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Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities
Current and future developments in the use of land-based mass transit

CHRISTENSEN, Mr Ian, Managing Director, iMOVE Australia


CHAIR: I now welcome the representative from iMOVE to give evidence today. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament.

The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make an opening statement before we proceed to discussion.

Mr Christensen : Thank you, Chair. Firstly, thank you to the inquiry for the opportunity to present. I'd like to reflect our appreciation of the parliament's interest in the progressive automation of our transport services.

iMOVE Australia is a not-for-profit company responsible for operating the iMOVE Cooperative Research Centre. It's an independent national centre for research into transport and mobility. It draws its funding from industry, research and three levels of government, and we facilitate the formation and conduct of collaborative research projects.

With respect to the inquiry, you have my submission before you. I'd just refer to two key themes within it. The first is that iMOVE welcomes the engagement of automation technologies in our transport sector, both for mass transport and even freight. We do that because we see substantial opportunities to improve safety through the reduction of human error; to improve services, particularly their frequency and reliability; to reduce the cost of operations; and, through those various mechanisms, to improve therefore the productivity of cities, states and the nation.

We would also highlight that automation, while important in its own right, delivers substantially greater benefits if it's augmented by considerations of connectivity at the same time—'connectivity' meaning that one automated vehicle can interact effectively with both automated and non-automated vehicles in its surroundings and with which it interconnects in the transport systems of which it's a part. For instance, we can think of mass transport services as arteries in the transport network. But, like any organism, arteries only work well if the contents can actually get to the arteries. So we would say that mass transport and automation of mass transport is good, but it needs to be augmented by interconnection or interoperability with the distribution services—the 'last mile' services, so to speak—for the people who are using those services. Otherwise, we might have wonderful mass transport systems that run sub-optimally, or which are in fact potentially empty because people cannot get to them.

This all leads to a final observation, that across the whole of the personal transport system there is a progressive trend and need to transition from a modal focus—that is, the train, the tram or the bus—to a traveller focus, so that we concentrate on the experience of the traveller rather than just the efficiency or frequency of the transport service. I say that because the big objective in this space is to mitigate congestion. Whether that's congestion on rail networks or road networks it doesn't matter; the problem is that congestion costs the nation a substantial amount. I think the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics estimated a couple of years ago that it cost us $16½ billion a year in lost productivity through traffic congestion.

So the imperative on us is to mitigate congestion, to reduce the burden of congestion on our productivity. And to mitigate congestion we actually then need to encourage a better spread of transport demand across the available services and capacities. To achieve that, we then actually have to persuade travellers to change their behaviour to some degree—change the time of travel or change the mode of travel in whatever way. That is only going to be possible when travellers perceive the alternative modes of behaviour as being attractive. So there is an absolute requirement that we migrate to a traveller-centric focus on the performance of our transport network, with a view to encouraging behaviour change to the extent necessary to reduce congestion.

Thanks, Chair. I think that probably summarises the key points that we're trying to make. I'm at your service.

CHAIR: I was going to try to come up with a little quip there about you're serving and I'm receiving! Sharon, would you like to start?

Ms BIRD: Thanks, Chair. Mr Christensen, thank you for your submission. You talked about the importance of connectivity. We've had this raised quite consistently with us. I'd just like your view on the infrastructure that's required to be in place for this new connected transport system, given that it goes beyond our normal concept of hard infrastructure, because of the communications infrastructure.

Mr Christensen : Yes, you're exactly right. I would suggest that there are two—or probably more—dimensions. But there are two main dimensions of connectivity to which we need to pay attention. One is physical connectivity. Does the last mile transport meet the arterial node in time for the passengers to transfer from one leg of their journey to the other? Is there physical coordination between the modes?

And, of course, the second part, which becomes absolutely necessary, is connectivity in information. Can the traveller actually receive enough information about the disposition of the transport system, or the options that they have, to make the connections to actually execute an efficient journey? So, information sharing or information availability in a readily understandable format is a key part. But so too, of course, are the physical operations that allow multimodal or multi-segment journeys to be undertaken efficiently.

