How do you see the future of mobility in the short and medium-term in Europe? What are the biggest challenges that local administrations will have to face?
From my point of view, we are currently observing two opposing forces at work: On the political level, many parties in the EU agree that it is vital to accelerate the shift from private car usage to shared modes of transport to slow global warming. Initiatives like the European Green Deal are an impressive testimony to the urgency and it’s encouraging to see that investments in sustainable mobility are high on the agenda. And bold actions are clearly needed because, despite overwhelming agreement amongst mobility evangelists that car usage needs to be reduced, we are actually not seeing a significant change in the mobility behavior of the vast majority of people.
To achieve a true shift in modal choice, courageous push and pull policies are needed. Part of that will have to be restrictions on private car usage in areas where public transport and other modes of shared sustainable mobility are widely available and inclusively accessible. And to ensure that level of availability and accessibility, extensive investments into the public transit networks are needed. However, these investments should not be solely focused on infrastructure-heavy mass-transit solutions, but also on enabling public transit agencies to leverage new technologies to overcome some of the systemic weaknesses of public transportation: providing attractive, highly available transport services not only on main corridors but also in lower-demand areas and times.
Here, demand-responsive transport will play a vital role in addressing the first/last mile dilemma of public transport (DRT) by providing convenient, reliable, and accessible mobility. We have repeatedly proven the potential of implementing DRT as a supplement to the main public transport backbone. But DRT needs to come out of its niche and be implemented on a larger scale, deeply integrated into the overarching public transport system of a region as a permanent part of the network. Therefore, I urge policymakers to provide adequate funding for DRT to ensure that its full potential can be unlocked.
The implementation of new technologies such as DRT may cause initial reluctance on the part of users or local authorities. What do you think is the best way to approach this?
Oftentimes, switching from a fixed-route, fixed-schedule bus line to a fully flexible, algorithm-driven on-demand bus service can seem like a loss of control. Instead of a dependable “mule” steadily doing its pre-planned routes, one faces many questions such as: How are the existing customers going to react? How will the technology perform? Will the number of vehicles be enough? What is the service level going to be like?
Luckily, the vast majority of those questions can be answered before launching the new DRT service. Besides the technology, which should be adaptable to the use-case of the project and enable an extensive integration into the fixed-route public transport system, the right service design is key to the success of a DRT service. For that reason, we accompany our clients throughout all steps of implementation: plan, launch, run, optimize. We consult service design parameters, run fleet simulations, help set up the service area and virtual pick-up and drop-off points, analyze service performance and identify fields for improvement, compile in-depth reports and provide marketing support.
With this extensive range of services, inexperienced clients have the peace of mind that their DRT project will be set up for success. At the same time, we want to empower our clients to gain that experience and take the driving seat for future, scaled DRT services. Our product reflects that philosophy by being extremely oriented towards the needs of a PTO network planner or a city transportation planner.
Do you think that the technological divide can be a barrier to using this innovative technology for the most vulnerable users such as the elderly, or those with some visual or hearing disabilities?
Inclusivity is not only a mandatory requirement for public transport in the European Union, it should always be a fundamental principle in the design of services and technologies. Therefore, we are extremely conscious of the requirements of persons with disabilities. DRT can be a great chance to improve mobility for people with impairments by offering a corner-to-corner transportation service which makes it much more accessible. However, we mustn’t sit back and relax just because DRT has the potential to provide accessible mobility. We must actively work on enhancing the accessibility of DRT services, which can be a significant challenge. How do you ensure the same service levels like waiting and trip times when only a small part of the fleet consists of wheelchair-accessible vehicles? How can you make the concept of virtual stops accessible to people with visual impairments? And how do you provide a similar user experience for people who book through a call center agent?
Our answer to these and many other questions must be a sincere willingness to try as hard as we can to find solutions that are truly inclusive. Luckily, many of our clients share this way of thinking and challenge us with increasingly complex requirements, which we are more than happy to tackle. In the end, user acceptance is key to the success of a DRT service and we must ensure all users can “get on board,” literally and figuratively.
What substantial differences do you find in the B2B and B2G markets in Europe?
The B2G DRT market in Europe has matured over the last few years. After a phase of pilot projects, we are now seeing more and more demand-responsive public transport services transition into permanent services, oftentimes expanding in the service area, fleet size and operating times. As is common in the public sector, we are also observing a significant growth in the number of tenders.
The B2B DRT market, on the other hand, is still in the early stage. While employee transportation over fixed routes for factories, distribution centers, warehouses, etc. exist in many countries in Europe, the majority of those bus services are not digitalized yet. So far, we have only seen a limited number of pilot projects that deploy DRT technology. One of those was at Munich Airport where Shotl—a Swvl company—provided the technology for an on-premise pooled employee shuttle service which dramatically increased the occupancy of vehicles shuttling staff between worksites. Both market segments are extremely relevant for DRT.
In your opinion, what are the greatest contributions that a company like SWVL, originally focused on emerging markets, can make in a territory as competitive and highly regulated as Europe?
Clearly, the challenges that Swvl is tackling in emerging markets are radically different to the situation in Europe. While it’s a problem of system creation in emerging markets, it’s one of system optimization in developed markets. However, the underlying question is no different: How can we provide efficient, reliable, convenient and accessible mobility to as many people as possible?
Although Swvl is exclusively providing As-a-Service solutions in Europe, running B2C and B2B transportation services in the MENA region, Pakistan, and Latin America at scale gives us a massive edge over other technology providers because we can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Our services in developing markets are not subsidized, which means technology is the key enabler for operational efficiency, ensuring driver satisfaction and customer retention. Therefore, all of our products are developed with happy passengers in mind, which makes our business, not B2G or B2B, but B2G2C and B2B2C.
I am convinced that Swvl’s level of experience from running thousands of buses daily on its proprietary mobility platform technology is extremely valuable for Europe as well.
And finally, what three things would you take to a desert island?
Since the island is deserted, shared mobility will probably not be the highest priority. But transportation would still be a great enabler, just like it is all across the globe. Therefore, I would take a bicycle, which then necessitates a toolbox and a hammock. Why a hammock, you ask? Well, after cycling up and down the island, I’d need to rest!
The capital of Portugal, with a population of more than half a million inhabitants, is the chosen location for the deployment of a new Shotl operation in a completely urban setting.
As demand responsive transportation services progressively take to our streets, our cities will gradually transform into more liveable spaces.
Transport is changing and getting around is becoming increasingly more user-focussed. But, what impact does this all have on the already established modes of public transport within our cities?