Global Public Transport Summit – The future is here with driverless buses
Global Public Transport Summit – In any important international gathering, exhibitors showcase samples of the products that are the subject of the meeting. The Global Public Transport Summit couldn’t bring real metro cars or tramways, but some buses were indeed on display at the exhibition hall of the meeting. However one of the devices that certainly drew the attention of both attendants at the Summit and the general public were two driverless minibuses which were demonstrating their ability to transport people around a little square in front of the Palais des Congrès, the site of the Summit.
It was certainly important for Montreal to hold this international event that congregated representatives from government agencies, manufacturers of public transit vehicles, academics, engineers and managers of transportation companies from around the world. At this time, some important new projects are planned for the region, such as the controversial LRT system to connect the South Shore, downtown, Laval, and the airport. For its part, the STM is introducing new metro cars (not exempt from controversy either, when they encountered some operational problems) and has plans to add electric buses to its fleet.
The theme of the meeting was “Lead the TRANSITion” which meant a focus on the evolution of public transportation around the world. Some aspects of this evolution have to do with the source of energy to move transit vehicles with an emphasis on replacing oil: electric buses, tramways, buses running on natural gas or hydrogen cells, and the integration of bikes as part of the public transport networks were debated in some sessions. Concerns about pollution in cities have accelerated the conversion of diesel buses to environment-friendly modes of transportation, tramways, trolleybuses, and increasingly autonomous electric buses that use lithium batteries and need charging stations along their route. The plea for clean energy in public transit was amply debated in a session aptly named: “Clean up your act: Decarbonisation” in which panellists from Montreal’s STM, Oslo, New Delhi, and Paris exchanged views on how to deal with this goal within the constraints of their respective realities.
Another important topic was precisely the integration of public transit in the design of cities. Of course, in the immense majority of cases, moving people around has come as an addition to cities already designed and built in a particular fashion. Public transport has had to adapt—and not always very successfully— to the needs and developments of cities. In some cases extremely dense areas, next to spaces with low population, industrial neighbourhoods demanding service at certain hours while quiet at other times, and so on. Situations of flexibility in the market and how to plan and design public transit for those distinct realities coexisting in a same urban centre were debated at the session called “Designing cities, designing transport” with panellists analyzing case studies on cities such as Tokyo, San Francisco, and London.
The Summit also covered other topics related to public transportation. Among those, the controversial issue of informal transport around the world (i.e., Uber and other such schemes), adapted transit to provide disabled people with efficient transportation, school transport, and the introduction of digital technology in various fields, from providing real-time information to users about the bus they are waiting for, to the control of signalling for metro cars and trains, to automatic operation of metro cars and light-rail trains, even to the introduction of driverless buses.
At a time when there is a renewed focus on public transportation, in part due to the need to develop a greener lifestyle, public transit—even in North America where people tend to rely on private transportation more than in other continents—is becoming increasingly important. Robert Puente, a keynote speaker at the Summit and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, summarized the challenges this new situation brings to all parties involved: “We are living through an era of historic change that is changing the need, purpose, and function of our transit systems. At the same time, we should recognize the financial and political challenges ahead and the complexities inherent today. We need to figure out new solutions for the delivery, design, and financing of transportation, and make them the norm rather than the exception.”