#181 Disruptive technology and emerging futures for non-motorised transport

Photo of an intersection, with a pedestrian crossing. There is a taxi with a bike rack, and it is parked in the taxi rank.
BIKE RACKED IN ZEERUST– It is important to consider how complete trips are made. If you ride, for some part of your journey in townships and then you want to take a taxi, there’s probably nowhere to put your bike. While the technology to fit bicycles on minibus taxis and buses has existed for much longer than many mobility applications, there are few minibuses with bike racks. You could say, that no one will use it because no one rides to the taxi rank– but that would be flawed. A few people, learners and urbanists would appreciate the option and integrate cycling into their daily routines. There is value in the option.

Summary of Panel 2C on Day 1 of the Third Non-Motorised Transport Conference. Notes from Prof Marianne Vanderschuren (moderator) and Ofentse Mokwena (author). 

Opening notes

From the outset, exploring the ‘new, emerging and disruptive technologies’ in the context of non-motorised transport was an ear-bending turn between the uptake of NMT presented by Dr Hubrecht Ribbens; Prof Christoffel Venter case-specifically describing approaches to innovation in the developing country setting; Ofentse Mokwena outlined a few opportunities from R&D perspective; and research prerequisites for the uptake of disruptive technologies were described by Gerhard Higte. Prof Marianne Vanderschuren facilitated the session with a specific focus on formulating a sense of direction for both policy and practice within the context of the future of active mobility and access in Southern Africa. 

Policy, technology, spatial planning and road infrastructure

To set the scene for the panel discussion, Dr Ribbens argued that there is a need to shift consumer behaviour, and this requires an understanding of the underlying tectonics associated with such a shift in the form of policy innovation, bicycle innovation, spatial planning and road design. Through international examples he purported that policy reforms are underpinned by a systems approach and aim at discouraging the private car. However, the South African context he revealed is rife high standards for planning followed by a lack of implementation. Innovations he highlighted range from the bike technology (i.e. electric, cargo bikes, pedicab and battery developments) to the impact of service changes like bike sharing (i.e. increasing mode share, tourism, etc.). These two themes underpin the incentives associated with how land uses attract and generate NMT trips through appropriate planning approaches like Transit Oriented Development (TOD); and the need to improve roadway design schemes to be attractive for the NMT user through infrastructure (i.e. bikeways) and intelligent transport systems (i.e. priority treatment). In this sense the policy innovations that are necessary should encourage both hard and soft policies which navigate through Smart City frameworks, TOD and roadway design needs. 

Lessons from a bike-sharing pilot scheme in Tshwane

A practical case study of how bike-sharing in South African cities could work came from Prof Venter, who presented some notes from the University of Pretoria’s bikeshare programme for university students. The big question was whether it could work, and subsequently a labour intensive pilot study was developed with 20 GPS tracked bikes— half of which were electric, 1 depo and tight control over the user group through official university identification. The results reveal that there’s a huge demand for cycling, which was unmet before this pilot. 50% of the users had concerns about road safety, and some users had creative uses of these bikes through micro-deliveries at a fee. Car substitution is also evident, with 15% of users shifting from driving, but most users used to walk. The operation needed a 25% subsidy to operate and the main lesson is that there’s a need to get the recipe right and getting ahead of the chicken and egg question between having bike ridership and having a bike share scheme. Furthermore, rolling out of infrastructure needs to be complemented by the availability and bicycles as users become advocates. From the discussion it was quite clear that the demand itself exists, however through a pilot study a much clearer understanding needs to be established specifically for: operations, service offering, pricing and managing the system at scale. 

