The Importance of Integration in Scalable Mass Transit Systems

By Ted Oberwager

The logic behind developing the world’s mass transit systems is obvious: a smaller carbon footprint, reduced dependence on gasoline, decreased congestion, job creation, and ultimately dollar savings for governments and consumers alike. The ramifications are huge both for the ~9,400 new cities that are expected support global population growth, but also for the many existing metropolises that will need to absorb additional headcount. With the United Nations predicting that cities will absorb the vast majority of the nearly 2.5 billion increase in the global population through 2050[1], I believe that scalability is the #1 issue facing mass transit today.

The question then becomes – how do we best scale mass transit systems in the cities of the future? Given the magnitude of our transportation needs, the answer cannot be found in any one solution. While many promote the virtues of one form of transit over another, there will not be a ‘silver bullet’ approach. Even the best constructed subway cannot solve a bustling city’s transportation needs in isolation. And creating a scalable system can be an issue of life or death proportions – just consider the news from India today where overcrowding in an Allahabad train station caused panic and stampede leading to the death of at least 37 people.[2]

Thus, I believe the answer must lie in a fully integrated approach across transportation modes. The public sector has many options to address its transportation needs – buses, trains, subways, aerial solutions, and even car sharing – and governments will need to use all of them going forward. The ability to connect and coordinate these alternatives will be the differentiating skill that makes a mass transit system truly scalable. It is not difficult to imagine a world where our smartphones tell us to ride the subway over the bus for our morning commute, or a software program with connection to all modes of mass transit helps city managers dynamically alter transportation prices to help balance loads and improve capacity utilization. We often think of the “smart grid” as an interconnected electrical grid, but that “grid” may soon be expanded beyond the electrical to include an integrated system of roads and rails and tubes.

How and when we realize this vision is unclear. As we saw in our Living PlanIT case, we are very much in the first inning of integrating our cities and making them truly “smart,” but the necessity of these innovations seems clear. And with companies like Cisco and Oracle attacking these issues head on[3][4], it can’t be too long before we rethink what it means to have a “smart grid” in the context of our public transportation systems, thereby making our cities truly scalable and efficient.

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2 thoughts on “The Importance of Integration in Scalable Mass Transit Systems

  1. The decision to invest in a a mass transit system relies on a complex mixture of politics, economics and the cultural preferences of the local population. Planning for future transportation needs and investing in a SCALABLE mass transit system further complicates this decision making process. Even the discussion of upgrading an existing mass transit system comes into play only after the local popuplation have recognized the congestion and shortfalls of the existing system. By then, it is usually too late and the options on the table are not very attractive.

    The scalability of a mass transit system, as Ted rightfully points out above, will rely heavily on the integration of existing and future transit systems. Dynamic pricing to balance load on the system, incentives to influence commuter behavior, and ensuring residents can hop in and out of different well connected transportation modes – will all affect this scalability. However, I believe the onus of scalability primarily  lies with a city’s planners. 

    There is no question that mass transit systems affect population distribution within a city and vice versa. Thus zoning laws within a city can strongly influence  the capacity of a mass transit system to scale up. Take the case of Singapore. Singapore has a peculiar problem of rising housing prices close to the CBD, mainly due to demand from working expatriates. Travel 20 mins outside of the city and the prices fall off a cliff. To levelize these stark differences, the Singapore government was able to quickly expand the Metro Rail to the areas on the city’s exterior. Residents and developers responded and now a huge chunk of the working population lives in these areas helped by the dramatically shorter commute.

    Singapore was able to pull this off because of intelligent master planning that allowed mass transit systems to scale up when critical mass was reached. There was enough  space to expand the MRT track (Having a strong government that does not hesitate to exercise eminent domain certainly helps!). The zoning rules ensured that there are clear earmarked residential and commercial areas. Subsequently, the end goal of the Metro Rail expansion was relatively straightforward, which made the routes less complicated. 

    It is well known that rapid urbanization have resulted in cities expanding outwards, engulfing once sparsely populated suburban towns into the city’s domain. It is the city planner’s responsibility to ensure that mass transit planning and zoning laws are closely coordinated to provide room for existing transit systems to scale up and the creation of new transit systems alike.

  2. By Anonymous

    I completely agree with you that scalability requires a fully integrated approach across transportation modes. In fact, the answer to solving scalability for almost anything is a more integrated approach across the various products or services offered. I dare say that most people understand this, but find it hard to implement due to factors like the inbred resistance to change in organizations.

    It is easy to talk about IT coordinating all forms of transportation. However, it is the interest of transportation companies not to integrate, as it requires significant additional cost, loss of revenues through revenue sharing with other companies, and unwillingness to work with other companies/organizations who have different systems than them. Thus, it is all too easy to fall back to maintaining the status quo just out of comfort and convenience for the agents within the individual systems.

    So yes, your high-level points are correct. But a more meaningful question is – how can we arrive at such integrations? Government backing and action (such as higher taxing of stand-alone transportation companies or mandates) could be effective in bringing about these integrations in communities where the individual transportation modes are disjointed. Or, synergies – both financial and managerial – need to be proven so that larger transportation companies could be incentivized to acquire other existing transportation systems. In any case, it would be great to hear more about specifics and analyses of how to get this integration done.

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