Tony Canavan: lives local, thinks global
Tony, could you tell me a little bit about where you work and what you do?
I work at EY, Ernst & Young, which I think most people know is a global professional advisory firm. Its head office is in New York, but the firm is all over the world. I’m the global transport leader at EY, in the government sector, which means anything that governments around the world are doing in transport, then in theory, I oversee.
My job is to stay across all the big issues that are going on in the transport sector around the world and what governments are doing about those things. Then, making sure that my firm, EY, is bringing the best of all of our skills and all of our capabilities to helping our clients solve those problems and meet those challenges.
And just as the offices of Ernst & Young are spread about the globe, are the transport staff and projects equally well spread?
Yes. I think we essentially have transport people everywhere, because in any office with a fair smattering of clients and invariably government clients, transport’s a big issue. Everywhere you go. In some way, shape, or form, there’ll be EY transport people pretty much in all of our offices, but they’re not necessarily all specialists. But they’ll be working in the transport sector and bringing their skillset to transport issues.
How many people are we talking about across the world, approximately?
I’ll just pull a number out of my head. There’s 260,000 people who work for EY. Not all of them work in transport. I would say we probably have 1,000, maybe a couple of thousand people who would spend a good part of their working day or working year working on transport issues. Because I know here in Australia, the number would be a couple of hundred. We’re one of the larger transport practices here.
Transport has most definitely become an area of high activity for us as a firm, because there’s just so much going on. If it’s not big infrastructure building programs, that seem to be going on in many, many parts of the world, both the developing world and the developed world, it’s also the new dynamism in the sector, associated with all the smart mobility initiatives that are coming on.
There’s all sorts of activity, reaching into all parts of our firm, from both of those things. Whether it’s risk management, things like cyber, or just getting your information technology right, down to more transport-specific things like how do I build a project? What is my transport strategy? What is my policy? Almost everywhere, people are involved in that work in EY.
How is it you came to be in the transport space? Did you start there? Did you study in an area that led you that way?
Pretty much by accident. I have a Bachelor of Commerce. I actually have a finance and economics background, but it just so happened that one of my very first jobs, not my first job, but one of my very first jobs was in the Public Transport Corporation here in Melbourne, Australia. I began a career in transport that went on for many years in the government, and just continued to build and grow in that sector.
A lot of my work then led into large infrastructure projects, I got involved in developing transport strategies for the city and for the state, as well as just getting involved in the usual issues of the day around project management, and issues management.
I guess over the years, you develop expertise, you develop a thorough knowledge of what’s going on in the sector, and all the players and you start to see problems that have arisen before and you get more proficient and more knowledgeable of the sector. I never studied transport. I’m not a supply chain and logistics expert or a town planner or anything like that, but just through 30 years of working in the sector, I’ve come to know it inside out and that brings me to where I am today.
And to take you away from where you are today, let’s enter the world of hypotheticals. This can be anywhere in the world, it can be any project you want, but if someone came to you with a bucket of money and said, “We want you to fix a problem and make a lasting impact with no budget limit and a reasonable timeframe,” what would you like to take on?
Well, I suppose what’s exciting right now is the revolution that’s hit this sector in the last few years. I mentioned earlier, I’ve been working in it for 30 years, not a lot changed to be perfectly honest in the first 20-25 years of that time. Even not a lot changed in the last 100 years when you think about how transport is done, but now it’s been completely flipped on its head.
Multiple players coming in, huge innovation, huge application of technology to this sector, and wonderful new opportunities. Getting back to your question, my answer to that is very much rooted in these new boundless opportunities. If I had an unlimited budget, wouldn’t it be fantastic to be able to take a whole city and develop its infrastructure and its network, and the way people move around on that network, in such a way that it just solves itself, every journey, every moment of every day?
So that every journey that you make and that I make is totally optimised. What do I mean by that? In a distant future of hyperconnectivity, where every vehicle is connected to each other, the vehicle’s connected to the network, and drivers are connected to each other as well, and people on public transport, it is plausible in some Star Trek future that a city brain works out minute-by-minute, second- by-second, the best way for all of us to move around in a way that gets us all there more efficiently and more safely.
Wouldn’t it be awesome to be able to take a whole city and put that in place quickly, rather than wait I suspect the decades it’s going to take to reach that point? It’s the ultimate expression of using data to solve the daily mobility challenge on our behalf, but at a citywide level, where we’re all being moved around almost by the system in the most efficient way possible at an aggregated level.
There’s I suppose a bit of a project going on now in that respect, with AIMES, run by the University of Melbourne.
