Management & Operations

UITP Summit Unveils Differing Transport Narratives, Approach to Challenges

Posted on June 7, 2017

All photos courtesy Giles Bailey
All photos courtesy Giles Bailey

By Giles Bailey

The biennial UITP Summit came to Montreal May 15 to 17. The showcase of the mobility industry, as supported by the transport operators in cities around the world, was organized with the assistance of CUTA and APTA in North America. It was only the third time that the UITP Congress had been in North America, following an earlier visit to Montreal in 1977 and Toronto in 1999. The Congress attracted 3,000 visitors from over 96 countries and was held at the downtown Palais des Congres. The event also included a full exhibition by equipment manufacturers, operators, and related industries, as well as a wide ranging series of seminars and lectures. Also included were outdoor demonstrations of autonomous vehicles and historic equipment illustrating the development of the Montreal’s transport system.

Opening speeches included the Mayor of Montreal, Denis Coderre and the Honorable Amarjeet Sohi, Federal Minister of Infrastructure and Communities for Canada. Patrick Leclerc, the President and CEO of CUTA, along with local hosts from transport operators AMT and STM also welcomed the attendees.

The Transdev/EasyMile shuttle was one of driverless electric vehicles being demonstrated at the event. Photo: METRO Magazine
The Transdev/EasyMile shuttle was one of driverless electric vehicles being demonstrated at the event. Photo: METRO Magazine

Robert Puentes, President and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, who is responsible for overseeing a range of projects concerning innovation and the development of urban mobility, provided a keynote introduction during the opening session. His speech focused on how to manage and lead the transition in a fast-changing mobility landscape.

The conference formally focused on a theme of leading the change in the role of the public transport industry as it faces the reality of new competitors, disruptors, changing technology, and expectations of customers. UITP is championing the need for this attitudinal change amongst the historically very traditional global public transport industry. As such, invited speakers represented a range of new thinkers, including a plenary session from the Head of Partnerships at Google’s Waymo autonomous driving division, Tim Papandreou, who highlighted their trials in Phoenix and their pragmatic designs to deliver a range of autonomous solutions for today’s cities. The autonomous shuttle demonstrations outside the congress center were by the two leading French providers Transdev/EasyMile and Keolis/Navya. Each demonstrated their latest vehicles on a closed loop track adjacent to the center.

UITP “Thought Wall” during the Summit.
UITP “Thought Wall” during the Summit.

It was announced by Alain Flausch, the UITP Secretary General, during the conference that Uber will also be joining UITP during the coming year. And thus, work more directly within the structures of the long-established public transport industry.

There were several main takeaways from the event. “In order to lead the transition, the business model of public transport will need to change and is changing to fully integrate new services like bike- or car-sharing,” said Flausch. Customers will need to be put at the heart of public transport companies’ concerns and working together in collaboration will be key.

Tackling transportation challenges

UITP also wants to work at the center of broader societal challenges, such as congestion reduction, automation, and sustainability.

It is interesting to note a subtle tension in the audience and sessions, however. Europeans, North Americans — differing quite markedly at this point between the issues of Canadians versus Americans — as well as attendees from the wider world including many emerging economies, such as India or South Africa, all approached and reacted to these challenges and the pending issues in comparable, but slightly differing ways.

UITP Summit exhibition area.
UITP Summit exhibition area.

For the Europeans, and particularly the larger cities and operators, they are progressing new public transport solutions from a position of market and stakeholder strength. Policy debate is clearly in favor of significantly improving the extent and capability of public transport via significant funding and interventions. While the disruptors and new market entrants are challenging, thinking about the mix of solutions and pressing the need for consideration of new partnerships, the agenda of sustainability, climate change, and support for livable cities remains paramount. Furthermore, substantial investments in high-speed rail, such as the recent confirmation of the High Speed 2 railway in the UK, supports the needs for urban areas to have effective local transport distribution systems — largely around the models of public transport.

