Hussein Dia: Tackling the urban transport future
Hussein, first up, can you tell us about where it is that you work and what you do?
I work at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, and my research is in the area of future urban mobility. I’m currently Deputy Director of our Smart Cities Research Institute, and I also lead a research program on future urban mobility, with around 15 people working in the team.
Do you also teach, or is your work mainly research?
At the moment, it’s mainly a research, mentoring and coaching role for me. I am currently developing a number of online units in smart mobility which will be available to both undergraduate and postgraduate students. The same units will also be available for practitioners interested in knowing more about smart mobility. They can take these units to fulfil their professional development requirements.
And how did you come to making transport your career?
I was trained as a civil engineer and I was introduced to transport in my undergraduate studies at Purdue University, a long time ago. After finishing my undergraduate degree, I was offered a scholarship at Purdue to do a Master’s where I specialised in transport engineering and planning.
I then went out and worked for around 10 years in the industry. In 1993, I got a scholarship from Monash to do a PhD. It was, at that time, when applications of technologies to transport were starting to pick up. My PhD studies were on developing artificial intelligence methods for automated incident detection. Applications of technologies to transport have been the focus of my research since then.
I’m not a traditional academic who has moved between degrees straight into academia. I have around 30 years of experience, 15 of them are in the industry. My transition to academia was gradual after more than 10 years of working in the industry after my Master’s. After I finished my PhD, I went to the University of Queensland, where I spent around 11 years of my career. In 2009, I got an offer to move to the industry to work with AECOM as their ANZ ITS Technical Leader where I spent five years before returning to academia at Swinburne in 2013.
So, out of the 30 years, half of them are actually industry experience. And, I think in a way that has helped me a lot because my research has always had a practical focus, as a result of a good understanding of industry needs. And, working at a university of technology is a great help because it means we can do applied research.
And how long have you been at Swinburne now?
More than five years now.
Right, now we’ll shift away from you for a minute and let’s throw a couple of hypotheticals at you. The first is, that someone has come to you with a very large bundle of money, no great strict time limit, and they’d like you to attack a problem area in transport. What would you like to take on?
The 30-minute city. This is an idea that has been floated around, not only in Australia but overseas as well, and it has got some traction from governments, both Commonwealth and State. The idea is that we all have a travel budget, and we don’t want it to exceed 30 minutes per day in each direction – that is 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening. Some cities are more ambitious, they’re targeting a 20-minute city.
And, what I like about this challenge is that it is much more than technology. We are talking about densification of cities, land use and transport integration, and encouraging more sustainable modes of transport. For example, walkability and cyclability are very important. Walkability to me is one of the most reliable modes of transport, if you like, and if you are living within a couple of kilometres from services or from your work, and the weather conditions are okay, walking can do the trick, as can cyclability.
Clearly better public transport and better road network connectivity will all help, and moving towards a 30-minute city will also include emerging modes of transport.
If you do an investigation today and see how a 30-minute city looks like in Melbourne, probably it doesn’t get you past some of the inner suburbs if we are talking door to door. That would be the limit.
So, if we are really serious about encouraging and promoting that, we need to basically think about how do we densify, provide alternative modes of transport and reduce reliance on private vehicles. It’s an ambitious program. It’s not something we can solve in a couple of years, and this is one of the driving forces behind our program in Future Urban Mobility with Swinburne’s Smart Cities Research Institute.
I can appreciate it would be an enormous job, and that’s what we’re doing with this question, blue-skying what we might like to do, but in this idea what would the bulk of money would go toward? How would you attack moving towards making a 30-minute city?
We can begin with an environmental scan covering the technical, social and economics of the topic and what others have done before, and how close they got to achieving their objectives. There needs to be a comprehensive stakeholder consultation process as well which will be the start of developing a strategy about how we ago about it and a staged process for how we achieve it.
At the moment it’s all aspirations but there is really no solid strategy about how we move towards that goal. We have things happening sporadically, but I think if we can put them together under the one umbrella, like a 10-year or 20-year strategy, that would be where we would start. It needs to be a broad conversation with others, and we’re not going to be starting from scratch, other cities might have done something similar and we would learn from them.
So, it would be really learning from experiences and getting stakeholders in the one room, and having a discussion with the community about a way forward.
I can imagine those discussions with stakeholders and community would be fairly hard going initially.
Yes. Transport is just like education and there are very passionate and strong opinions on it, and in many cases these opinions are not very well informed. By getting the community together, broad discussions can be have about the impacts of different proposals and the consequences of going down a certain path.
Another important aspect of community consultation is that we find out what is acceptable and has public support. I’ll give you an example. It is no use saying that autonomous vehicles are going to solve the needs of senior citizens who have lost their ability to drive, if then we find out (as we did in surveys published last year) that this group of our community are the least accepting of the technology and don’t have a lot of trust in it.
