of transport — car, bus, train, and bike. Since then, we have just done the old things in new ways. That is, until recently, says Paul Barter of the National University of Singapore (NUS). It is not so much new modes, but all of the high tech, IT-based technologies that are now creating a step change in urban transport.
Barter was one of several panellists at the Asia and the Pacific Transport Forum session on Future Directions for Transport in Developing Asia, held virtually on 28 August 2020. The forum explored the role of technology in the transport sector and included discussion on “big data” and artificial intelligence (AI).
“Big data” is a widely used buzz word. It is difficult to argue against the impact of data and information management on efficient operations — beyond our conventional systems. However, the problem holding us back is useful data, says Stephanie Sy, founder and CEO of data science consultancy, Thinking Machines. A lack of comparative data sets, inconsistent creation and sharing of basic data, and a dearth of open data standards were all recognised by forum panellists as a handbrake to the development of future transportation systems.
On one hand, we are swimming in data, with so much real time information available. Yet, at the same time, we do not have clear comparative data and the ability to evaluate human movement in the big picture sense. Is data not collected at all better than data that is collected and not used? The fundamental issue is a lack of coordination as many administrations underestimate the importance of data and the impacts on our transport system, says Sy, a self-proclaimed advocate for open data standards in government.
The problem with human movement data is that it predominantly focuses on private vehicles, the most space inefficient form of transport, says Barter. Pedestrians, bicyclists and multi transport modes are missing from all data sets. The forum panellists also cited a pressing need for origin and destination data, a core piece in the decision-making puzzle, and noted a lack of data on base routes and the capacity of transport systems. Street level data that is available is collected by private companies, says Sy. The Thinking Machines CEO called for greater focus on using AI methods to capture the right data to make decisions, with the goal of service delivery.
Investment in fundamental data gathering and data governance will take us much further than self-driving vehicles, says Barter. Though, despite the opportunity afforded us by technology, technology alone will not solve our past transport sins. Data and technology are tools, but a lot of our challenges are political and organisational. The use of AI and big data alone will not repair the flaws that already exist between transport and land use that have led to unsustainable cities, he says.
A public misconception is that private entrepreneurs are the driving force behind innovation. Often, the “hidden powerhouse” allowing entrepreneurs to thrive is the government. Barter emphasised the role of government in fostering innovation and urged authorities to focus on fundamental priorities — not just what is profitable. Developers respond to the incentives they see, he says. The right policies will encourage growth alongside a significant decrease in risk, such as climate change.
Sy highlighted several core technologies that can immediately improve transport service delivery including real-time operations management, intelligent ticketing systems — to encourage desirable behaviours, predictive maintenance, route demand forecasts — that allow capacity to shift as traffic and transit behaviour changes, and customer services technologies.
Developing countries, in particular, face real challenges when it comes to technology infrastructure with underlying issues such as consistent internet and the cost of harnessing data. Despite these challenges, the future of transport is in the Global South’s hands, says Bambang Susantono, vice-president for knowledge management and sustainable development of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Transport will be vastly different in 40 years, and in this dynamic the governments of the Global South can be the leaders of change, he says.
The term “Global South” refers to developing and emerging economies, specifically low- and middle-income countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Developing countries are traditionally associated with frugal innovation created under resource constraints. Technology-driven innovation is more commonly connected with the Global North, according to a 2019 report by the International Transport Forum (ITF) entitled Expanding innovation horizons – learning from transport solutions in the global south. However, the 2019 report challenges the validity of this assertion, identifying game-changing transport solutions emanating from the Global South, many of which hold global application.
Developing nations have the opportunity to break the mould of traditional transport. A lack of historical legacies means these countries have the freedom to embrace innovation. Katja Schechtner, of the ITF and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), believes the Global South can foster innovation by building on existing cultural practices, enabling cooperation between research and industry, encouraging bottom up innovation, and through the creation of regulatory sandboxes. Coordination with all government levels is also crucial, she says.
Much of the transportation in developing regions is unregulated, unplanned, and unlicensed. While it might seem to the outsider “chaotic and backward,” a demand responsive system has the benefits of sustainability and profitability, and the Global South is embracing the informal. The ITF report identifies case studies from developing nations that are integrating new technology and ideas to create a more sustainable, efficient transportation system.
Schechtner highlighted technology company Rivigo, developer of the globally unique innovation of relay trucking in India whereby a single shipment is transported by not one, but several drivers through a strong interplay of technology, data and operational excellence. Sensor-equipped trucks and big data analytics coordinate this ‘logistical ballet’ where drivers only make round-trips from their home base and packages essentially never stop. Companies in the Global North have recognised the potential of this service to solve the fundamental problem of truck driver shortage.
The encoding of Nairobi’s informal transit network with General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), the global standard for sharing transit information, is another example of embracing new ideas. Matatus, the informal buses serving the Kenyan capital, were mapped using mobile phones and GPS technology, including stop names and fares. The exercise delivered a comprehensive map of Nairobi’s non-official transport network — one of the first attempts to address the lack of GTFS data on a semi-formal transit — and provided insights for a future Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system that can complement informal mobility.
In 2010, soon after the launch of Uber and prior to the advent of Lyft, Go-Jek was established as a call centre for booking motorcycle taxis in Jakarta, Indonesia. The company evolved to offer a ride-sourcing service called Go-Ride, and now provides an on-demand multi-service platform in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines. Go-Jek’s offering now includes on demand goods and services such as health supplies, massage, cleaning, laundry, automotive, urban logistics services, and much more all from one smartphone application. The report suggests Go-Jek used its “in-depth understanding of how transport works as a springboard for expanding beyond its original business model.”
What does the future of transport in developing Asia look like? Transport policymakers the world over are striving to provide efficient, sustainable, safe, and equitable transport systems. Schechtner called for developing countries to continue to embrace their strengths while at same time modernising their networks. Clearly, data and AI play a pivotal role in the transport sector as an enabler. However, the public sector needs to invest more in creating and sharing the right data, says Sy. It is the responsibility of governments to set the right framework to encourage more examples of companies in developing countries inspiring new mobility culture.