Moving from planes, trains, and automobiles to 'mobility-as-a-service': A peek into the future of transport in Sydney

The state of New South Wales is preparing for a future of work underpinned by autonomous vehicles, smart highways, and regional hubs. Here's a look at the 2056 plan for Sydney and its surrounds.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Home to over five million people, Sydney, the capital of New South Wales, is the largest city in Australia. And with the average cost of a house in Sydney tipping AU$1 million last year -- second in price only to Hong Kong -- the state government needs to facilitate a way for people to work in the city but live in its outskirts.

According to Transport for NSW (TfNSW), the state's statutory transport authority, the current network delivers 385 million rail trips, 315 million bus trips, 16 million ferry trips, and 10 million light rail trips each year; it also consists of over 185,000 kilometres of road infrastructure for private, commercial, and freight use.

NSW, however, is already home to 7.5 million people, and by 2056, it will have 12 million residents.

This growth will mean the state's networks will need to handle 28 million trips per day and double the current metropolitan freight task.

In response, the state government has developed a Future Transport 2056 strategy, aimed at looking into ways to harness "the rapid advancement of technology and innovation across the transport system to transform the customer experience, improve communities, and boost our economic performance".

The strategy at a glance

Citing advances in technology and a growing mobility services market that has already altered the landscape for transport delivery, the state says in its strategy that the advent of ridesharing services, the introduction of demand-responsive services, and the widespread use of technology are the early forerunners of how technology can reshape transport.

The Future Transport plan sets out a long-term framework for developing the network that delivers the government's ambitious vision for "thriving" communities and centres across NSW.

"The strategy focuses on the decisions we need to make now to help us prepare for the big changes across the state over the next 40 years," a TfNSW spokesperson told ZDNet.

According to the state government, transport is a technology business.

"We are more mobile than ever and our lives more interconnected. Technology is equipping us with new ways to travel and plan our journeys, and new ways to deliver services to our customers," reads the opening of the strategy.


Map of projects currently underway in eastern Sydney

Screenshot: Asha Barbaschow/ZDNet

The government recognises that cheaper sensors, faster processing speeds, smartphones, wi-fi, and automation are transforming passenger and freight mobility, with the spokesperson adding that early identification of projects means governments and agencies can plan together for the future.

"Rapid innovation is already changing traditional modes of travel. Buses, trains, cars, and trucks are increasingly automated, safer, and will increasingly need connection to a smarter network. But the changes we are witnessing come not just from the hardware but from the new operating models this technology can support," the strategy explains.

"Data-sharing and mobile technology give customers smarter ways to choose and buy services, and allow providers to respond to customer needs flexibly and creatively. In the future, it is likely people will have moved beyond making daily choices between mobility options, and will instead be making choices about their experiences -- how they will spend their day, who they will meet -- where the mobility components are delivered automatically, in ways that reflect their personal preferences."

A business case for automation

Controversial ridesharing service Uber was given the green light to operate in the state in December 2015 -- and the government took note.

"In the two years following the introduction of rideshare services, one-third of Sydneysiders had used one, new service models were extending to outer metropolitan areas, and driver authorities for hire car and rideshare drivers grew ten-fold," the strategy explains.

So what does this mean for the future of business?

According to the strategy, the future of mobility is customer-focused, data-enabled, and dynamic. Personal mobility packages will bundle traditional "modes" of transport with technology platforms, and new service offerings like car-sharing, ridesharing, and smart parking will be used daily by those commuting to work.

"Customers will directly deal with the mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) provider, not the network operator or service provider. The MaaS provider will sell seamless multimodal journeys, offer convenient payment methods such as subscription services, and communicate directly with customers," TfNSW explains.

Mobility, to the NSW government, is the act of moving from one place to another, rather than the use of a smartphone or other mobile device.

Forming part of the Future of Transport strategy is the Future Transport Technology Roadmaplaunched in April, which identifies the major technology trends that will shape the future of transport and looks at how people might respond to them.

The roadmap [PDF] details 12 trending technologies that will transform transport, grouped under four technology headings: Customer interface, data and insight, infrastructure, and vehicle technologies.

