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Digital technology, the solution to meet the challenges of post-Covid mobility?

The impacts of the health crisis, the rise of new forms of mobility, the opening up to competition and the control of GAFAM over passenger data have completely changed the value chain of public transport operators, leading them to review their offer. Here is an overview of the different changes. By Rémi Constans, Head of the Transport Business Unit at Talan Opérations.

As in many areas, the Covid crisis have had a significant impact on public transport. Not only has the widespread use of teleworking caused the number of journeys to fall, but the very behaviour of users has been changed. 

According to the 2020 edition of the Mobility Observatory of the Union of Public and Rail Transport (UTP), more than half of people familiar with public transport have been transferred to their personal car during the first confinement. The latter was deemed safer from a health point of view, but also faster with smoother traffic due to travel restrictions. 

These changes are expected to continue, at least in the coming months. Interviewed in the same Observatory, 30% of passengers intend to abandon public transport partially or totally to use these forms of soft mobility (29%) and/or their individual car (16%). So how can we regain passengers' trust? 

Based on several studies, including the epidemiological bulletins of Santé Publique France, the UTP highlights that public transport is not a preferred place of contamination. So far no clusters have been detected. Not only do passengers mostly validate the health protocol put in place by transport operators but they are particularly respectful of barrier gestures. Wearing masks is more respected there and the duration of contact is shorter than in the family or professional circle. 


Teleworking redefines mobility, digital as an asset 

Despite this overall satisfaction, legacy operators cannot save on an overhaul of their transport offer. The development of teleworking is reshaping mobility maps. New mobility is less pendulum, while 80% of journeys in Ile-de-France have been made at peak times. Teleworking also gives new attractiveness to previously deserted territories because they are too far from high-density urban areas. 

Traveller habits, acquired mainly through the use of a pass (Navigo in Île-de-France), should make it possible to calculate and then implement a transport plan adapted to each situation (curfew, confinement, partial or total deconfinement). The current format for managing a transport plan following the school rhythm has probably experienced its last hours: management of shift schedules, teleworking have changed the paradigm that used to date. To anticipate passenger travel over a day, the implementation of a big data platform, able of integrating and processing thousands (or even millions) of data in record time is a necessity for all carriers in order to provide a transport offer adapted to the expected traffic. By investing in this technological lever, carriers provide a service to the user while meeting the needs of the organising authorities of frugality at a time when public finances are being undermined. 

Furthermore, the health crisis is forcing operators to communicate differently, by prioritising safety, particularly health, to the detriment of optimising journey times. Passenger information is thus called upon to integrate the concept of "load snake", i.e. the traffic within each train (in the metro, trains). Colour codes - red, orange, green - indicate the occupancy rate of a train, an RER or a bus at a given time. 

By feeding this data with predictive models of artificial intelligence, an operator can advise a passenger to take a less "loaded" train fifteen minutes later (at any time of decision-making: one week before travel or on the station platform). 

This optimisation of Traveller information implies a strong proximity between the traveller and the operator. The latter must have a detailed knowledge of travel habits. Otherwise there is a risk of being in the case of Aéroports de Paris (ADP) which receives millions of travellers per year without actually knowing them, customer knowledge being the prerogative of airlines. 


The challenge of opening up to competition 

Opening up to competition should favour the arrival of private operators at the expense of historical operators. The end of the SNCF monopoly began last December, for domestic passenger traffic, by high-speed lines with no major effects due to the health crisis. The real kick-off to the liberalisation of the French rail market is expected in 2023 with the gradual opening up to competition for the Transilien (see schedule). 

To anticipate the movement to come, it is interesting to look at the example of London, which has undergone an identical transformation. The British capital has chosen to contract with several players. One company operated transport, another provided maintenance and a third distributed tickets. This system has shown its limits. While ticket prices have fallen for travellers, they have seen delays and breakdowns increase. Operator margins have, in fact, fallen and infrastructure management has suffered as investment has declined. 

