A major three-year study of how digital mobility platforms are reshaping cities will also look at the huge impact COVID-19 is already having on transport systems.
Alliance Manchester Business School has been awarded a grant by the Economic and Social Research Council to investigate how digital platforms are rapidly reconfiguring urban services and disrupting the way mobility systems are currently organised across cities.
Principal investigator Dr Michael Hodson, a Senior Research Fellow at the Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI), has been looking at this research area for a number of years as the number of digital platforms have proliferated and developed in different ways.
“Whether it’s on ride-hailing of taxis, journey planning platforms, on-demand bus services, mobile ticketing and fare management, carpooling or bicycle sharing, there are now a vast array of services which are rapidly changing the very nature of urban transport systems. But while there is much debate about digital platforms in general as a macro phenomenon, much of this is 'place-blind' and consequently misses much of what is happening on the ground in different urban areas.”
Dr Hodson said the project firstly aimed to understand what the platforms were and whether they can be categorised, in so doing helping to develop a global database of the urban mobility platform landscape. The aim is then to understand how these various platforms are differently configured in different locations, and also how they work alongside existing publicly-run transport systems.
As he adds: “If there are a whole range of private providers doing different things how do they then interact with public bodies? How do they help create an integrated transport offer for a city, or is there a danger that they work against that? There is a whole question here around ownership and control of services.”
The project will specifically analyse these digital platforms in three UK city regions – Greater Manchester, West Midlands and North East Combined Authority. Dr Hodson said the study had deliberately picked city-regions outside London because the emergence of such digital platforms was not as well understood as in the capital.
Since the initial bid submission was made to the ESRC transport provision across our cities has been transformed by the COVID-19 outbreak, with many transport services either mothballed or running on very reduced timetables. City streets across the world have also been opened up more to pedestrians and cyclists.
Co-investigator Professor Andrew McMeekin said the study would now also look at the extent to which the pandemic could be a real game-changer in terms of transport provision across city regions and how these digital services now evolve.
“Collaborating with the cities taking part in our study will provide really useful insights into how officials are already thinking in terms of the future infrastructure of their cities post-COVID. Clearly at this stage we do not yet know the long term economic and social consequences of the pandemic, but one big question is do we really want our transport systems to return to how they were in the past? Do we still want too many people in cars, too much pollution, or crowded, unreliable train networks? Is this a unique opportunity to frame a more desirable transport network?”
Window of opportunity
Added Dr Hodson: “UK cities have actually been putting together a whole series of transport strategy plans over recent years so we are not coming at this from a standing start. A lot of work on sustainability issues has already been undertaken.
“But now the dial has shifted and there is a window of opportunity to see if the plans can be implemented. This project will really contribute to city regional transport strategy and to a wider public debate on urban transport policy.”
Andrew McMeekin is Professor of Innovation at Alliance Manchester Business School.