[Digiworld Summit] “Energy and infrastructure costs will mean multimodal transport becomes a necessity”

By December 13, 2013

As part of the process of developing the ‘smart city’, economic and energy constraints, plus people’s desire for flexibility when travelling around, will call for multimodal transport and information solutions.

Interview with Chloé Perreau, Project Manager, Smarter Mobility for the local authority running the French city of Montpellier and its surrounding areas. L’Atelier caught up with her after the round table session on ‘Smart City & Digital Living: Rethinking Mobilities in the City’, in which she took part during the 2013 Digiworld Summit held in Montpellier on 19-21 November.

L’Atelier: During the round table you alluded to the need to adapt to the citizens’ desire to have ‘multimodal’ transport available. What’s the difference between this kind of urban mobility and what is known as ‘intermodal’ transport?

Chloé Perreau: The main distinction is the timeframe. By ‘intermodal’ mobility we mean one journey which comprises several different forms of transport, e.g. first taking the bus, then getting on a bicycle. Multimodal transport is better understood in terms of an overall schema, a travel menu. In practice, it means that one day you’ll be able to use your car and another day take the train. This holds true for both one-off and regular journeys. In fact over the last twenty years we’ve seen how people are looking for greater flexibility in the way they make their daily journeys. Factors such as France's 35-hour workweek system have increased the number of journeys people now make aside from the basic commute from home to work and back again. 

So what does multimodal transport management mean for a local authority?

In terms of public policy, our urban transport plan includes the objective of shifting to multimodal. We’ll have to persuade citizens to stop using their private cars and start getting on public transport. In order to do that, we’ll need to develop a multimodal system that will give residents the same flexibility as they enjoy with their cars but without the downside of running expenses and parking charges. So the plan is to improve transport infrastructure. We have to see to it that we attain optimal passenger load without exceeding the limits, so it’s essential to be able to intervene before congestion reaches crisis point. 

What sort of bodies are involved in this kind of transport management? What are their roles and goals?

Well, this is a complex area and a wide range of bodies in the field of mobility – in the broadest sense of the word – are involved. On the local authority side, we have the transport authorities. In Montpellier, we’re already multimodal. TAM, the company in charge of public transport here, runs the trams and the buses, plus a system of self-service bicycles and cars. The regional authority is responsible for rail transport throughout the region. This is an extremely important service as many people from neighbouring Sète and Nîmes travel in to Montpellier. Then we have the General Council of the département and the city authority which take care of the roads, plus private partners for managing the motorways for instance. Car park and car-pooling firms also have a role to play. In actual fact [France’s national state-owned railway company] SNCF has just bought car-pooling organiser Ecolutis, while the Montpellier area website offers a service which matches car-pooling offers with demand. All these players are also important when it comes to providing information.

My next question exactly: what happens about multimodal transport information?

Traditional public transport providers publish information on multimodal mobility solutions. And subsidiaries such as Cityway, a company which develops computer tools and technologies designed for transit systems and travel support, works out multimodal itineraries for commuters, as do companies making automated navigation systems. Then there’s transport infrastructure company Vinci, which is hoping to turn its car parks into multimodal transport exchange hubs by offering all types of transport from a point close to each parking lot. In fact, some major digital players have made a sensational entry into this field as well. The Google Transit service, which works out itineraries for people, is widely used in Germany due to its partnership with German rail company Deutsche Bahn. In France, SNCF has decided to make multimodal transport information an integral part of its strategy. Meanwhile telecoms companies are getting more interested in using their available data to manage journeys more efficiently. Not least, our citizens also certainly have a role to play in the information space – offering car-pooling facilities for example. This is where genuine bottom-up initiatives begin to take off.

What are the obstacles to achieving real multimodal management? 

The biggest challenge is the question of governance. Some of those involved have really understood the value of a multimodal offering. The state and the local authorities are on the same wavelength here. However there is an issue as regards each party’s place in the value chain because private players may be in competition with public bodies.

How is multimodal transport financed?

As far as the local authorities are concerned, multimodal transport and the relevant information come under the heading of public transport and as such are entirely state-funded. However, France’s SRU law (on urban community life and renewal) authorises the creation of public-private partnerships to provide public amenities. On the private sector side, automotive navigation systems manufacturers such as Tom Tom charge directly for their services, others such as Google are financed by advertising. In fact this giant raises a number of questions and we haven’t yet decided what position to adopt in relation to the company. We would for instance have to change our data formats to Google’s standards. We’re now drawing up a convention detailing our targets and the areas which need financing. Whatever happens, one thing is certain: each transport authority will be the exclusive owner of the data it collects.

In the near future, how do you see people travelling around the ‘smart city’?

Staying purely with transport, the cost of energy and infrastructure will mean that multimodal transport becomes a necessity. But this is a huge opportunity! How can we build tomorrow’s city for greater convenience, make it a nicer place? We’ve already established multimodal transport hubs like the one at Saint Roch station. Here there are many different forms of transport on offer, all with a single, integrated ticketing system. Pricing and ticketing are in fact the new challenge which we’ll have to deal with if we want to offer optimal flexibility in choice of transport. There again we’ll encourage partnership initiatives so that we can create a single travel and pricing mechanism.

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