Yes, I know AIMES and that’s a good living lab example of trialling and testing what that future might actually look like, what’s actually possible in the real physical world. I’m a big fan of the living labs where you can sit in offices like this and postulate about what’s possible, but they fall over the moment you get out there and try it in the real world.
Yes, that is a good example, and you start to learn lessons quickly, don’t you? About what would need to be put in place for that world that I just mentioned, to actually happen. One of those things that jumps up straight away in projects like AIMES, and there’s been others, is the extraordinary amount of collaboration you need from multiple people. From the individuals trying to move around, from the government, and everyone in between, every business, every player in the system. Almost every member of society, for it to happen.
It’s a huge task and one that we’re not really set up to do the way we’re structured and governed and so on, but one that I still feel sure will happen because the promise is so great.
Do you think we’re in the situation where we have to almost re-attain the skill of thinking in the longer term?
That’s a good question. Being able to think longer term is getting harder because things seem to change more quickly. You’ve probably seen those graphs that show the rate of technological change and how they present an exponential rise … the rate of change is actually quickening, not linear.
And yet, the way most things are set up in society, government, regulations, laws, even human nature, are designed to handle change that happens on a linear path. For the things we’re talking about to be achieved, there needs to be a re-adaptation of those things, the way we do regulations, the way we make laws, the way we embrace change ourselves, to approach something that can meet that increasing rate of change.
Your question was can we recapture thinking in the long term? I think we have a big enough challenge just to be able to keep up with the pace of change, in order to be able to adapt at the same speed that change is actually happening.
It’s tricky, though, isn’t it? Because you would think that the regulation side of things has to be ahead of the curve to be able to do that.
Yes, that’s right. Take the way we do regulations. Regulations are usually done, “Okay, we have a problem and we need to fix it,” and it’s usually a reaction to something. Even when it’s better than that, even when we see a problem might be coming and we try to write a regulatory framework to do it, that regulatory framework is still static when it’s put in place.
It can quickly prove to be not well-suited to the change when it comes along. It’s almost as if we need something like adaptive regulation, regulatory regimes that are themselves adaptable to changing circumstances, for it to be suited to the type of world we’re talking about, where things are changing at an increasing rate.
It’s almost down to that level, where if you want to be able to think long-term and keep up with and take advantage of the rate of change, then things like the way we make laws and create regulations themselves have to change.
And to get over and around things like lobbyists and self-interest. It’s hard to purely base this work on what the community needs, rather than what do we need to do to be re-elected or what do we need to do to keep that lobby group happy?
You’re making a very good point, and that is when we’re thinking of regulation, we’re thinking of laws, and we’re thinking of policy settings, that we have to put people at the middle of them, at the centre of them. That is hard to do amongst the clamour, isn’t it? There’s a lot of people with their own perspectives about what’s good for us, and often what is actually good for us, and our ability to express it is forgotten.
To use current vernacular, to see outside the bubble …
Well, that’s right. And to remind ourselves that the only reason we’re here, the only reason cities exist, the only reason the transport system exists is to serve people and enable them to go about their lives. It might seem pretty basic, but you often scratch your head and wonder whether that’s being remembered. We’re often be told what’s good for us, aren’t we?
We need Occam’s razor to be ever-present.
(laughs) Something like that.
All right. Back to hypotheticals, part two. Limited budget, and limited timeframe. Something in transport that you need to fix quickly and again, with the aim of an appreciable impact. What would you like to take on?
I think there’s something that won’t cost any money, and it might even make money, that we need to do for many of these other things to fall into place. That’s to look at the way we pay for and fund mobility.
This is a well-worn argument really, I’m not saying anything that’s particularly new, but at the moment the way that transport and mobility is funded and paid for is through things like fuel excise, through our vehicle registration and driver licensing charges. Sometimes we pay tolls on roads. Parking fines, speeding fines.
But many of those things are going to disappear. Fuel excise is going to disappear, as electric vehicles, or zero emission vehicles take hold. As vehicles become more autonomous, perhaps vehicle registration or driver licensing changes, and then with car ownership models changing, maybe vehicle registration changes as well.
Parking, yes, may become less a thing, as vehicle autonomy kicks in. So there’s a dwindling funding model that gives us a bit of a burning platform for something else. And that is an introduction of more usage-based charges for our mobility.
Whether we’re using the roads, or whether we’re making trips with public transport, universal usage-based charge, structured in a way not just to raise money. That’s something that helps to win the argument.
It’s more around helping to manage demand on our networks, and also encourage certain behaviours. By that, I mean using those pricing signals to make public transport as attractive as possible, non-essential peak hour travel to be not as attractive as off-peak travel, etc.
