Towards Transport Infrastructure 2.0: soft infrastructure and buspooling

(Busy with Master’s thesis at the moment. This is more of a philosophical piece.)

Infrastructure in Developed Countries

I don’t mean infrastructure in the sense of the World Wide Web. The tech industry has borrowed many similes from older professions: nowadays you can proclaim to be a Software Architect, a Data Scientist or a Technology Evangelist making cool things in a data warehouse or a tech bootcamp. It seems natural that, as society intertwines increasingly with the Web, IT professions become more specialised and sophisticated.

But what of traditional infrastructure, things like roads and electricity and schools?

Merriam-Webster defines infrastructure as follows:

the system of public works of a country, state, or region; also :the resources (such as personnel, buildings, or equipment) required for an activity.

I do think we still need hard infrastructure. After all, we’re told that super-fast 5G networks, super-fast charging stations for Electric cars/trucks/vans, futuristic retail stores will make our lives better unconditionally. As for transport, even if rail or tram appears passé, there are plenty of fancy (though not necessarily fantastic) ideas like Hyperloop, cycling superhighway and self-driving whatever.

But there is a quiet transition going on, as we become more and more digital.

Hard vs Soft Infrastructure

One can make a distinction between so-called soft and hard infrastructure:

“Hard” is the obvious: roads, bridges etc. “Soft” infrastructure is human capital and institutions that cultivate it, such as community colleges and universities.

(Source: StateImpact, 2011)

But with internet access declared a human right, it is not too far-fetched that our quality of life (or even the Human Development Index) can be measured in terms of 4G download speed and the time it takes to stream a Netflix episode. Literacy can be measured in terms of our ability to discern fake news and how we harness Google Translate (or the new Pixel Buds). Hence the soft diversifies.

Enters the Bee and the Bus

Likewise, I think there is a new shift in transport infrastructure. Traditionally a ‘hard’ field dominated by public actors, we start to see the entry of new, private actors. Not only Uber, but also Citymapper and GrabShuttle – these companies make use of their own data to understand customers’ needs and then translate that previously unmet demand into real-world services. This is different from bus companies like Flixbus or carpooling apps like BlaBlaCar because they expanded into the sector at a later stage, and that they have access to tons of data, the new oil in the information age. The cool buzzword for this appears to be ‘bus-pooling‘, which provides a greater capacity compared to private cars.

Helsinki's on-demand minibus Kutsuplus

Helsinki's on-demand minibus Kutsuplus

(Source: Helsinki Regional Transport)

On-demand minibus services aren’t new. Helsinki has experimented with the idea back in 2012, but the pilot ended after 4 years due to budget cuts. While it is unknown how successful these new attempts by Citymapper, Grab and the like are, if transport planning and supply is taken over by private actors who have real-time, on demand data on where we want to go, what becomes then of the role of regulators (i.e. the government authority that churns out 50-page Master Plans every few years)?

One answer could be Beeline, an app released 2 years ago for the public to propose and reserve point-to-point bus journeys. The platform, developed by a government agency in Singapore, recently has its source code released so that other apps can be developed on top of this technology.

As Finland’s Minister for Transport and Communications Anne Berner puts it,

…it should be private-sector organisations that provide the services to disrupt the transportation industry, and not the government.. The role of government is to provide the legislative environment for there to be level playing field so that these companies can compete and offer services that meet the needs of commuters.

(Source: CNA, 2017)

Finland is currently reforming its transport laws to ensure that services are technology- and platform-neutral. It will remove restrictions on whether a car is allowed to deliver parcels, mail, groceries and people, so anyone can choose to offer the service they want with the resources they have.

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