Within the U.S., the narrative is also about innovation and disruptive change in transport, but the prominence and status of the public transport operator was clearly so much weaker in terms of dominating urban thinking. The narrative of sustainability was also not nearly as prominent as for the European, or Canadian, attendees. Furthermore, while globally leading changes such as autonomous solutions and hailing apps are being pursued in the U.S., the most pressing current concerns are about the ability and desire of the U.S. federal authorities to continue their support for transit systems. Without this support, much of the current public transport operation is clearly at risk of significant reduction. Thus, the concerns and views of the U.S. attendees focused on a differing narrative.

The Canadian public transport perspective

Meanwhile, the Canadian public transport systems are, having been through many difficult years of limited funding, clearly now seen as important economic, environmental, and political goals by the cities, as well as the provincial and federal governments. The Canadian government is pursuing an agenda of using its more substantial financial powers to direct billions of dollars of funding to develop urban transport solutions for all of the main Canadian cities. This was reflected in the Minister of Infrastructure’s opening remarks, as well as can clearly be seen in the Montreal area. Holding this global event in Canada was also an enormous boost to CUTA and its members.

The other global attendees again face comparable, but different challenges such as rapid urbanization and the need for pragmatic and promptly delivered solutions, such as how to regularize the informal transport sector or bring “smart solutions” to urban areas.Montreal acts as an interesting case study for transport development. The city was for many decades Canada’s global showcase and through the 1960s adopted the latest thinking in urban development. This included the Ville-Marie urban motorway cutting right through the heart of the city and adjacent to historic old city. Thankfully, the route was placed in a trench and the Palais des Congres actually sits on top of this highway. The severance impact of this motorway affects a large part of the downtown core.

Keolis/Navya autonomous shuttle at UITP Summit.
Keolis/Navya autonomous shuttle at UITP Summit.

Montreal was also the second Canadian city to adopt a metro/subway system after Toronto. The system opened in 1966 and has grown to be North America’s third-busiest after New York and Mexico City and far busier than other much larger urban centers on the continent. However, the system is showing the effects of age and use and is in the midst of a substantial refurbishment and upgrading — again supported by all levels of government in Canada. The original rolling stock is, for example, finally being replaced while issues such as level access at stations remain significantly poorer than what would be expected in other global city metro systems.

While expansive, it is interesting to note that several areas of the urban core are not yet served by high quality public transport, such as the center of the old city and newly invigorated old harbor. North-south transit links in the city center are strangely limited. The city is also served by a regional rail system that is also being modernized. Proposals are being debated for a new REM (Regional Electric Rail network) system covering the urban area, which would incorporate parts of the existing regional rail system and address some of the gaps in rapid transit and provide further links to communities on the south and north shore of the St Lawrence river. 

Spring sunshine over Montreal’s downtown during UITP Summit
Spring sunshine over Montreal’s downtown during UITP Summit

While, even with a very intense winter season, the city is a leader in urban cycling with expansive and well-used cycle hire infrastructure via Bixi as well as pervasive and often dedicated cycle lanes.

This year is a special year for Montreal, as well as Canada. The current city was originally established by French explorers on its present site 375 years ago. In fact, the last day of the UITP conference, May 17, marked the city’s 375th birthday. The evening and weekend was punctuated by celebrations and special events across the city. This included thousands attending a parade of giant puppets in the downtown core over the weekend. This year is also Canada’s 150th anniversary. As a city that enjoys celebrating itself on the world stage, Montreal was keen to welcome the public transport world this summer.

On a personal note, as a Canadian, it was great to see the Montreal area showcase its charm and capabilities as well as note its vigorous pursuit of a more sustainable and livable future.

The next UITP Summit will be in Stockholm in June 2019.

Giles K. Bailey is a director at Stratageeb Ltd., a London-based consultancy assisting businesses think about their strategic vision and innovation.

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