Physiology, technology and industry

Into a different type of narrative, Ofentse Mokwena described the need for an understanding of the human characteristics and their interaction with the environment— specifically in the context of NMT. His proposition was that: to the same extent as pipeline transport is both the mode and the infrastructure, NMT users are both the mode, and the user with or without appropriate infrastructure. Physiologically, NMT users need the appropriate clothing, footwear and head gear to confront the natural and urban terrain in a manner that does not affect their physical composition negatively. Furthermore, NMT users are highly exposed to the elements, conflict points and activity points which they navigate through within their physiological paraphernalia. Finally, there is an industrial element embedded in addressing the physiological needs of NMT users and a few examples included: Pavegen a technology which generates electricity from kinetic energy and may be applied on sidewalks; Hexr a custom built helmet 26% safer honeycomb structures; and Hovding a bicycle helmet which follows the user’s movement patterns to detect an accident or impact at a 0.1 second inflation rate for the world’s first airbag helmet. Each of these examples lean in on the direct physiology of NMT users, but how could infrastructure and bikes be financed? Carbon financing through off-set schemes was described as a new direction for the future of funding sustainable mobility. Therefore between balancing the physical characteristics of what NMT users need, there is also a future for new types of technology which takes advantage of the inherent characteristics of NMT users to provide energy, industrial opportunities (i.e. manufacturing new products), and financing. 

PROTECTED WITHOUT A HELMET–Here’s a brief discussion about Hövding.
ENERGY ON FOOT– At scale, generating electricity from active mobility expands the potential of NMT use. Here Pavegen is described.
HEXR SAVED MY HEAD– When professionals ride, they get hurt. A custom designed helmet might not be for everyone, but it is surely the best fit.

Moving away from the “average” in NMT planning

Closing off the panel discussion was Gerhard Higte who explores the importance of customer centricity from a transport planning and implementation perspective. He questions the notion of using the average as a useful metric to measure due to the context specific nature of various precincts. What he proposed was the need to plan around origins and destinations. Planning around origins requires an understanding of the people, their age, mobility culture and spatial characteristics of where the trip is generated from. For destinations, we need to explore the corridors traversed to reach this location, how these corridors change and evolve along the way. In this sense it is a question of revaluating the principles and philosophy of NMT planning beyond the average and toward a customer profile. From there, the quality of the bicycle in terms of coverage (in kms) within its lifetime opens a new conversation about whether traditional or e-bike solutions need to dominate against the backdrop of at least intervening on the lowest hanging fruits. Could the target be learners or low income earning households be the target market?, he asked, and what would this mean for an industry where all elements need to work on one road. A probable approach is an agent-based modelling framework which leans on activity-baed modelling (a step after the four-step model) which disaggregates travel demand to a point where we could ask: “where are the people and GIS areas prone to bicycle use?” For NMT solutions to become viable they need economies of scale, and getting the critical mass right requires appropriate specifications for origins, destinations, corridors, land-uses, infrastructure characteristics and customer profiles in one platform— at least through the use of the available synthetic population funded by National Treasury. In essence, achieving a customer centric approach to NMT planning requires context specificity and an integrated data pool for the right kind of empirical estimations to take place— this is only to enable a more nuanced approach to NMT planning that can actually be implemented. 

Way Forward

  • Transit oriented development is difficult to define, but it is important that all modes are part of the conversation when developing and implementing TOD solutions. 
  • Transport policies need to change in order to reflect the modes, systems and services which are already in existence and will come in future.  
  • Increasing government’s awareness of the need for facilities and infrastructure which give a new meaning to NMT.
  • South Africa needs to implement the plans it develops and this is truly plausible if there are funds for local government to act on their functions. 

Acknowledgements: Department of Environmental Affairs, KfW and all other entities involved in the project. Dr Ribbens for his continued engagement and notes; Prof Venter (University of Pretoria) for his continuous enthusiasm in transport research and practice; Mr Higte for deep diving into both his personal and professional experience to highlight many of the issues mentioned here; and Prof Vanderschuren for moderating and trusting me with her notes to consolidate the session. Goerge, Carla and the Cycling Cities team who worked on the event; and the Premier Hotel O R Tambo for hosting it. 

Disclaimer: none of the views expressed here represent any of the entities or individuals mentioned here. The summary reported here is subject to the interpretation of the author. Thank you for getting through this one. More to come.

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