If people don’t buy into a certain proposition, if they feel they’re not part of the decision making process, they might just ignore it. I have seen that first hand through my involvement in a number of very large projects. It gives people a chance to have a say, they feel that their inputs are considered, are taken into consideration. It enriches the outcomes.
Alright. The second part of the hypothetical is the same deal, you need to do something that makes a quick, appreciable impact, but this time the budget’s small, and so is the timeframe. What would you like to do?
One thing I think regulators are struggling to deal with is, how do you regulate under uncertainty. It is a fine balance between allowing start-ups to test new solutions, while at the same time ensuring the public safety and understanding the wider impacts.
Another aspect is how do you overcome barriers to urban innovation. If you look at the response of regulators around the world to the introduction of services such as Uber or dockless bikes, for example, you find that the responses between cities are quite varied – some take a heavy handed approach to regulation which can stifle innovations in the long run. We want to avoid this.
So, one of the things I would like to tackle, and it doesn’t require a huge budget, is to help regulators, come up with more agile frameworks for allowing these new disruptive forms of mobility in our cities.
The example I give today is e-scooters. I was in Auckland in January, and found them part of the city’s transport landscape. They were everywhere, and large numbers of people were using them. People find it a fun way to travel as well. You could see adults and people in business attire riding them as well. Auckland is a bit hilly in some parts of the CBD area so it helps when you don’t want to walk uphill a long way.
But, this new tech has received some bad publicity in recent weeks. Auckland is now reconsidering the e-scooter program. There was somewhere in the region of 1,200 injuries. It was a combination of people not complying with the regulations (e.g. not wearing helmets) and in some cases a fault with the technology itself. So, there has been talk about banning them. I don’t like that word, instead we need to have that conversation. All new tech has teething issues. How do we educate people as well?
It would be great to bring industry, government, and researchers together and help produce flexible yet rigorous regulation.
I think you’re right, all the talk about disruptions has been about the technology and business models, but probably unspoken bit is that thinking is being disrupted as well and regulations and making all this new things work, requires a new approach.
I ask this question regularly, and I think you’re an interesting candidate for it because you’ve been doing a lot of things in a lot of different areas. Is there an area of smart mobility, or transport, in which you haven’t worked yet but you would like to?
I think one area of interest is land use transport interactions. So, this is studying the relationship between where people live and work and their choices of transport modes.
And, this gets linked in to private investments, for example, let’s say we want to drive a high-speed rail between here and Geelong. It would be very expensive, but when you study land use transport interactions you find actually if you offer it to the private sector they decide the alignment and where they want to buy the land, where they want to put the railway services etc.
The return on their investment then includes the land appreciation around the proposed railway line. This is something often ignored in many cost-benefit-analysis studies.
What is it that’s coming at us in the next three to five years, be it technology, business models, whatever it might be? What is it in transport, that’s coming at us that you’re most excited about?
No one can predict the future with any degree of accuracy, but we can identify sustained trends which if they continue can become a disruptive form of mobility. For example, models of tech-enabled shared transport are proving to be very successful for improving mobility in our cities.
One aspect why I’m enthusiastic about them is their potential role in reducing the number of vehicles on the road. But we have to be careful. There have been overseas studies where the research has showed the opposite where such services are claimed to have contributed to more congestion with some research suggesting they are cannibalising public transport patronage. If these results are valid, we want to avoid such unintended consequences.
We now have new business models emerging in that space such as, for example, UberPool which allows users in inner areas of Melbourne to share their rides which reduces the number of shared vehicles and makes the ride less expensive as well. And there could be more of these business models coming our way and they will be accepted if people find them flexible and more convenient compared to other modes of travel.
Disruptive mobility … is it hype or reality?
Today it is a bit of both. There is general agreement in the industry, government and research circles that emerging modes of transport and business models will have huge benefits. Our research confirms this but at the same time shows that the benefits have been overstated.
Most of the “hype” is based on invalid assumptions which can be easily challenged, and in many cases other aspects have been overlooked from the analysis inflating the benefits and/or overlooking the limitations. There is a need for more transparent and evidence-based studies that take a holistic look at impacts and benefits.
How will the future of transport look with autonomous, on-demand, shared electric vehicles?
There are two conflicting visions for this future. I summarise them as one being a utopian vision, ‘a dream come true’, where autonomous mobility-on-demand systems disrupt existing norms of travel, particularly single occupancy vehicles (vehicles with one passenger or driver). In this scenario, the AVs would be a form of shared public transport where the vehicles are shared between 2-4 people and are used for first and last kilometre solutions in the suburbs.
They also shuttle people who either can’t drive (children, elderly, people with disabilities etc.) or don’t want to drive. They would be electric and would be situated in strategic locations around the transport network where they supplement public transport and don’t have to travel long to pick up customers.
