Forget Public-Private Partnerships. Share data and transport innovation will follow

Uber. Image: Getty.

“To help close the gap between public transit and your doorstep, we’re teaming up with Amtrak,” announced Lyft, Uber’s largest competitor, earlier this month. The partnership will allow Americans to ditch their cars and let the sharing economy deliver them seamlessly to and from the train station. Compelling, right?

For urban policymakers, maybe not.

Public-private partnerships (we can debate whether Amtrak is public or private later, rail nerds) seek to solve the first/last mile problem, and they do it very well. Multi-modal transport helps users overcome the friction of reaching a public transport hub, tempting many out of their cars.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) in Florida was amongst the first to launch such a scheme, named DirectConnect. The Authority pays up to $5 towards journeys made with Uber, a local taxi service, or a wheelchair-accessible taxi firm within designated zones, encompassing poorly served residential areas and starting or finishing at DirectConnect stops, mostly at the ends of bus lines. The scheme increases passenger numbers on primary bus services at a fraction of the cost of maintaining poorly performing branch lines, freeing up public resources to be deployed more efficiently elsewhere.

Schemes like this mean fewer cars and so less air pollution, more road space, lower demand for parking space, and lower atmospheric carbon emissions. What’s not to like?

Well for one thing, there’s little to suggest that this sort of multi-modal travel requires formal partnership: 25 per cent of Lyft’s journeys in Chicago are to a public transport node. Likewise, 40 per cent of Uber’s journeys in London start or end within 200 metres of an underground stop.

Data released by the firm last year after the opening of London’s Night Tube illustrated the dominance of these multi-modal journeys even more clearly. The number of journeys to or from an underground station during Night Tube hours has risen by 22 per cent since the service began. What’s more, pick-ups in Central London have fallen, while pick-ups at stations beyond the centre have risen by up to 300 per cent and 63 per cent on average. Clearly, consumers are well ahead of Lyft and Amtrak.

Click to expand. Image: Uber.

All this suggests that formal public-private partnerships may be unnecessary: if consumers can organise their own multi-modal transit, what need is there for expensive service integrations?

And by providing high quality real time transit data, metropolitan governments have reduced the need to partner with private companies to improve urban transportation. Applications such as CityMapper in the United Kingdom and Transit in the United States depend on free public-sector data showing, for example, when the next bus is due. Given access to open data, companies like these can give people the information they need to link multiple modes of transit.

Coupling its own data on urban transit with that made available by the private sector, CityMapper has gone so far as to provide its own ‘public’ transport service, or ‘social hyper-local multi-passenger pooled vehicle’, as the company calls it. The Night Rider, a 9pm to 5am bus route running through the heart of East London, from Aldgate to Highbury and Islington underground stations via Shoreditch and Dalston, will service an area neglected by public transport at night, a boost to the local economy along the way.

Image: CityMapper.

So what need is there for the public sector to partner with private companies, in an age of open metropolitan data? Principally, to ensure that no one is left behind.

Services like Uber require users to own a smartphone and have the ability to operate it, to have a bank account and to be comfortable making payments via an app, to be able bodied (very few ridesharing vehicles are accessible, leading to court cases across the pond), and, of course, to have the money to pay for what is ultimately a taxi, however cheap. Schemes such as DirectConnect allow the public sector to ensure that multimodal transport is accessible to the poor, the disabled, and those uncomfortable with smartphones by uniting public transport with accessible private vehicles that can be ordered by telephone and paid for with cash.

Partnerships like that between Uber and Transit, within the private sector but underpinned by open source public sector data, help us to navigate the multimodal city more efficiently than ever before. Public-private partnerships, on the other hand, are useful only in that they guarantee service accessibility – an aim that could perhaps be achieved by other means.

Alfie Shaw tweets as @shaw_alfie.


 

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.