Ms BIRD: Yes. I think it was yesterday that we had some evidence around that connectivity issue as well. I think, Chair, that Singapore was given as an example? Or was it Seoul? I can't remember which one it was. It was given as an example of a system with very integrated modes, but it appeared that almost all of the transport options were government owned and run, whereas in our system generally we have a much broader mix of public and private systems. The challenges might be around connectivity in that space; is that something you've looked at?

Mr Christensen : You're exactly right to point to one of the challenges that we have, and we do pay close attention to that issue. I think that Transport for NSW here in Sydney has already made quite substantive progress towards making real-time information around the arrival or progress of their public transport vehicles available to travellers. You might say, 'Well, most of them are run by Transport for NSW,' but I think that at some level it's fair to say that there's a combination of private and public operation in place.

But, to your broader point: ensuring appropriate information sharing and information transmission between the parties that are responsible for the various modes and operations in the transport sector is crucial, and that requires an ongoing negotiation agreement on standards and timely provision of the information that's being sought.

Ms BIRD: I would imagine that for many, if not all, private operators it's in their advantage to be part of the connected information system. Sometimes the challenges to capacity strike me—their capacity to put in place the systems and so forth to be interoperable. That may be something that we need to think of in advance so that people can start to look at longer term plans—upgrades to software and those sorts of issues.

Mr Christensen : I absolutely agree with you. I would suggest that we are also in transition from a focus on modes and bus operators that have a contract with the state government to deliver services on a particular route through to a more systems approach whereby we need to provide appropriate transport services to a geography, to a region, to a locality in which the bus operator provides part of the solution. That requires an evolution, at least in some jurisdictions, of the nature of the contract between the state and the operator as to the performance they're required to deliver and what they're trying to optimise. For example, in some jurisdictions there is no incentive to the operator to increase patronage and yet, overall, the system would benefit strongly, up to a limit, if the patronage on public transport were actually able to be increased or people could be attracted from their single occupancy cars into multiple occupancy public transport vehicles.

Ms BIRD: The other thing about such a connected system is that, obviously, there are so many more points of weakness for either malicious intervention or data theft—privacy issues. Have you done any work in that space—the best policy settings might help alleviate that in that area.

Mr Christensen : Yes, some work. For instance, we do work with connected and automated vehicles and we are operating a project in conjunction with Transport and Main Roads in Queensland to develop an appropriately cyber-secure mechanism for information sharing between automated vehicles and automated vehicles and infrastructure. We absolutely recognise and endorse your comment that ensuring appropriate cybersecurity arrangements over the transmitted information is going to be absolutely important. My sense is that, for the public transport at the moment, most of the communication is one way. It's from the system to the traveller. There's not very much communication yet from the traveller back to the system, so the privacy issues are not yet to the fore, but we need to be cognisant of that issue because it will probably come on us in a gradual way rather than an intensive way.

Ms BIRD: I think that what's happening in the retail sector, in terms of online, is a good example of the great exchange that happens between a buyer and seller and the capacity then for that information to be captured and used for wrong purposes and so forth as well.

Mr Christensen : Indeed.

Ms BIRD: I'm interested in your view, given your research focus. We've had lots of evidence about the actual incremental progress in automation, when we talk about an automated vehicle. There are the adjustments that have already been made to cars and buses and so forth to increase the level of automation—as opposed to 'automated', which was explained to us yesterday—that evolving process versus a quantum leap of technology. What's your view on how that would continue to develop? Do you think it'll continue to be an incremental thing or do you think there are some quantum leaps on our horizon that we should be conscious of?

Mr Christensen : I'm going to stand on both sides of that fence at the same time. There is serious effort being made in industry to do the quantum leap, but it's difficult. In the meantime, plan B is to progressively increment the capability of vehicles as each generation of vehicles comes out, given increasing features. Both development strategies are well and truly underway. For the time being, they're completely autonomous. No-steering-wheel vehicles are not really capable of operating in a highly complex and contested space. They are capable of operating in simple constrained spaces. I think a dozen trials of driverless shuttle buses is occurring in Australia. Those vehicles are automated—they don't have a steering wheel—so they are coming at it from the highly automated end. Their ability to read context and therefore cope with unexpected events is still limited. They're not really capable yet of being thrown into mainstream traffic and expected to cope. In the meantime, we progress from lane-following, cruise control, automatic emergency braking, driver assist—blah, blah, blah. They are progressively making the cars more and more clever and with more and more facilities to try to mitigate or minimize driver error.

