John Nelson: public transport planning, policy, strategy
Hello, John, could you tell us a little bit about where it is you work and what you do?
I work at the University of Sydney’s Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies, ITLS, where I’m the Chair in Public Transport. I’ve only recently joined as of the middle of February this year.
My overall responsibilities are to take forward work in the area of public transport which we can broadly classify as related to teaching, research, and outreach activities. Part of my role will be to liaise closely with Transport for NSW and identify ways we can work together on themes of interest to ITLS, government and industry.
What sort of subjects is it that you teach at university, John?
Okay, well primarily for my first semester I’m involved in a course on Sustainable Transport Policy, so it serves very much as an introduction to a very important topic. We look at what do we mean by transport policy, why is it important, and how can we bring appropriate policy-focused tools to work on some of the big challenges of our time. Many of these challenges stem from the increasing growth of motorisation.
I’m personally interested in the role of digital technologies and how they can contribute to a more ‘intelligent mobility’ so we work quite a lot of that into the course as well. And I also bring in some of my own personal research interests in public transport which are wide-ranging but cover things like flexible and on-demand transport systems, bus rapid transit, network planning, and various aspects of shared transport solutions.
The overall objective of the course is to give the students some insights into what we mean by sustainable transport and how we can go about promoting the concept.
And of course I can detect a bit of an accent there, John. You’re from England. How long is it you’ve been in Australia?
That’s right, I am from the UK. I have been in Australia for four weeks now so I’m still new. I started in my new post in mid-February but I’m not entirely new to ITLS. I’ve been a regular academic visitor for about eight years and I’ve been an honorary professor for the last four years. So it was a great opportunity for me to be able to transition into a full-time post here.
Sure, and let’s go back a bit longer than four weeks, how was it you came to find yourself in the transport world?
Well, we have to go back quite some time. My academic career started as an undergraduate student in geography where I was studying at Liverpool in the UK in the mid-1980s.
As is common with many undergraduate programs you are required to do a final year project and, as is common with many students, I had no idea what I wanted to do but I thought maybe I’ll do something on transport. This was an interesting choice because there had been no taught component in transport on that program but my home at that time was Newcastle in north-east England and I had watched the development of the metro which is in Tyne and Wear (which is really a light rail system despite the name).
I decided I would do a project on the Tyne and Wear Metro and I was looking particularly at aspects of good design in metro park and ride. As part of my studies I became aware of the fact that there was a very strong transport research group at Newcastle University. I contacted them for some assistance with my project, and one thing lead to another and they said, ‘Would you like to come and do a PhD with us?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ I spent three very enjoyable years there with sponsorship from London Regional Transport and shortly after that got an opportunity to join the staff where I remained for fifteen years. So an interesting chain of events.
And where was next after the Newcastle University?
As I said I had a very enjoyable time at Newcastle working through the ranks ultimately becoming professor of public transport systems which was very much in keeping with the interests that I was developing at that time.
After the time in Newcastle I got an interesting opportunity to move from north-east England to north-east Scotland where the challenge was to set up a brand new research centre and recognising that these are opportunities that don’t come along very often, decided to go for it.
There were a number of carrots that encouraged my move. One was that they were interested in somebody who would like to pursue work in the area of public transport because the centre was partly established with pump-prime funding from First Group. First Group are one of the big transport groups in the UK and North America with extensive bus and rail operations.
The other thing that was of interest was essentially that I had a free hand to establish the remit of the centre which we decided to name the Centre for Transport Research and over time we developed a very good niche in the area of intelligent mobility. I did that for ten years and have now moved onto the next challenge.
I can see in my research that at one point at the University of Aberdeen you were the 6th Century Chair in Transport Studies …
This is a title which enables a lot of people to have some fun at my expense. Aberdeen in common with a number of the other Scottish universities is an ancient university. Aberdeen was established in 1495 and as the university entered its 6th century it decided to have a very significant investment and recruitment drive and a whole series of 6th Century chairs, I think more than 100, were established.
The idea was to recruit top academics from all corners of the globe. I was very fortunate to be able to enter the university via that route but it brought with it the badge which if nothing else is something to talk about with your dinner.
Mystery solved! So let’s steer away from you just for a moment and enter the world of the hypothetical. If someone came to you with a large amount of money, wanted something done or something researched in the realm of transport with a generous time frame what would you like to attack?
Okay, well I’d be very interested to take the opportunity to actually build on an area I’ve been looking at for many, many years which is flexible and demand-responsive transport.
I’ve been doing this in various guises since the late 90s when it really became clear that the possibilities of new technologies, and at that time we coined the term transport telematics and then it became intelligent transport systems, afforded real possibilities to offer on-demand, collective, transport services.
A number of us, and colleagues from many parts of the world, have been looking at this for years but one of the problems is that demand-responsive transport services often tend to be ephemeral pilots. They don’t necessarily have the chance to get established. They don’t fit with the traditional view of how bus-based public transport could be delivered.
I would love to have the opportunity to do an at-scale, area-wide, citywide, even regional wide on-demand transport service open for all. Really testing the possibilities of customised transport services.
