Ali Ardeshiri: Transport by the numbers
Dr Ali Ardeshiri will be speaking at iMOVE Conference 2022, taking place in Sydney on 14 and 15 November 2022. He is speaking in the Promoting Community Readiness and Uptake of Connected and Automated Vehicles session, on day 2 of the conference.
Can you tell me a little bit about where it is that you work now Ali and what sort of work it is that you do?
I’m currently working at the University of South Australia Business School, but I’m currently based in Sydney. I’m an Urban Economist and a choice modeller with a strong interest in understanding and modelling human preferences and behaviour towards urban policies and practices. I have collaborated extensively with industry and government partners to conduct research that addresses major practical challenges facing the urban and transport planning sector.
And, you came to the University of South Australia during the COVID pandemic. What did you do prior to that?
Prior to that, I was part of rCITI (the Research Centre for Integrated Transport Innovation) at the University of NSW, which is a transport research centre. And prior to that, I was actually part of UniSA. So, I moved from UniSA to UNSW, and am now back at UniSA.
Doing much the same sort of work at both places?
At UNSW and currently at UniSA are very much all aligned and it’s all about mobility- and transport-related projects. But prior to that using my choice modelling skills I participated in various preference studies looking at human behaviour and decision-making process in research domains related to food consumption, environmental-related studies such as beach and park visitation, urban planning matters such as housing and neighbourhood preferences, as well as transport-related matters such as travel mode and mobility preferences.
You told me off-air that your degree is in Urban Economics. What steered you towards that, and when did you make the connection with that and transport? Was that from the beginning, during or after your studies?
I guess it just came along as I progressed in my academic career. I started my Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering. While I was about to complete my degree in Civil Engineering, I became really fascinated about how cities are being designed, built, and developed.
I continued my degree by doing a Master’s in Urban Planning, but coming from an engineering background to a social science degree I brought my quantitative skills along to urban planning. Using those quantitative and modelling skills, I became very much interested in ways improving residents’ quality of life and help inform policymakers and city authorities to make better informed decisions by knowing residents’ preferences, attitudes and behaviour toward various urban matters and policies.
Thus, I became involved with how decisions are being made by an individual or in a household as a group as well as by firms, entities, and different levels of government organisations. This is why I decided to focus to learn more about this topic and study how to model people’s behaviour while they are given options to decide from.
Hence I stared my PhD at Newcastle university to study households preferences for housing location and access to different urban services and amenities. My aim was to inform authorities about ways to improve the quality of life by designing better urban neighbourhood with appropriate proximity to urban services and amenities such as parks, bus stops and local shopping centres.
During my PhD research I became familiar with choice modelling and designing stated preference surveys. Since my graduation, I have used my modelling skills and contributed to the development of discrete choice methods and their application to urban and more recently transport planning contexts.
And where was it you studied, Ali?
My PhD was at the Newcastle University in the UK, and my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees were at Shiraz University, in Iran.
All right, now we’ll get on to the dreaded hypothetical questions. Given that you are in Sydney, we’ll ask you Sydney-based questions. You’re the Emperor of New South Wales. You have no limit to your budget, you have no limit to manpower. You can do whatever you want. What transport problem would you like to attack with those powers?
It’s a really interesting question, and I can think of several transport-related issues I like to tackle. One of the main issues for metropolitan cities like Sydney is having a sustainable transport system. In particular, I like to explore and see whether the use of new transport innovative technologies can help cities like Sydney with their sustainable transport system or not. I like to explore how these new, smart and innovative transport modes will affect people’s travel behaviour, energy consumption, travel patterns, and use of public transport or active transport modes.
For this reason, I would build a smart city control centre for Sydney to receive real-time data on different aspects related to mobility and travel behaviour and show/monitor its impact on the environment, energy and travel patterns. For example, once connected and automated vehicles (CAV) become commercially available I like to be able to understand how it is influencing city form and growth? Whether people will relocate to suburbs or exurbs? do we have enough energy and resources to efficiently manage our system? This centre will help provide the required information for city authorities to plan accordingly and manage, monitor and control the sustainability and efficiency of the transport system.
Even though you’re Emperor, you’ve still based on your principles of having evidence with data and numbers to carry out your work. You’d be a smart, considered, benevolent Emperor!
Absolutely. I think it would be unrealistic to make decisions at this level without knowing the facts. And, it would be, irresponsible for any decision maker to make any decision without any knowledge about its consequence and whether it would be acceptable by society. Especially when taxpayers’ money is going to be used!
Congratulations on being a benevolent hypothetical Emperor … potentially. In part two of the hypothetical scenario we demote you a little. Or a lot. You’ve been downgraded from Emperor of NSW to the Mayor of Sydney. So, your budget is down, your power is down, your timeline is down. What transport project would you undertake to improve an aspect of Sydney’s transport system?
Oh, I still think it would be very similar to what I said in the previous hypothetical, but the scale would be much smaller based on the budget constraint. Again, I would look at how energy consumption and travel behaviour have changed based on new and innovative transport-related technologies. Such as drones for delivery or flying cars as an alternative passenger transfer. We need to know how these impact society and beyond its effect on the transportation but also its impact on other sectors such as employment, jobs, safety and social security.
Drones have been shown to provide several benefits to society. For example, it can help improve productivity by lowering the costs of operations in farms in Australia, especially in areas such as spraying and weeding and planting of seeds. Drones also offer more environmentally friendlier ways of farm work such as the herding of livestock.