Usage-based charging is something that would help us get the most out of our transport network, but also puts in place something I think we will need in the future world of smart mobility. Because in the future world of smart mobility, with new mobility service providers, Uber and Lyft, GoGet and the rest of them, they will be the people that are organising a lot of our travel. There is no reason why those organisations, just like us, should not be making their contribution to the infrastructure that we need. I think this kind of mechanism is going to be an important element in the total piece that we will need, almost like a building block for that future world we were talking about, and it’s not something that requires obviously much budget.
Within those constraints you gave me, I think that’s something we could introduce as a policy reform.
In two words, better management.
Yes, better management. Because at the moment, we try to solve most problems in transport and mobility with supply-side solutions. We build more stuff, build more roads, more railway lines, we widen roads and so on. But we don’t do much about managing the demand side, and this will give us an important tool to do that.
All right. Back to the world of reality, of the work you’ve been …
I’m hoping that is a reality.
(laughs) Of course! What project or work have you been most proud of to date in your accidental trip into transport?
(laughs) Well, I’ve got a couple of answers for that I suppose. One of them predates my time at EY. Many years ago, I worked on a transport strategy for Melbourne with a gentleman named Sir Rod Eddington, who’s a well-known business person and public policy leader. He was engaged by the Victorian Government to do a transport strategy for Melbourne and I led Sir Rod’s team on his behalf.
It’s a good 10 years ago now, but I am very proud of it, because I think that strategy, that report we did, has become a bit of a blueprint, for a couple of things. One, the way that transport strategies get done, the evidence-based approach we took. But secondly, the recommendations we made have led to many infrastructure projects over the last decade.
I take some pride from looking at the window and seeing those projects come to fruition, and become the agenda for the city. We probably need a new one now in Melbourne, but that’s something of great pride.
What are some of those things see when you look out the window?
There was a large project in Victoria called the Regional Rail Link Project, which was first mooted in the Eddington report. The Melbourne Metro Project comes from the Eddington report. The Western Distributor Project that’s being built at the moment comes from the Eddington report. That’s some of the largest projects in the city that stem from that time.
Then, I think in my time in EY, on a slightly different note, has probably been work on the Western Sydney Airport, which is the second airport for Sydney. Where I’ve spent the last three or four years of my life advising the Commonwealth Government on that project and playing my role, along with many, many, many others to get that project through to its investment decision and a commitment by the Commonwealth to actually build and commit to that new airport that the country, not just Sydney, needs. Having been a project that’s taken decades probably.
Whilst I realise it hasn’t been built yet and it won’t open until 2026, the Government has committed $5 billion to that project and the contracts are out in the market, and everything’s actually going to happen. Just to play a part in getting to that point after many years of it going around, you take some pride from that sort of thing.
Last question. We’ve talked about a few things already, but of all the technology coming at us in the next three to five years, what most excites you?
Let me start by saying what it isn’t. I’m not as excited about vehicle autonomy as a lot of people are. It’s not to say that I’m uninterested in it, it’s just that I think there’s other stuff going on that I find more interesting, and they’re more immediate as well. Vehicle autonomy will play its role no doubt.
What’s excited me has been the explosion of new mobility service delivery options coming from startups, tech companies, re-transformed automotive companies, individuals from all over the world, using technology in a way that wouldn’t have been possible before. And all of this offers to the public, offers people, a range, a plethora of new services and systems in different cities and regions around the world.
What that is going to enable I think over time, is a convergence of what we think of as public transport and private transport, into something that is a form of shared mobility, but one where there’s a much wider range of choice than people have now. That’s here now for us to shape and mould and take advantage of, and that’s extraordinary for someone, as I said earlier, who worked in this sector where not much changed at all and suddenly that explosion is exciting.
I’m really, really interested in that and that’s why I’m involved in things like iMOVE, and so on, just to be part of that excitement. And then I think the other thing that’s exciting, and I’m hoping Australia gets a bit more into it, is the energy revolution in vehicles, to move towards – I hope – zero emission vehicles quickly, like the rest of the world’s starting to move toward. Something that’s not progressing as quickly here. It’s really exciting, and will make a big difference to the climate and air quality and ultimately, the planet.
Connectivity is key, isn’t it? Not just of vehicles, but with and between infrastructure, data, businesses .. and as you said, the openness, more people coming in with more ideas and sharing and connectivity is the thing that’s going to help fix all these problems.
Yes. It’s the sharing and connectivity of data, and it’s the sharing and connectivity of people, isn’t it? The collaboration, just watching this sector, the coming together of organisations, just the sheer dynamism of it to solve problems is fantastic. Ultimately, the sharing and the connectivity of data is going to be central to virtually everything we’ve talked about today at the individual level, at the vehicle level, at the citywide level, at the national level.
