Finding our digital land transport policy identity

As technology creeps into the South African travel choice market, it is important for us to embrace both innovation and our particular needs — before initiating imitative regulatory norms.

Considering the two directions the Uber pendulum is swinging in, it is rather obvious that Commercial Transport Applications (CTAs) seem abstracted by freedom of choice. On one hand, London was bending Uber to improve its corporate practices and lean toward being an active transport business — not a CTA-Platform. On the other, Uber is reaching out into the public passenger transport industry in Egypt 🇪🇬; unleashing valuable datasets for transport planning and is on the verge of rattling the goods delivery industry too. Considering the Parisian case, micro-freight mobility is a competitive environment ranging from vans, tricycles and bicycle deliveries — each attached to an application. Drones were tried but failed due to a limited business case.

There are a number of interesting CTAs and other unexpected yet innovative mobility solutions. I believe that the most important regulatory element in the transport industry will have to be on how to define, manage and formulate implementative policy frameworks that are not only in line with the competition act, but are also consistent with consumer protection policies in South Africa. This implies that there is a policy vacuum and legal nexus in transportation economic regulation.

The policy principle in transport policy advocates for competition for the market not in the market (which can also be a regulatory delusion).

This implies directly that that CTA-platforms in the transport space should not be permitted to operate unless if contacted to do so for a specific territory or market segment. However, it does raise questions about competitive demarcation based on geographic area over level of service.

Data driven regulation needs

GoMetro App has been an early example large repository of mobility data. One of the few if not only applications in transport planning that collects data and makes it publicly accessible. The composition of the data depends on the project scope. However the app has been used to provide accessibility measures to schools in the Western Cape, specific data driven tools, minibus taxi stops in Rustenburg and emission estimates on a Geographic Information Systems platform. Most compellingly, the platform seems to be gaining international uses and plays a crucial role in the process of digitizing transport planning. As the company expands its service footprint, it is rather clear that similar tools may emerge — maybe not to the same scale. So far GoMetro seems to be well ahead of the capital thred as international investment intensifies. Transportation policy should begin to lean more deeply toward transport information systems regulation and protocols.

Institutional flexibility for platform development

WhereIsMyTransport is a significant force in travel planning software/platforms. Starting as a repository of scheduled services in something called Find My Way App, the company defines itself as a platform (which is personally their most crucial tool, seemingly abandoned). Particularly hosting various transport entity services in order to assist with their travel planning needs. Indeed, there is a vacuum at travel market levels for appropriate tools; however the big challenge relates to the completeness of the application. Completeness in terms of the course extent to which one can plan, pay and perform trips. With the ride-hail applications on the table, only applications that have and offer such completeness, information systems, positioning and other conveniences would win.

AfriGIS is a much more mature, and perhaps broader company of services spanning from GIS to application platforms. However it’s main platform through the Gautrain does not serve as a booking tool, instead it operates as an information service. If I am not mistaken, this was overtaken by WhereIsMyTransport.

Hybrid applications that offer data repositories and travel booking

Found in aviation and land transport sectors, applications that enable responsiveness and secure booking tools are attractive. Most consumers are looking to initiate and complete a service request for journeys and trips. It is hard to tell which is more important: hyper convenience and real time visualization; or suffix information to make a trip, service and mode choice. Platforms such as these include Uber, Taxify and Flapp, even SAA. They enable complete booking, payment and seat or service selection. In the air transport space, they do not offer massive visualizations of where the flight you booked is coming from, which would be nice. There are a few articles out that describe the booking platforms as inherently insecure in terms of their treatment of user data and booking change requirements (I’ll attach some links in an updated version).

In the land transport space, the experience is about making sure that the client can truly see their relative proximity to transport services and destinations. From an end user perspective these platforms are exciting and bring hyper convenience to the 3–5bn more people joining the digital age within the next decade.

Traffic impact systems and their potential uses

OpenRobot is an application that won the Ekhuruleni hackathon last year. The platform offers a unique array of travel interventions. Among them is the dynamic treatment of traffic flow priority in addition to the intelligent transport system (ITS) tied to traffic signals. What intrigues me about this platform is the opportunity it presents for emergency services, public and non-motorized transport and high occupancy vehicles with dedicated lanes.

For example, if a vehicle traverses space with the app enabled, green lighting and traffic flow pausing may occur. This is like a vehicle moving through an open flow because all the traffic signals along its predicted or random route enable a type of ‘green lighting’ for it. Which simply means that for emergencies, traffic will pause more effectively; for public and non-motorized transport, more accurate traffic flow level of service at intersections may be prioritized. Somewhat exciting to note is that bicycle and tricycle delivery vehicles may achieve greater access to seamless movement if they are app enabled. For pedestrians using the application, particularly persons with disabilities and groups of children, the benefits include traffic signals being ‘aware’ of their approach to intersections and enabling them to move freely in the environment.

Regulatory implications

My thoughts are around looking at resilient integration between planning, land use and technology within a flexible institutional environment. One of the underlying narratives is the manner in which market entry for these applications is coordinated, restricted and managed. Each application will need to be regulated and consumer data treatments require not stringent observation. In particular, it is crucial to look ahead toward basic principles for the African continent in general — especially while there is government action toward affordable smartphone and internet access. This makes service design and application development beneficial for regulators and planners — but may spark complexities in the traditional structure of competition. While app developers are looking at deploying a good business case for improving services, regulators need to see beyond the noise. Following these applications are actual operational hardware to be introduced to transport systems such as vehicle operation monitoring, ticketing devices, tracking and seat monitoring. End user hardware will even be more versatile and complex as it will come from a myriad of places, companies and scales. Most of the policy infrastructure in place is not appropriately geared for this level of regulation — blending industrial needs with user and operational qualities. At the same time incorporating security protocols (longer codes than the hackers infiltrate with), and offering a secure central or distributed regulatory approach that protects both users and operators in these systems. We better watch out.

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