They can also be of great help in emergency situations such as detecting, preventing, or mitigating natural disasters, such as bushfires and floods. However, at the same time, there are concerns over regulations, privacy, noise pollution and whether it will increase future jobs or instead cut jobs. It would be hard for people to know what the drone is actually doing up in the air, or exactly what type of drone it is and whether it is a private drone or one deployed by a company or government. These all raises some serious concerns in the society.
I would focus on a specific one of those smart technologies and see how it impacts people’s lives. Going back again to my example of drones for delivery and the potential impact on people who are working in cargo freight delivery. What happens to their jobs if drones become widely used in those sectors? This is another important issue that I think with a relatively smaller budget I can initiate.
If such things weren’t hypothetical i all of this a large part of all of this is the imperative to communicate to the public these changes, what’s happening, why it’s happening, and how it’s happening in order for it to be accepted, in action, and in use.
Absolutely! It is crucial for authorities to know the potential barriers to accepting new technologies by society and either improve the technology or help reduce and mitigate society’s concerns by educating them and using effective communication strategies.
For example, companies using drone technology can achieve cost savings and improved project scheduling which can lead to business expansion and the ability to redeploy labour instead of cutting jobs. As you said it is imperative to communicate appropriately and be open to feedback and any criticism from the public. I think that must be the approach!
We’ll move away from hypotheticals now and go back into the real world. Of all the projects you’ve been involved in, is there one in particular that stands out that you’re more particularly proud of?
I’m actually quite attached to almost all the projects I am involved in, but there’s a project that I have a strong attachment to, which my colleague and I have completed recently. It was about recalibrating the travel demand model for Adelaide (Editor: Yes, an iMOVE project!).
Traditionally, Travel demand models have been calibrated using primary data collected through household travel surveys (HTS) that ask participating household members about their travel patterns over a 1 or 2- day observation period. These data collection methods are expensive. For example, a computer-assisted telephone interview survey in Australia costs $150-200 per household, face-to-face surveys are likely in the order of $350 plus per household, and a 15-day GPS data would cost around $300 per household. Collecting HTS can easily cost over a million dollars.
In this project, we developed and tested an efficient and cost-effective methodology to recalibrate the Metropolitan Adelaide Strategic Transport Evaluation Model (MASTEM) that does not rely on expensive primary data collection methods. We used a variety of data sources, such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics the Motor Vehicle Census and the Road Freight Movements Survey as well as household travel diary and transport cost skims from Melbourne, South-East Queensland, and Perth in Australia, plus Auckland, New Zealand.
To the best of our knowledge, this approach was not used on this scale anywhere in the world and this study was the first of its kind. We were able to recalibrate eight of the ten sub-models within MASTEM to a high degree of confidence using this approach. This was a significant outcome and a proof of concept showing its potential benefits for transport authorities and future travel demand modelling.
Examples of these benefits are reducing the burden of data collection costs, providing the opportunity for regional towns and cities that are not currently identifying, measuring, and assessing their transport and travel demand in and around the area to adopt this approach and delivering effective planning policy and efficient transport infrastructure for their region. And providing the means to recalibrate and update the travel demand models when new data is available for any of the disparate sources, and avoid waiting for 5, 10 or even more years for the required HTS data to be collected. It was very hard to convey transport authorities that this method would work and now that it has finished, many have become very interested in the work and approach. This is why I am particularly proud of this work.
In your career to date you’ve applied numbers to investigate various questions and issues. Is there an area of transport which you haven’t worked in yet in which you’d like to to apply your methods and your skills?
Yes, I think I actually alluded to that somehow in an earlier answer. I haven’t done any specific project about energy-related matters in transport. I’ve been always involved in projects about understanding human behaviour and travel preference for adopting these innovative transport options, but nothing related to energy consumption behaviour and consumers’ behaviour towards carbon emission reduction while using these new modes of transport.
Energy source, consumption and costs has become quite an important topic, and I’m very interested in doing research that helps authorities and decision-makers to meet net zero emissions targets. And, based on recent reports and statistics, burning fossil fuels to produce electricity is the largest source of emission in Australia and contributes to 33.6% of the total emission. If we have an electrified transport system but the source of energy is not green, then we would have completely missed the purpose.
I’m actually looking to hire a PhD student to at look the impact of automated vehicles on energy and their environmental footprint. Where the PhD candidate will evaluate two scenarios and examine the expected impact of AVs on urban form and energy use with and without the inclusion of AVs in transport. In short, to really identify whether CAVs are sustainable in the long term or not.
One last question. In the next, say, five years, what aspect of transport, smart city technology, implementation, deployment are you most excited about? I’m guessing it might be CAVs.
Well, yes. Anything related to smart technology, automation, and electrification, they all really excite me. Consumer behaviour and the adoption of CAVs, drones, air passengers, flying cars, etc. all are quite interesting topics to study at the moment.
And all of them are reasonably big upheavals in terms of change.
Absolutely. They could all bring massive changes in our ordinary lives and I think there is a need for all of them to be further investigated. If CAVs are good, how good are they? How do citizens value the trade-off between short-term public safety and long-term technological innovation in the context of CAV technologies and service models? If drones are good, what about our privacy? What is the trade-off that people are subjected to in terms of faster cleaner delivery versus say, privacy or safety related issues?