Ms BIRD: You're talking about the more complex driving environment. There are obviously heavier traffic areas and so forth. One of the other things we had evidence on in a previous committee is the fragmentation of the freight task—online shopping and to-house delivery is booming in comparison to the old model where people might, on the odd occasion, have something delivered to a post office. Do you see much in that space, around small vehicle, truck type automation given the higher level of demand for movements?

Mr Christensen : The short answer is yes. Most of the technology development in that space is occurring overseas, but it is happening at all levels, from footpath delivery robots through to small trucks, through to drones, through to automated delivery, through to automated lockers, either in building basements or on the porch of your house or things like that. Yes, there is a lot of work going on in that space. It's on many different fronts because it hasn't resolved to a dominant mode of solution yet. There's a lot of experimentation and every mode requires a degree of co-investment at destination to actually be able to receive the goods. We haven't worked out yet what the optimal configuration is, nor who is going to pay for it.

Ms BIRD: It seems to be one space where there is more excitement about innovation, and shiny new things start to move and then people start saying, 'Hang on a second, how is this impacting on our amenity, our efficiency and so forth, and trying to retrofit controls around it?' Drone delivery is the classic example—people having their pizzas delivered by drone. What are the implications to neighbourhood amenity and so forth? Is there any work happening around policy in that space, either nationally or internationally, that we should perhaps look at?

Mr Christensen : Are you referring to drones or to—

Ms BIRD: Any of the variety of innovations that you're talking about in this space.

Mr Christensen : In the regulatory space, I'm not aware of any current initiatives. The prospect is visible to everybody, but I'm not aware of any particular work going on, certainly not in Australia. In the area of local delivery, I know there are many, many stakeholders in Australia who are concerned about the many safety aspects associated with automated delivery of parcels and even manual delivery of parcels to many destinations, some in safe places, some in not so safe places. There is concern about safety and there's a community of dialogue in process at the moment—

Ms BIRD: Sorry, is that largely being driven by local-government-type authorities more than anybody else?

Mr Christensen : I would say it's a combination of road authorities and big delivering organisations like the supermarket chains and Australia Post as well as a degree of local government and interest from technology vendors. So it's quite a multistakeholder study. Additionally, there is a congestion problem emerging, especially in dense areas like CBDs, where the delivery process itself is causing congestion in the delivery locations. How do we access the basements of all these buildings when we've got a delivery van every five minutes delivering one parcel? I know, again, in Sydney you've had some good experience coordinating deliveries into the CBD of all things through consolidation outside of George Street.

Ms BIRD: Yes.

Mr Christensen : I know in Singapore they have, in a fairly whole-of-city basis, implemented methodologies for consolidated deliveries as well. There's an operational issue and a safety issue that is being addressed. There are probably other issues that will come to the fore as time goes on.

Ms BIRD: Your observation of that is that it's more an informal process of interested parties at this point in time rather than formal policy approaches by different levels of government?

Mr Christensen : Absolutely. It's informal because it's not clear what the optimal or preferred set of solutions actually is. Everyone recognises that we need solutions, and there's a scan going on at the moment looking at what's possible, what's emerging and what, therefore, we should direct ourselves towards.

Ms BIRD: It's seems that governments at all levels are talking a lot about congestion. I'm just wondering whether we really understand the nature of that congestion. As you say, a lot of it is maybe freight movement rather than people movement.

Mr Christensen : You're absolutely right. Congestion is a multiheaded beast and we have to tackle each of the heads somewhat separately.

Ms BIRD: Yes. Thank you very much for your presentation, Mr Christensen.

CHAIR: It's interesting that this raised itself time and again in different language yesterday, and I think you put it very succinctly—that is, the need to look more holistically at the travel experience, if I'm understanding you correctly. The siloed nature of some of the modes of transport—we've got a great train system but the good news, bad news is nobody can get to it. It is that first mile, last mile that complements or feeds so we get optimal potential use out of those big building blocks—that's the trick of how to feed them—and not have people default to the car because it's your servant. That is, you hop in it and it's ready to go. Unless it's a 1950s model Triumph and it's just rained!

