Alyson O’Rourke: Game for mobility advances
Alyson, could you tell us a little bit about where you work and what you do?
I’m currently working for the City of Gold Coast, within the Transport and Traffic Branch, and my role is Coordinator of Network Intelligence and Transport Systems.
How long have you been there now Alyson?
It’s coming up to five years since I joined council.
We’ll get into this a little more later, but was the 2018 Commonwealth Games firmly on your radar when you first joined?
Yes, I joined the City’s Transport and Traffic Branch specifically for the Commonwealth Games project. I was working in Brisbane at the time, and I saw the position advertised for a Strategic Transport Planner working on the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games, and I just thought what a fantastic role. I’d love to be involved. So, I applied and I was fortunate enough to secure a role.
What had you been doing previously work-wise? And what sort of study did you do that led you along the transport road?
I’ve been working in the ITS industry for some 20 years now. I started way back when I left university. I studied Bachelor of Commerce majoring in Economics and Management at the University of Wollongong. Once I completed my degree I did the almost mandatory 12 month stint travelling around Europe. When I ran out of money I came home and applied for numerous jobs.
One of the jobs that I was interviewed for was with Philips. And I was naive enough to think great, televisions, DVD players, hairdryers and so on. But the role was actually with Phillips Traffic, which was a manufacturing plant building traffic signal controllers (the PSC at the time).
It was something I knew nothing about, but I joined the company, and I quickly got involved in intelligent transport systems, and more specifically managed motorways, which was a fairly new concept that stage. So, I almost got in at the ground level of ITS if you like, and yes, it’s just grown from there.
So getting into ITS was not so much via study, maybe partially, but you went for a role and you discovered a whole new world.
Yes, absolutely. The skills that I brought to that team at that stage, were not so much technical, but more focussed on the commercial elements of the industry.
My role was to identify opportunities, and put together technical solutions, including pricing and contractual requirements. Really a business management role using my commercials and contract management skills. That’s how my passion for ITS started.
And just to come back to the Gold Coast. The Commonwealth Games was why you were brought on board, and formed a large part of what you have done. But day to day, week to week, what else is it that you’re doing up there?
Post the Commonwealth Games, the City identified a need to update its ITS strategy. One of the transport success stories during the Games was the Travel Demand Management (TDM) program which resulted in significant reductions in background trips during the Games.
Another key strategy implemented during the Games was the use of data to monitor the performance of the transport network in real time. I was keen to integrate both of these tools into the City’s ITS strategy moving forward.
Network intelligence involves the use of ITS to monitor the performance of the transport network, allowing network operators to make informed decisions. ITS also allows network operators to disseminate information to network users through a TDM program to influence how the network operates.
The importance of data changed the focus from ITS to Network Intelligence and Transport Systems, or NITS.
Just how is it that you are managing the relationships to feed that network intelligence, the private transport companies and as well as public transport?
The team recognises the importance of relationships with both the private sector and public transport authorities, particularly with the emergence of transport disruptors such as co-operative and autonomous vehicles.
The Gold Coast City Transport Strategy 2031 recognises the need to move away from the reliance on private vehicles towards more sustainable modes of transport and an efficient multi-modal environment is fundamental to achieving this. Major infrastructure projects such as the light rail are at the heart of this transition.
Traditionally the Gold Coast has relied heavily on road-based transport for the movement of people and goods. Transport disruptors such as Mobility as a Service will help make this transition a reality.
During the Commonwealth Games what did you find was the biggest challenge in getting the network to perform in what was a pretty stressful time for it?
There was a lot of planning in the lead up to the Games. The Games Route Network (GRN), was exclusively used by the Games family, helping to make sure that athletes and officials got to their events on time, but took capacity out of the road network impacting background traffic.
The challenge became making sure we kept the city moving. Reduced capacity on the road network and increased demand from spectators as well as commercial activities to support the Games meant we had a challenge on our hands.
The TDM program was used to influence those background trips to make way for Games induced demand. The important thing is that using public transport, or active transport as a different mode doesn’t need to be all the time.
If 20% of the people change 20% of their trips, then that would make a significant difference. That was a critical part of our role, working with the community to make sure they understood what the issues were, and helping them to change their travel during the Commonwealth Games.
Active transport can be a bit of a challenge, what were the modes you were encouraging, and how did the public take to it?
The public responded really, really well. They responded to the travel demand management program and listened to what we had to say. It was actually a fantastic environment during the Games, real easy to get around the city. Spectators attending events utilised park and rides, or hopped on a shuttle service to get to the sporting venues.
We saw more people than ever walking around our city and enjoying our beautiful beaches and foreshore.
Did you find much in the way of challenges that you didn’t anticipate, during the running of the Commonwealth Games, or do you think you covered all your bases beforehand?