And I’m hoping also, something we haven’t talked about so far, is to take these concepts beyond the urban areas and into rural and regional areas, which is also a source of great excitement. It does seem to me like there’s an opportunity coming up here to transform the options that people have, and the flexibility and the accessibility that people can get in regional areas from some of these changes that we’re talking about, at a level far and above what they experience today. I’m really hoping that’s something we can achieve.
In the new mobility ecosystem, do you see Government as having to step up its role, or rather that it lets private enterprise pick up some ground/responsibility?
There is no doubt that government’s role will change. But they have decisions to make. Until now, there wasn’t a burgeoning private mobility sector to consider in their policies and regulations. But that’s changed.
The jury is still out on how different governments will respond, but my view is that governments should embrace what the private mobility sector can offer, and build that into their transport policies and strategies. Why wouldn’t you use this new weapon to solve our mobility challenges?
That doesn’t mean abandoning the field. Quite the opposite. There is too much at stake and too many things that could go wrong to adopt a pure laissez faire approach. But an approach that integrated conventional public transport with new private sector mobility delivery models could unlock capacity and expand mobility options in cities and in regions.
You speak of transport communities needing the focus, rather than transport businesses … how will the business aspects of transport cope with such a change? How can we bring all parties in this around to the ‘public good’?
It is easy for us to get excited by the many new players offering new services and products to the community. When I talk about the role government will play, a vital part of that is to ensure its strategies and policies are people-centred. What does that mean? It means playing a leadership role in balancing personal mobility with shared mobility, it means finding ways to keep mobility fair and accessible to all, and it also means thinking carefully about how data is used and who owns it. Policies and strategies from government ultimately set some parameters for transport businesses. My sense is that many of the new transport businesses would welcome clarity and certainty in some of these areas.
The concept of “public good” is obviously subjective. But it’s exactly the sort of thing we look to government to lead on. In the world of mobility, the “public good” means accessibility, fairness, good air quality, low emissions and managing demand to minimise congestion.
What would be the first thing to do in order to effect such a change of attitude in regards to transport communities?
I wouldn’t say we need a change in attitude as such. I think the points I’ve been making would not be contested by many people. I think it is ensuring that we don’t allow mobility to evolve in such a way that some of the community-wide issues I’ve mentioned don’t become secondary to other priorities.
I’d like to see governments and private providers experimenting in trials that integrate public transport journeys with private services. I think early successes in such trials would trigger big interest in how new shared mobility models can be used to improve on existing public transport services.
Should, or could, public transport be essentially free, a la Luxembourg, and Tallinn (Estonia)? Could this be a workable tactic in Australia?
No, I don’t think public transport should be free. I think public transport is something of immense value to all of us and that paying for such services reflects that.
But having said that, I do believe that public transport must be priced and presented in such a way as to make it the most highly attractive option for a large number of journey types.
The way I think about this, is that we will face and should embrace a blurring of what is public and private transport, to the stage where the truer distinction is between personalised and shared mobility. But we need shared mobility to be much more attractive than personalised, especially in peak period city journeys. And the more shared, the more attractive – that is, mass transit remains the quintessential, highest priority and most attractive by far option for peak period city trips.
I can see a pricing regime evolving where all of these mobility options on the spectrum between personalised and shared, are priced in a consolidated way. But with these inbuilt incentives to ensure what we call public transport today remains far more attractive than driving your car in periods of high demand.
What do you see as the Transport of Tomorrow in the short-term? (5 years out)
I see the big changes coming in electric vehicles, and in the new mobility service delivery models we have been discussing. I don’t see vehicle autonomy making big inroads within five years, but I expect investment in vehicle autonomy and connected infrastructure to continue and increase.
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)
20 years is an eternity. Who knows? All of that investment in vehicle autonomy will have borne fruit by then, and we will have dedicated precincts and roads/lanes in some areas for autonomous operations. Within those areas, we will also have vehicle and network connectivity controlling movements to manage demand and eliminate congestion.
Far fewer people will own their vehicles, instead drawing on a burgeoning mobility ecosystem to make their daily trips. Our public transport system will have transformed to offer a vast array of new modes beyond train, tram and bus. There will be on-call public transport options in cities and regions that will have successfully increased the number of shared journeys over personalised during busy periods.
There will be no more vehicle registration and fuel excise fees. But we will all pay a usage-based fee for all journeys, with shared journeys costing far less than personalised journeys at busy times of the day.
And all of this with zero emissions!