Walking has the same opportunity. And we looked at the autonomous vehicle as being, possibly, one vehicle in a family that served one person to get to a train, another person to get to a bus stop and a third person of that family to get to school; a shared autonomous vehicle, where one person might use it for getting to a train station or bus stop, and then it's put into a pool of use; and then the other is on-demand, where you have access to vehicles that are autonomous that are fully in pool use, or like a taxi or an Uber and/or something that has been put in temporarily. So that seems to be the organisation to have our major carriers, our mass transit vehicles, being fully utilised. That's the question.

Mr Christensen : That's a beautiful summary, Chair.

CHAIR: Sorry, what was that?

Mr Christensen : That's a beautiful summary.

CHAIR: I heard you the first time. I just wanted to make sure Bill got it! I was paying attention.

Mr Christensen : Indeed.

CHAIR: We hear the suite of challenges time and again and what the problem is—that we've got to be moving now to how specifically we address it, what the strategies are, what the vehicles are and how we get them to interact.

Mr Christensen : There are many steps along this path and, to find our way, it's very helpful when the relevant jurisdiction—in this case, it's very often a state jurisdiction—envisages a future that will work well as a system, that aims to serve the community that it addresses well and, then, that steps forward with all the range of component parts that need to be brought into play. It can align them each time as and when the opportunity comes. So bus contracts might only turn up every five years, but if the government of the day has a vision or a sense of the nature of the transport system they want to create, then that's very helpful in guiding the next generation of contract with, in this case, the bus operators. But you could say the same about information provision. You could say the same about the flow of people in and out of our major nodal centres. You could say the same thing about the time at which people are obliged to start work. There are short-term, medium-term and long-term initiatives that can be taken and, to encourage the stakeholders to take those initiatives, it helps very strongly if there is a community dialogue or a community perspective about the nature of the city or the nature of the community that we aspire to create. We could spend a day listing out all the different things that need to be brought to bear, but over above all of that I would say that the first and most important thing is the sense of and articulation of a degree of vision of where we want the city to get to and, then, how the different technologies can contribute to that vision.

CHAIR: Largely, we have been looking at retrofitting in our previous inquiry—building up and moving out. We looked at the retrofitting of infrastructure and the land use planning around that to relieve our major cities of the problems that have evolved through the lack of planning and also, then, strategic decentralisation and the creation of new cities. Constantly, we have largely focused on retrofitting and what to do with the problems that we have because there has been no planning—in particular, the suburban sprawl and how to get people from those remote suburban homes to good mass transport. So that's one thing.

It was incredible yesterday when we asked one of the presenters: if you were given a greenfield site, how would you work on that? I thought they had very little idea—because they'd never contemplated having a greenfield site, they actually didn't have an ideal. But it did bring together the concept of land use planning to facilitate or not to create blockages or difficulties for seamless traveller experience and that seamless transition from one mode to the next so they're complementary. There are two areas there: the area of the retrofitting and the new cities, so please address the new cities. Is there a utopian view?

Mr Christensen : Yes. First of all, all jurisdictions wrestle with the interaction between their transport planning and their land use planning. I say that because, amongst the participants in iMOVE, nearly all of them have shared that concern with us. Queensland have just initiated a project to develop a joint transport and land use planning model, which to our knowledge will be the first time that's been done in Australia, and all the other states are looking on with great interest. So to your first point: yes, it's a problem and, yes, we don't do it well, and there is work now afoot to try to improve the way we do it anyway.

Interestingly, whilst we don't normally have a greenfield opportunity, Western Sydney, with the airport, kind of has some of those dimensions. So Western Sydney actually presents us with an opportunity to do it right this time. The question is: what does right look like? If you've travelled overseas, particularly in Europe, you will know that over the last hundred years at least there have been numerous initiatives to create a new city. Milton Keynes in the UK is one of those. Cadbury built the Bournville town in order for it to be a perfect city for the employees of Cadbury chocolate. As we look back at those instances now, we would say they were good and they were probably the best thing that could be thought of at the time but they were not sufficiently nuanced or sufficiently complex. They struggled to be effective. The lesson for us in Sydney, then, is to be quite insightful about the nature of activity that we want to have happen in that precinct and, therefore, the flow of people and goods and services that are going to be needed, in a sense, to support that central activity. I don't have exactly the road map to utopia that you might require, but I think there is an opportunity in that particular situation for us to have a go at building our Sydney or New South Wales utopia.