What do you think hinders that? Is it the fact that they’re paying the concept lip service? Is it political bravery? Is it cost? What do you think hinders that implementation?
Certainly, there is a strong cost factor here. A premium service is more expensive to provide. Nevertheless over the years some of the cost components have been falling because we don’t have to have a dedicated standalone dispatch centre anymore with people taking bookings by phone. That process can be automated.
I think there’s been, as I was hinting at a moment ago, a certain amount of inertia as well, both within the industry but also amongst the public at large. Bus services are conventionally-provided, fixed route, fixed schedule.
Related to that we sometimes haven’t done enough to market the concept. It’s harder for an on-demand, flexible service to maintain its visibility because by definition it isn’t plying the same route by the same schedule day-by-day, and even relatively straightforward things that we haven’t done very well or haven’t done at all, like ensuring that journey planners incorporate information about opportunities to make use of a flexible transport service still need to be addressed.
It’s probably not appreciated what a large component of the transport revolution will be getting the word out to people what options are available now, what they can do.
I absolutely agree. There are two mistakes that one needs to avoid when implementing a new transport project. We can take on-demand as an example.
One is not to skimp on the marketing budget because as I say there’s a job to be done in positioning the brand and raising awareness.
The other thing that often gets cut, or maybe doesn’t happen at all, is to undertake a detailed evaluation of the service so that we understand the cost components, we understand the things that really enhance the customer service for example.
Without an evidence base, arrived at through a thorough evaluation, it can become more difficult to argue for continuation and expansion of any type of new service.
Indeed and part two of the hypothetical. This time it’s quite a limited budget, and a limited time frame. What do you think you would do in order to make a big difference?
Okay, well I meet a lot of people as I’m sure you do and your audience does who are talking about autonomous vehicles. In fact there’s so much talk you would think everything was just about to happen.
Part of what I’m interested in at the moment is what public transport might look like in the future and autonomous vehicles are going to play a big part in the future of public transport, and one of the exciting things is autonomous vehicles are going to come in all shapes and sizes. We’re not just talking about small saloon car-sized vehicles which hopefully will be used on a shared basis.
I’d like to get the spotlight on the potential for autonomous public transport fleets. With limited budget, a fairly modest trial, even ten vehicles, but using bus-sized vehicles and seeing how we could use them to effectively serve different parts of the public transport market.
Maybe initially in combination with different types of feeder vehicles which may or may not be autonomous themselves, probably not in the first instance, but providing the first and last mile component.
Speaking of public transport, I’m curious on your take, what you think of places like Estonia and Finland, and their making public transport free. What do you think of that as an option? Do you think it’s workable everywhere or it has its own problems?
I think it has its own problems and to answer the first part of your question I’m a very big fan of what they’ve achieved in the Nordic countries. It does come at a cost and that cost is to the public purse in terms of subsidisation of public transport services and that of course becomes a political decision.
But there have been a lot of studies, think of the UK in the 1980s where it became clear that it needs more than making a service free to significantly affect a modal shift. We need the whole passenger experience to be of the highest quality attainable.
I think, again, that’s what the Nordic experience shows in terms of high-frequency services, comfortable vehicles, nicely branded, high visibility, clever use of new technologies, all intended to improve the passenger experience.
Now back to you John, what project or work that you’ve done so far have you been most proud of?
I’ll go back to something that I mentioned earlier in the conversation. When I moved to Aberdeen with a remit to set up a new transport research centre obviously we didn’t know how it would work out, but overall it’s gone very well indeed with significant growth in income, in numbers, in the teaching capability as well, and we’ve maintained a strong connection with industry throughout.
I’m still actively working with this group on projects relating to, for examples autonomous vehicles for public transport. I’m very happy that we were able to make a good start and I can hand over that task to other colleagues now.
Excellent, a lot of people I speak to I wouldn’t classify them as generalists, they generally have their hands in quite a few areas in transport. Is there a field in which you haven’t worked yet that you would like to?
That’s interesting … I’m always open to new opportunities. I haven’t done very much at all in the freight and logistics side, but I’d be quite interested if there was opportunity to look at realistic possibilities for the combined movement of people and goods. Perhaps in the context of on-demand transport and perhaps in more of a rural context.
I’m not harking back several centuries to the postbus concept, but when you look even in a rural context there is often an unused transport resource and if we can bring new technologies to solve that problem, and as I say part of which might involve carrying light goods as well as people, then I think that could be a potentially interesting area to investigate and not one that necessarily requires a huge amount of investment either.
Last question for you. What is it in terms of technology in transport that you’re most excited about in the next say three to five years?
Okay, I’ll go about answering this perhaps in a slightly different way. I’m excited about the technologies that we already have and that are already proven. What I would like to see is to have them used more effectively. I’m driving here at some of the less overt non-technical problems like solving the regulatory issues, sorry tackling, we’ll probably not solve them will we, that hinder things like interoperability so that I don’t need a different set of smart cards to travel around the country, for example.
Or if I have a Mobility as a Service-type subscription that I can use in the future in New South Wales I would hope to be able to use it in Victoria or Queensland as well.
It would be, and hopefully this is a permissible answer, maximising so much of the good progress that’s already been made.