The future of public transport

The future of public transport includes advancements in train and drone technology

Public transport is an essential service for millions of Australians and a cornerstone of our society and economy. Buses and trains facilitate the movement of labour, skills and knowledge in markets, making our cities and towns more efficient and productive, and giving people access to opportunities they would otherwise miss. In this blog, we take a look into some of the benefits and challenges of public transport, and what it will look like in the future. 

A brief history of public transport

Public transport was first conducted on water, with one of the earliest mentions coming from Greek mythology of the ferry that transports the dead to Hades. Chariots and stagecoaches were used for centuries, along with human-powered vehicles like the Roman ‘sedan chair’ or hand-pulled carts in many regions of Asia.

The first steam locomotive was invented in 1804 by Matthew Murray, an English inventor who went on in 1812 to invent the twin-cylinder Salamanca locomotive, one of the first publicly used engines. These inventions helped usher in the age of trains which were revolutionary for society, allowing goods to be transported quickly over vast distances. They were seen to be instrumental in building nations, allowing passage of resources and settlers to remote areas to build communities.

“Even in those first ten years, railways were beginning to lead to significant changes within British society. Road transport could not compete. As well as being much more time consuming, it was also more expensive.” - UK Parliament

Mail also was upgraded through the invention of trains and railroads, allowing messages to be quickly moved across the country, faster than a horse could ever carry it, and carrying more than traditional mail transport could handle.

As cities grow and populations concentrate in urban areas, the demand for efficient and accessible transportation increases. In areas with high population density, private transport results in traffic and congestion and the need for parking spaces. Public transport offers a solution. The welfare of all citizens became more important rather than just a few citizens, and so their transportation needs were taken into account, resulting in public transport.

Birdseye view of a public train station

Public transport challenges

One of the most important factors when it comes to public transport is speed – how quickly you can get from point A to B. It’s difficult to develop fast public transport because a lot of people need to be organised and moved methodically - which calls for more resources, sophisticated infrastructure and well-trained staff. And you need to be able to rely upon it - if trains and buses don’t show up or are frequently late, commuters will lose confidence and find alternate routes.

Another priority is comfort - who wants to stand on a hot bus or train or sit on a crowded row of seats pressed up against other passengers? You want a little room to breathe, to be able to work on your laptop, to read a book. And then there’s price - perhaps the most important factor for most. Price will always be front of mind for commuters, with many using public transport daily. If costs are high, their expenses may become unmanageable, making it more difficult for them to get to and from work.

And then there’s safety, which of course should always be paramount. In Australia, safety standards for public transport are set by regulatory bodies such as the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator (ONRSR) for trains and state-based regulators for buses. Emergency features like stop buttons, breakable windows and clear signage are installed to allow for evacuations in the case of emergencies. Regular maintenance and security measures are community education campaigns which are also promoted.

The creation of train and tram tracks often requires environmental clearing. Efforts should be made to protect as much as possible the natural environment surrounding tracks. Also, pollutive gases are emitted by buses which needs to be considered.

Sign at a station showing transport options

Improving public transport

Constant technological innovation makes it difficult for government to regulate public transport systems. Regulations often focus on preventing disruption and protecting already established interests. For example, the arrival of Uber on the scene was heavily disruptive to taxi services, and the company has since been engaged in never-ending battles with regulations.

New forms of transport from private companies will offer competition to public transport, potentially offering greater comfort, fare-prices, speed and convenience. Again, Uber is a good example. Often cheaper than traditional taxis, Ubers are generally found to be more comfortable, convenient (they can be booked on your phone) and offer benefits like complimentary water bottles. Up-and-coming modes of transport include Mobility as a Service (MaaS) and autonomous vehicles.

Flying taxis will soon be a reality, with Paris set to be the first city in the world to offer eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) aircraft services for the 2024 Olympic Games. Volocopter is the start-up behind the eVTOL technology, partnering with airport operator Group ADP and national and local aviation agencies. Volocopter is expected to be certified by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in 2024, with eVTOLs to be held to the same strict standards as airliners.

Two commuters on a bus

Maglev trains and the hyperloop

Maglev trains (short for magnetic levitation trains) use electromagnets to elevate and move along a track. Only six countries currently use maglev trains; China has three, South Korea two and Japan one. China’s Shanghai Maglev, which was been running since 2004, is actually the fastest train in the world, reaching speeds of over 460km/h. In comparison, the Trans-Siberian Express reaches an average speed of 120km/h. A core advantage of maglev trains is that they don’t have engines, and so do not emit any harmful gases into the atmosphere. Maglev trains are at the forefront of rail technology and are likely to be favoured in the future on account of their neutral carbon footprint.

The hyperloop is a proposed high-speed transport system with the potential of being much faster than current trains. Similar to a maglev, the hyperloop theoretically uses magnetic levitation to shoot low-pressure tubes at enormous speeds. The hyperloop was first proposed by Elon Musk in 2013, and while companies are currently working on making the hyperloop a reality, a reliable system has not yet materialised.

The biggest hurdle to building high-speed rail is a policy issue, not a technological one.  There isn’t yet the political will to acquire the needed right-of-way.” High Speed Rail Alliance

If one day hyperloops become a viable option, they will take the pressure off congested and gridlocked roads, allowing for easier travel between cities and running off of sustainable energy sources like solar power.

Bus driver gripping the steering  wheel

Predictions for the future of public transport

In a report by professional services firm KPMG, after surveying top public transport organisations, it was found that 41% prioritise customer experience, 41% that fares should be lower, and 60% are investing in technology upgrades.

KPMG also made a few predictions for the future of public transport:

  1. Transport gets more political

    Public transport will be seen as a tool to foster social change, used to connect lower-economic citizens with the broader community.

  2. Guided by the algorithm

    Transport authorities might limit commuter choice, with algorithms guiding their movement during peak times to control congestion. As a commuter, you may be forced to take a certain route over another one depending on how busy the network is.

  3. Decarbonisation delivers net zero

    Decarbonisation of public transport is already a priority of many governments and companies and will continue to be a priority in the future.

  4. Targeted free public transport.

    Governments may offer free transport to certain citizens to give them better access to jobs and services and encourage the use of decarbonised public transport.

  5. More tech capabilities
    There will continue to be technological innovations, including autonomous vehicles, hyperloops, maglevs and flying taxis may become commonplace in the public transport system.


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