CHAIR: In retrofitting infrastructure and transport systems, we should be able to develop a list of problems that are encountered and, therefore, when we're looking at a greenfield site, make sure we're not building in those blockages. There probably should be data developed to eliminate the risk of doing this in our new sites. If we're looking at strategic decentralisation, most regional townships that may be serviced from this don't want the new city plop in the middle of theirs. They want to have access to the high-speed rail, but they don't want the new city to impact on them. They want it nearby but out of sight and out of hearing. That's where you have the clean sheet to draw this up. But then you need to have those transport systems engaging with an existing town or city.

Mr Christensen : I agree. I'm probably not competent to speak to most of the systems, so I'll just refer to transport and mobility in the first instance. In those systems, in the legacy environment, we see situations where, through poor design, we have a system weakness. It could be a blind corner; it could be a school crossing just over the crest of a hill—all these sorts of things. The opportunity for us in a greenfield site is to take a systems approach and, through a detailed design, maintain a perspective on whether the system will continue to work efficiently and effectively. By taking a systems approach you can test whether a proposed design will flow well or not. That's the discipline that I would encourage to be brought to bear on the consideration of how we go about designing a greenfield site that will be effective both in the beginning and in the longer term.

CHAIR: In talking about the Queensland government's joint land-use and transport model, we seem to be often thwarted with the siloing of activities, which you've concentrated on. In two inquiries that this committee has investigated, we have looked constantly at opportunities of value capture. Often we have had value capture challenged, and I would say, without exception, when somebody challenges it it's because they don't know what it is. But, for those who are appreciative of the potential, you might immediately see that, with a good transport system attached to land use and therefore zoning, you are going to increase the value of that land.

We had some evidence of a Dutch development where the land had been subdivided—it probably had a bit of a wall built around it to stop the water coming in!—and, while they were selling off the blocks of land, the bus services were circulating to show prospective buyers what sort of transport system they would have. So transport was foremost in their mind; they knew how long it would take to get into town. It was running at no income, but the income was really going to come from the value capture of the uplift of the land.

It might be beneficial, when we're thinking about these transport systems, to look at whether there is a way of using the uplift of the land to contribute to the cost of services, both the capital cost and operating costs, through some form of value capture—through capital gains tax on sales and through a land tax or rates system.

Mr Christensen : I think that's highly desirable. The value incrementation, the value uplift—it happens anyway. Without question, to my mind, the value uplift happens. It's then a question of whether that value uplift is just given away as a sort of unearned, free benefit to the lucky landholder or the lucky asset owner or whether there's a way to recover some of that uplift and use it to pay back the cost of the infrastructure that created the uplift in the first place. Clearly, if there is an ability to do that in a fair and reasonable way or in a way where the community at large can see the quantum of uplift and agree that the part of that rightly belongs as a result of the infrastructure investment, then we should be able or it would be desirable to then find a mechanism by which that can be extracted and fed back into the cost. I absolutely support that idea. I think it's going to be an important idea to prosecute, if we're going to be able to fund the level of infrastructure build that I think we're going to have to do.

CHAIR: If a government is spending taxpayers' money—which is the only money we get to spend—and it's meant to be an investment that gives a third party a benefit, in this case through infrastructure, it would almost be negligent of the government if they weren't to seek to get a fair share of that uplift created by the investment of the taxpayers' money. Would you agree?

Mr Christensen : I agree.

CHAIR: Good. I don't know whether that had a lot to do with this particular inquiry, but I'd like to get that down anyway. Sharon, do you have anything more?

Ms BIRD: No. I'm fine thank you.

CHAIR: Okay. Thank you again for your attendance and your contribution today. If you've been asked to provide any additional information, would you please forward it to the secretary by Wednesday, 6 March. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and will have an opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors. Thank you again for attending.

Mr Christensen : Thank you, Chair, for the opportunity.