While the state ideally would have more people using public transport, it's aware that most will retain a strong attachment to their own cars.

Autonomous vehicles and on-demand transport

"We expect that autonomous vehicles will play a significant role in the future, regardless of which of our scenarios plays out," TfNSW claims.


TfNSW's strategy to enable connected and automated vehicle platforms

Transport for NSW

See also: Innovation committee toys with separate lanes for autonomous vehicles in Australia

By 2036, TfNSW estimates the take-up of driverless vehicles to range from 30 percent to 100 percent of total vehicles.

To prepare for this, the NSW government passed legislation to enable the minister for Roads, Maritime and Freight to approve trials of automated vehicles.

The legislation allows government to partner with industry, researchers, and universities to be a testing ground for automated vehicles.

Alongside the legislation, the state launched its Smart Innovation Centre -- a hub for the "collaborative" research and development of safe and efficient emerging transport technology.

The Smart Innovation Centre is currently partnering with industry to conduct trials on behalf of the state government to determine how it can get the most from autonomous technology.

The government also went to tender in December 2016 seeking an industry partner to develop a series of pilots trialling on-demand public transport services across the state.

The tender called for pitches comprising "innovative models" for on-demand services that also offer customers personalised and flexible technology-enabled solutions.

Numerous trials and pilots of automated passenger vehicles have since kicked off in Australia and internationally. NSW is currently conducting a two-year trial of a driverless shuttle bus at Sydney Olympic Park with delivery partners HMI Technologies, NRMA, Telstra, and IAE.

"Today we drive our cars, but the reality is cars will soon drive us, and, while we are not there yet, we need to be prepared for this change and we need to stay ahead of the game," NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance said ahead of the trial in August.


Driverless Smart Shuttle in trial at Sydney's Olympic Park

Transport for NSW

It is expected office workers at Sydney Olympic Park will be using the automated shuttle this year, becoming the first to test-ride the tech before it makes its way to public roads.

In May last year, the state government revealed that Dubbo -- a town home to around 36,000 people 400kms outside Sydney -- would be the first city in NSW to trial on-demand buses.

Eight locations were then chosen for further on-demand bus pilots in August, allowing customers to book transport from or near their home to a local transport hub or other centres including local hospitals.

"We have on-demand movies, on-demand food, and finally, NSW will have on-demand transport," Constance said at the time.

The other benefits of automation

With greater automation, the state expects safety benefits to be achieved by reducing the risk of human error and using computerised failure detection and response systems.

With train timetabling issues currently plaguing the state, automated systems also promise more predictable running times and energy optimisation.

Connected and automated vehicles are also expected to reduce rates of road trauma caused by human error.

See also: APAC users concerned about lack of safety standards in driverless vehicles

As a result, the state expects to prevent the loss of 350 lives and 12,000 serious injuries each year come 2056 through new vehicles and smart infrastructure, using technology such as Intelligent Speed Adaption (ISA).

The state in January allocated AU$1.6 million towards upgrading the existing Crashlab test facility -- the state's centre for road safety -- to enable the assessment of autonomous emergency braking (AEB) systems and other advanced driver assistance systems.

Autonomous vehicles are also expected to shrink the cost involved in freight and consumer deliveries. But so are drones.

Automated aerial mobility, similar to what retail giant Amazon is making mainstream, could be in use in NSW by 2056.

"If the use of drones expands to include routine freight delivery and point-to-point transport for people, standardised regulations and access arrangements will need to be implemented to ensure safe operations. Investments in infrastructure to support drone use would also be needed," the government adds.

Smarter vehicles will need a smarter network

The Sydney Harbour Bridge was built in 1932 to carry 11,000 vehicles per day -- it currently carries 160,000. Similarly, the Cumberland scheme from 1951 still remains the backbone of the state's motorway and arterial road network -- a perfect example of why the state's roads need to be upgraded.

In a bid to improve efficiency and reduce travel times on the road network, the government is investing in "smart motorways", committing AU$470 million to the M4 Smart Motorway project that will use complementary technologies to monitor traffic conditions, manage congestion, and respond to incidents in real time.