The majority would not be owned by individuals as privately-owned vehicles, rather be owned and managed by fleet operators such as Uber or similar. They would be shared and they would mainly be used to transport people to the nearest train station or transport hubs. In this vision, we would continue to invest in mass public transit that hauls people from the suburbs to inner city areas for jobs, services and economic opportunities. The number of vehicles on the road would be reduced, the need for parking would be minimised and the parking space would be used for affordable housing, more open public spaces etc.
The other opposite vision is the one with unintended consequences and one that I hope we don’t pursue even though there are many advocates for it. It is what I would call a dystopian or “nightmare scenario” where we would have the Monash Freeway expanded to 10 lanes in each direction to accommodate small tiny autonomous pods each carrying one person, and shuttling them from their homes in the suburbs to work in the city.
Governments would stop spending on mass transit, thinking that AVs are the only solutions, and people would start to use the AVs to do silly things like using an app to get milk delivered by the AV rather than walk 200 metres to the milk bar up the road. The AVs would be privately owned and we would end up aggravating the current situation with more vehicles and congestion on the roads. This is a future we can avoid if we plan ahead and inform the public and all stakeholders of the consequences of each course of actions.
Will the lofty aims and expectations of Mobility as a Service (MaaS) be met?
Convenience, flexibility, and ease of access to jobs, services and economic opportunity. Having all of the modes of transport available through the one app showing connectivity options with price signals is valuable. Having a seamless payment system as well. Goodbye to cards and wallets!
Will all the disruption be primarily a play for market leadership, or will community benefits be pushed to the fore? Commerce, or convenience/congestion-busting/community?
At the moment, tech companies and vehicle manufacturers are indeed positioning for market leadership and they are investing significant amounts of money into R&D in their products. I am not suggesting they don’t have the public’s interest in mind and perhaps they should not be expected to invest in research that demonstrates the public good. This is a task that should fall onto governments who should sponsor more research studies looking into the public good and benefits.
Examples that come to mind are issues related to cybersecurity, machine ethics, regulations etc. which the industry says they need more guidance on.
What will be the Ford Model T of smart mobility?
Not necessarily all hi-tech. One of the recent low-tech modes of transport we are seeing in cities around the world are the shared e-scooters (some refer to these and similar modes of little vehicles and transport modes as ELFs (Electric, Light and Fun!). If well planned and regulated, these micro-mobility solutions could actually meet people’s needs for travel distances less than 5 km (weather permitting!). They have received some negative publicity in recent times because of injuries due to riders not complying with regulation (not wearing helmet etc.) but also because of teething issues with the technology. We need to have a wider conversation about these involving regulators, providers and the public.
Urban air mobility is another one. CASA recently suggested that ride-share flying taxis could be a reality in Australia in 5 years. This is a space experiencing a rapid pace of development(s).
How do you think travellers will take to the breadth of disruption that’s on the way?
Most will embrace it provided they feel safe in new modes of transport and find them more flexible and more convenient than existing options. But we need to also “demystify” the tech for people by having well-considered trials and also demonstrate benefits.
Interestingly, there was a study done last September in Australia that showed:
- Most people were hesitant about AVs, but 60 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds said driverless cars were not dangerous.
- Those over 65 were most opposed; 64 per cent said driverless cars were dangerous.
So here we are promoting AVs as a future mode of transport for senior citizens and the same exact people we are hoping would benefit from it don’t trust it. There is a gap here we need to address.
What do you see, if your crystal ball/wish list extends this far out, in the Transport of Tomorrow in the medium-term? (20 years out)
No one can predict the future with certainty, but I can identify emerging and sustained patterns of change that point to a changing landscape for urban mobility.
The narrative is changing – the focus is shifting from ‘transport’ to ‘mobility’, and more emphasis is given to ‘accessibility’. Rather than focusing on the infrastructure we need to move people and goods around, the focus is increasingly on providing the mobility we need to access economic opportunities. And instead of giving priority to building additional infrastructure, the focus is shifting to understanding and managing the demand for travel, maximising efficiency of existing assets, and improving their reliability and resilience.
These trends are also increasing the focus on the social dimensions of transport to ensure that mobility benefits are equally and fairly distributed for all income groups. Probably the most significant trend in recent times (which appears set to continue) is the challenge to car ownership models, and in particular the wide acceptance of car sharing and ride-sharing options that have been made easier and more popular through mobile technology platforms.
Recent research looking into our travel trends finds evidence that car passenger-kilometres per capita are going down in the world’s developed cities (including Australia), and even in some of the emerging cities in China and India. It is anyone’s guess whether this particular trend is set to continue, but at the same time it cannot be assumed that mode shares will remain business as usual, and that we should continue to build our cities around private cars.
These norms may even get more disrupted through technology. There is certainly evidence to support increased appetite for public transport and the time is now to introduce more digital innovations in this space to make this mode more appealing for wider segments of society.