This division of roles has also made it difficult to establish the scope of responsibility for each other in the event of a malfunction. Is it the responsibility of the ticket seller, operator or manager? This feedback shows that the rolling stock must not be separated from the infrastructure: maintenance carried out on the first lightens that on the second. The renationalisation of certain English lines shows the relative failure of global privatisation. 

Beyond this distribution to be defined, the priority objective shared between carriers and organising authorities will be to optimise the quality of service. In this context, historic operators have embarked on the implementation of APS (Advanced Planning & Scheduling) to maximise the use of resources (whether material or human). France was almost the last in Europe to acquire these software packages. The deployment of these tools, both at RATP and SNCF, is under way and should enable them to catch up with their competitors in terms of financial optimisation. 


The Olympics, a showcase for our digital and ecological know-how 

For a number of years, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) has changed course in terms of organising these events: the management of athletes, the proximity between the Olympic village and the sporting facilities, and the integration of a more ecological than pharaonic logic are now the criteria for selecting the winning cities. 

In this context, transport operators are called upon to respond to this multiple equation: manage passenger flows for the largest global event by offering a "travel experience" guaranteeing safety, optimisation of journey times, and comfort, both intellectual, with high-quality passenger information, and physical, with an asset that includes communicating tools on board (audio, visual, 5G Wi-Fi, video, etc.) while highlighting the ecological character of public transport. 

On this last point, public transport players will have to contribute fully to the ecological transition. The health crisis has only strengthened the environmental concerns of the French. It is enough to persuade ourselves to observe the boom in electric cars. According to the French Automobile Manufacturers' Committee (CCFA), the French market recorded nearly 111,000 registrations of electric models in 2020 (6.7% market share) compared to less than 43,000 in 2019. On this aspect, operators already have arguments to make: RER cars or metros generate 60 times less carbon emissions than traditional cars. And the RATP has initiated a vast plan to renew its equipment fleet to achieve the 100% ecological target with fully electric buses by 2025. 

To address other subjects, all operators, whether public or private, rely on digital technology. For example, the RATP Innovation Plan devotes 85% of investments to digital subjects. One of the major areas of digital technology is focused on multimodality, otherwise known as MaaS (Mobility-as-a-Service). The aim is to bring together in an application all mobility offers: public transport, carpooling, car sharing, VTC, bicycles, scooters and other self-service scooters. By integrating real-time traffic information, this multimodal application accompanies travelers from planning their journey to, ideally, paying for their ticket. 

The first MaaS application in France with 16 million downloads, the SNCF Assistant aims to make us the train as well as the bike, bus, taxi or VTC departing or heading to a station. Transilien is also working on mapping its stations. When descending on the quay, path is the shortest and safest in the station to reach the metro station? For its part, RATP recently acquired Mappy, a route calculation tool. The acquisition of this new technological asset backed by an efficient mapping tool makes it possible to complete and develop its MaaS offering. This acquisition demonstrates the desire of one of the players in mobility in Ile-de-France to modernise via digital technology. 

This data valuation is all the more sensitive as GAFA already have an intimate knowledge of our travel, particularly Google (Waze, Google Maps, Waymo) and Uber. These digital giants could monetize this data and why not tackle ticket sales. We could therefore consider personalised pricing based in particular on traffic. If I am alone in a car, I pay more for my seat. 

The unprecedented context that we are experiencing is drawing new contours to the mobility landscape. In the long term, digital will help shape the transport of tomorrow. The major challenge will then be to reconcile the quest for the best user experience with the reduction of the carbon footprint. 


Three major challenges for all passenger carriers 

In the very short term, and while the Covid crisis is still ongoing, the response in terms of mobility that transport operators and organising authorities will be able to provide is based on two areas: review of the transport plan and Passenger Information. 

In the mid term, it is the opening up to competition on the national territory (and in particular the regional lines) that could upset the landscape: the end of the monopoly of historical operators (SNCF, RATP) will redefine all the actors on the different activities: infrastructure management, transport management, billetics. 

Finally, in the longer term, the organisation of the Olympic Games in 2024 will provide global visibility on our ability to manage a flow of travellers probably unprecedented on our territory, to welcome and accompany each of the athletes, tourists and spectators in an end-to-end logic (from point A to point B).