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Taking Measure of Transport

The challenge

We know that our city transport networks are imperfect. Many cities are looking to improve theirs all the time. But without an overarching vision that defines what success looks like, how do cities know what to strive for?

In this article

  • Why transport strategies fall short, and what it has to do with measurement.
  • Rethinking what a good transport system should deliver.
  • A web tool to demonstrate how we can define and measure transport success in future.

This project was funded as part of our 2016 Global Research Challenge, an annual invitation for our people, clients and collaborators to present and develop an idea they think will help tackle one of the world's most intricate problems. This project was proposed under the theme, 'Transitioning to Multi-modal Transport Systems.'

Typically, the transport systems you see and use – new rail lines, upgrades to freeways, extra trams – start as ideas in a transport department or planners’ office. They are tied to transport strategy documents, which outline the current and future needs of a city and how the network of trains, cars, buses, bicycles and walking paths, and even ferries should respond. They usually express a grand vision for a network, but rarely identify metrics that will show that the vision has been achieved. And without an in-built system for measuring results, there’s no way for the strategy to adapt or develop for the people they need to serve; they remain static until they are refreshed five years later with the same limited scope. Transport strategies are curiously static documents given how critical a transport strategy is to the life of a city — especially in an era where cities are growing at unprecedented rates.

At best, transport strategies will talk about journey time savings — an improvement in how long it takes to travel from point A to point B. Rarely do they consider what people do with that extra time, or how it will make their lives better.

Callum Hooper, a planner in our Melbourne office, believes measurement and metrics are key to helping us build a more transparent, responsive and effective model.

“There is a saying in our industry, that what matters can’t be measured, but what can be measured, doesn’t matter,” Callum says. “I think we can prove this wrong." 

"We just have to find the right combination of metrics that are detailed enough to be meaningful, broad enough to be relevant to most cities and practical to collect. Together, they could show how a transport system is working."

Thanks to open data initiatives, we now have the live data to assess how transport networks are working for people in real time. This helps us make improvements as we go. No more static cardboard models, no matter how beautiful they are.

A few years ago, Ben Mason, an economist and colleague of Callum’s, was working in the United Arab Emirates when a client said, “You’re spending a lot of time and effort on creating a transport strategy for us, but how will we know if it’s working?” It was a very good question, with no good answer. The team scouted for examples elsewhere to show the effects of a transport strategy could be measured and found that nothing useful existed.

Over the course of 2017 Callum became involved in a project, led by Ben Mason, now in Melbourne. They approached the Public Transport Research Group (PTRG), which is run by Monash University, and partners with Victorian Transport agencies and authorities such as Public Transport Victoria, Metro Trains, VicRoads and Transport for Victoria. Together they look at public transport issues, including strategic planning, travel behaviour and transport economics and modelling. For this project, Ben and Callum, together with their colleagues in Melbourne, Dubai and Singapore offices, set out to work with PTRG to illustrate a more meaningful way to measure success in transport.

“We know that success differs from place to place. Singapore is different from Melbourne — they have different transport needs, they have different contexts, they have different environments — so the idea wasn’t just that you have this single definition, but that you have something relative,” he explains. 

“We wanted to create something that was holistic, that reframed the purpose of transport and how it is appraised, and therefore how people invest in it.”

The first step was to articulate what a good transport network should look like. The team came up with four key indicators of success:

  • Quality of Life — the network should support healthy, inclusive and safe communities with accessible travel choices for residents, visitors and businesses
  • Economics — the network should support balanced and integrated economic growth in all markets
  • Resilience — the network should support an evolving city to proactively adapt to short-term stresses and long-term change
  • Resources — the network should minimise its effect on land and environment.

Next, they needed to decide how to measure each indicator. They looked to other sectors, from finance to the environment, to see if other evaluation frameworks existed that could be adapted or interpreted. The objective, ultimately, was to create a web-based dashboard that could show the success of a transport network, based on these metrics, in a city over time. The chosen metrics would be used to create a heat map of the city that changed as the data changed. This could reveal pressure points and show areas of improvement — something that transport planners could use to tweak and adapt the system.

The team cast the net wide initially and weighed up their options, discarding metrics that were interesting in theory but impractical to measure in reality.