There were a few surprises. A prime example was when we did our modelling, we were pretty accurate in terms of numbers of passengers on the public transport services which included bus, heavy rail and light rail, but it was more so the location of boarding of these services which required us to make a few adjustments.
Minor changes to the programmed services resulted in very minimal inconveniences for some spectators.
Did you do much survey work before, during, and after, to see what the public thought of how the Games transport performed?
Yes, the travel demand management program continually surveyed the community through its monitoring and evaluation components.
Was there much learning for you in terms of looking back to what Sydney did in 2000, or was this too long ago and too different to draw conclusions and similarities between the two?
Absolutely, we used all of the knowledge, experience and learnings from previous Commonwealth Games and we were fortunate enough to have key members of the transport partnership that had previous Games experience
What was that difference between Sydney and the GC?
The maturity of the public transport network is probably a key difference. The Gold Coast had to create a multimodal transport environment, whereas that was already established within the Sydney environment. That was a challenge of hosting a Commonwealth Games in a regional city as opposed to a major city, which was probably a first – but I think we managed it extremely well and delivered a successful Games.
Alright, away from you for a moment, and into the world of hypotheticals. Someone has approached you with a very large bag of money, and a very generous time frame in which do something to fix a transport problem. What would you put that money towards, in doing a project or fixing a transport issue. It can be on the Gold Coast, or anywhere really. It’s up to you, it’s your hypothetical.
There’s probably two areas that I would really want to focus on. The first one being providing as much real-time information to transport users as feasibly possible, to allow them to make informed decisions in their travel choices. Having that information readily available, up to date, accurate, and relevant to what each individual person needs, and using the modes that are most convenient to that person.
The second thing that I would focus on is providing effective demand-responsive transport services. Particularly in the areas that are not currently well-serviced by public transport, and they’re the areas where potentially the community can suffer. That the regularity of services isn’t there because the demand isn’t there. But it’s sometimes a little bit of a chicken and egg situation. So, if we had those demand-responsive services, then we may … well I’m sure it would help to facilitate change in travel behaviours.
So, in a nutshell you’d like to get some best-practice Mobility as a Service scheme happening?
Yes, that would be fantastic!
And part two of the hypothetical, this time a quite small budget, but you’ve been tasked with making it work quite hard. What would you attack in terms of a small budget that would bring an appreciable impact?
The key thing that I’d like to bring in is … one thing is that a little bit of a challenge at the moment is balancing the need to provide a safe and efficient transport network to meet the needs of our community today, whilst preparing for the future and providing a more sustainable transport network.
So, to try and balance those two needs is one thing that we’re working on. But yes, making sure that transition is as painless as possible for the community.
So, in bringing about change, is it not so much the implementation as the education? What is it that this small budget would actually do?
Yes, I think it is facilitating that behaviour change. Making those small changes within the community to facilitate the adoption of mobility initiatives but not being too inconvenienced.
So, it is an education piece providing that information to the community, to identify what the benefits are of moving away from this reliance, high dependence on car ownership and use, and changing the way people think about their transport needs.
For those who don’t know, the Gold Coast is a bit of a unique situation. It’s not a small coast, it’s the best part of 50 kilometres long, breadth-wise it stretches from a coastal environment up to a Hinterland. It’s a bit like there are location satellites, with quite a bit of travel between places you want to go, places you need to go. It’s a bigger problem than you might think. It’s not a small community, there’s quite a lot of space to cover.
Yes, that’s absolutely right Scott, and it’s the biggest city outside of the capital cities in Australia, and the nation’s sixth largest city. So, we do definitely have our fair share of challenges within the transport realm.
So, back to you. I think I might know the answer to this already, but what projects so far have you been most proud of?
Delivering the Commonwealth Games, absolutely. Transport is always a risk for any major event. If it goes wrong, you’re always on the front page of the paper, if it goes well – nobody really recognises the work that’s gone into it. But it really is something to be proud of, that a regional city hosted an event of this magnitude.
Well done! And other than the things you’ve done to date, the various small chunks of transport you’ve worked in, is there an area that you haven’t worked in yet that you would like to?
Yes, I guess moving forward, I think one of the key things I would love to do, is see the Gold Coast become one of the epicentres for technology, change, and innovation. Obviously, particularly in the transport space because that’s where my passion is, but I would really love to see an innovative environment here on the Gold Coast.
So to see some trials of new technologies here on the Gold Coast would be just fantastic. And I think we’ve got such a perfect environment to trial some of these bigger initiatives based on the size of our city, and also what we can offer here on the coast.
Last question, Alyson. In the next three to five years, what in all the transport technologies coming at us, are you most excited about?
For me it’s cooperative ITS. I think that it underpins so much of the other emerging initiatives. If we make some headway in this space I think it will launch the industry into the next realm of safety, efficiency and mobility.