See also: Self-driving car owners could become the traffic elite through Hyperlanes

TfNSW is also embedding sensors and intelligent transport systems technologies across bridges, cameras, car parks, streets, traffic lights, and toll booths to allow the future connectivity of intelligence transport systems and vehicles.

Expanding cities and employment opportunities

Technology and improved communications are also expected to enable more people to "work anywhere, live anywhere", with telecommuting and remote and flexible working becoming the norm.

"A transport network across the state that better connects regional cities and centres will improve amenity for regional communities and increase access to regional jobs, services and education," the government adds.

Although there is a heavy infrastructure and planning focus on keeping Sydney at the centre of the state, the government recognises a need to create more major locations for people to work. This includes greater Sydney, Newcastle, and the Australian Capital Territory -- home to the country's government, Canberra.

The state government expects this to allow individuals to participate in the high levels of automation, an increased freelancing workforce, and the services-based economy the rest of the world will be operating in.

But it isn't just work -- NSW expects upgraded infrastructure will allow regional cities to act as centres for health, education, and justice services, as well as providing access to air transport connections.

"Towns and villages will offer employment and housing and will continue to be important in attracting domestic and international visitors, bringing job opportunities and economic benefits to rural communities," the government's plan continues.

21st century government transport service delivery

Borrowing buzzwords from Silicon Valley, TfNSW said it is increasingly using "human-centred design" approaches, aimed at identifying factors that impact the customers' travel experience, as well as assessing, testing, and validating solutions with customers.

"Rapid technological innovation and big data has the potential to deliver much broader digital applications for customers," the government says. "New developments in machine learning and artificial intelligence are likely to emerge in the near term and NSW will need to be ready to incubate new applications, trial new uses, and become early adopters of technology -- particularly where there are opportunities to enhance the customer experience or personalise service."

As embedding sensors and intelligent transport systems technologies will generate enormous volumes of new data on road conditions and traffic patterns, the government is hoping to utilise the information and convey it in real time for the benefit of the citizen.

One example of this is through the data gathered from its Opal contactless smartcard public transport ticketing system.

TfNSW published Opal data last April, providing a snapshot of how many people travel where and at what time.

The Opal card requires commuters to "tap on" when beginning a trip via bus, train, light rail, and ferry, and "tap off" when they reach their final destination on services operating in Sydney and many of its surrounding suburbs.

The data, collected during two one-week periods in July and August 2016, provides information on how many customers tapped on and off, as well as when they arrived at and left their destination.

Following successful trials on the Manly ferry service, the government last month revealed commuters in certain parts of Australia could soon be "tapping on and off" public transport services with their smartphones, watches, or credit cards.

TfNSW also previously announced it would be utilising Opal travel data to indicate the volume of people travelling on a particular bus service, letting commuters know how full their next bus is before it arrives. This was followed by a Twitter integration that sees commuters receive personalised messages that inform them of disruptions on the state's suburban and intercity train lines.


Real-time Twitter notification on train information

Screenshot: Asha Barbaschow/ZDNet

According to the department, it will continue to conduct research and utilise Opal data to improve the customer experience and address "pain points" that discourage public transport use.

With the impending availability of Amazon Alexa in Australia, TfNSW last month announced an integration with Alexa that will provide real-time train, ferry, and light rail arrival information from TfNSW's RITA, the "Real-time Intelligent Transport Assistant", launched in September. RITA is also available through Facebook Messenger and Google Assistant.

"Personalised transport will be built on a foundation of data from customers, networks, infrastructure, and vehicles, as well as from an increasing number of industry and third-party sources," the transport strategy explains.

"It is essential that we harness this data to manage and optimise the capacity of the transport network, improve flows, better utilise resources, enable better decision-making, and improve the quality of the service that we provide to customers."

Responding to this, the state said it will be digitising its networks and assets, and augmenting them with a network of sensors and devices to support the wave of intelligent vehicles and services.

"In the near term, our focus will be on installing this network of sensors, but also on creating the system capability to manage and process the data they generate and using that data to enable better decision-making," it adds.

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