How long are you willing to wait?

“We wanted to keep the project concise. We weren’t shying away from complexity, obviously the fewer metrics, the more usable and clear the dashboard. However, we were clear that we didn’t want the tool to reflect a single index number, we wanted users to be able to look at transport from lots of different angles” the team explains.

The metrics that survived the cull were those where data were already available or could be gathered fairly easily. The more speculative metrics were abandoned in favour of data that were easy to interpret. For example, they include how many jobs, schools can be accessed by walking and cycling in any given place; the number of crashes across the transport network and journey time reliability on the freight network. Together, they present a big picture perspective of a city that incorporates roads, public transport and pedestrian transport into one vast interconnected complex city system.

“We have so many exciting data sets that have become much more freely available in recent years, thanks to open data schemes, and we can use those datasets to create something much more continuous and evidence-led to fill that gap,” Callum says. “You can objectively look at the whole area and see where the need is highest, and you can monitor any intervention to see what really works then go back and make adjustments. If you find something that is really super effective, you can roll it out to equivalent problem areas.”

Callum’s project fits within a broader set of initiatives at Arup that look at how we can use data and modern computing techniques to design transport networks to meet the needs of the people who use them. In another Melbourne-based research project called Mobility Mosaic, we coupled analytics on large datasets of how people move around cities, with qualitative interviews on why they’ve made the choices they do. We’ve since applied this method to several city transport networks around the world to help transport authorities assess existing networks from the perspective of the commuter and plan for future infrastructure or disruptions. We even applied it to our recent office relocations in Melbourne and Sydney to better understand disruption for our staff. With these qualitative and quantitative methods, we’ve drawn out surprising insights that will be incorporated into future plans, to make your daily commute, drive to the shops and tram ride to school that much better.

Now our dashboard is a proof of concept that shows what could be possible in transport planning. The team is now working with Transport Authorities with similar visions.

A screenshot of the team's prototype dashboard. We no longer look at transport networks as linear systems from A to B, but rather entire networks connected across modes such as walking, cycling, trains, trams, buses and cars. To do this effectively, we must look at the transport from the perspective of whoever is using it, wherever they are in the city.

“The dashboard is a tool, but it’s more than that — it’s the articulation of overarching philosophy and it could open up very different opportunities for how we approach transport design,” says Callum.

To be effective in our dynamic world, designs need to consider the full complexity of our city transport systems and provide the evidence (data) to consistently track and improve them in a way that’s meaningful for the rider. First, know what you’re aiming for. Second, know how to measure it. Third, take the data and make changes that work. That’s the future of transport.

Findings

  • There is no good existing framework for measuring success in transport design, even globally
  • A successful framework should incorporate things we can measure easily, but also recognise the complexity of the transport systems that cross our cities
  • One framework that could be easily measured includes the following four factors: quality of life, economic benefit, network resilience resource, and environmental impact.

This story was written by Simone Ubaldi, as part of the Research Review. This series is produced by the Arup Australasia Research team; Alex Sinickas, Bree Trevena and Jeff McAllister with contributions from Sheda and Noel Smyth.

Lead Arup Researcher

Callum Hooper
Callum is a transport planning consultant in our Melbourne planning team.

Ask Callum about:

  • How to build a transport strategy that can evolve over time.
  • The best metrics for tracking quality of life, economic benefit, network resilience and resource impact.
  • How to think about and visualise multi-faceted transport data.

LEAD Partner RESEARCHER

Dr Graham Currie
Professor Currie is the Director of Monash Infrastructure, Chair of Public Transport, Professor in Transport Engineering at the Department of Civil Engineering, Monash University. He is founder and Director of the Public Transport Research Group at Monash University.

Research TEAM

Ben
Mason
Ben is an economist specialising in transport and economic impact.
Nitesh
Rai
Nitesh is a software engineer working in our planning team in Melbourne.
Joerg
Tonndorf
Joerg is an associate director in our planning team in Dubai.
Joanne
Carmichael
Jo leads our planning team in Dubai.
Dr Chris
De Gruyter
Chris is a Research Fellow at RMIT University with the Centre for Urban Research.
Dr Alexa
Delbosc
Dr Delbosc is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Civil Engineering at Monash University.

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