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.


 

 
 
 
 

What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.


Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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