“Efficient mass transport is the only solution for future of mobility”
By 2025, there will be about 3 billion vehicles on the road worldwide, and soon after, 70% of the global population will be living in cities. Isn't that a recipe for gridlock? “Actually, high urban density offers the opportunity to reduce both travel distances and pollution”, says Amos Haggiag. But only if you figure out how to optimise mass transport. Exactly that is the specialty of Optibus, the company he co-founded and heads.
“Urbanisation is one of the most consequential trends happening right now. Just look at the figures: 40 years ago, only 30% of the world's population lived in cities. Right now, we're at 55%. By 2050, that will jump to almost 70%”, says Mr. Haggiag.
What's more: as a trend within a trend, urbanisation is concentrated mainly in a limited number of megacities. “These huge conurbations can easily number 10 to 20 million inhabitants. Think of places like Tokyo, Beijing and London”. Optibus sees these highly condensed zones of habitation as an opportunity rather than a problem.
Since 2014, Optibus has been using its own AI and algorithms to optimise the allocation of resources for public transportation and fleet operators. For the company believes that the solution for the growing congestion problems in urban centres isn't more roads for cars, but better use of the mass transport options already available.
In other words: Optibus provides the software that adjusts the performance of buses, trains, trams, metros and other mass transport systems to the ever-changing needs of the moment. The aim is to generate large savings for operators, while improving the travel experience of mass transport users.
“The solution has to come from mass transport. Just try and drive a car through any of the world's major cities. It is an overly long, increasingly expensive and overall frustrating experience”.
And the current focus on innovation for personal vehicles will do nothing to change that, Mr. Haggiag predicts. “If you give that segment of the population who currently don't have a driver's licence the option to operate an autonomous vehicle, chances are that they will do so”.
“Imagine an environment where children drive to school in individual autonomous cars. These autonomous cars as a standalone solution would double or triple the current traffic volume. So, instead of a solution, it would make matters even worse”.
Efficient and sustainable
Ride-hailing services as offered by Uber, Lyft and the like offer some reduction in traffic volume, but car-sharing in general does not offer the high-density solution that would really make a dent in the transport problem.
“The only efficient and sustainable way to move millions of people around major cities is via mass transport, be it trains, buses or metro”, says Mr. Haggiag. That’s why he thinks that by 2025, many people will no longer own a car but favour public transportation instead. “However, for mass transport to fulfil the needs of those millions of city-dwellers, they need to become more demand-driven and dynamic than they are today”.
Slow to change
Today, mass transport systems often suffer from some of the same problems that plague other large organisations, says Mr. Haggiag: they are bureaucratic, set in their ways, slow to change. “Sometimes, once transport plans have been drawn up, they stay the same for 50 years. Obviously, needs and requirements change over time, and sometimes even at very short notice, when construction work changes the traffic flow in a certain neighbourhood, for example”.
Another factor is the density of the mass transport systems that are available. “That's why in London, 50% use public transport, while in the U.S., only 5% do so. This also explains why it takes you only 40 minutes to get from one end of Warsaw to the other by public transport. Try the same between San Francisco and Palo Alto, and it'll take you two and a half hours”.
For its customers – often public transport operators, many in North America, but also in Europe, Singapore and South America – Optibus analyses data on rolling stock availability, traffic flows and other factors, and via machine learning figures out how to make better use of the available means, considering requirements will vary over time.
“By re-optimising the system, we are able to save a lot of money – operators have to run fewer buses, for example, or pay less overtime. In general, we save up to 15% of the operating cost. Which is a lot, considering the huge budgets of these operators. But this also results in higher levels of service, because we are able to offer a better service for changing demand”.
Optibus has four types of customers: public transport operators (Keolis is a client), cities, universities and private corporates. “For this last category of customers, we offer optimisation of on-campus traffic, and of employee commutes. We do this a lot for tech companies in Silicon Valley, where public transport options are sorely lacking”.
“Companies like Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon have had to organise bus services to ferry their employees in and out every day – but they don't want to be in the mass transportation business”. In fact, Amazon – currently scouting for a city to move its operations to – has made it clear that an excellent transportation system would be a major plus for any candidate city.
“Clearly, we can add most value in the U.S. But on the other hand, regions like Europe have more mass transport systems to optimise”. As for corporate customers, Optibus often works to optimise pooled transport solutions for companies sharing a building or campus, typically via the contractor who offers the transport services to those companies.
Optibus systems are being used in more than 200 cities worldwide. In early November, the Tel Aviv-based startup finalised a $12-million financing round. The funding will help develop Optibus's operating system also to power dynamic elements of mobility in the smart cities of the future. It will also help the company develop its own, flexible mobility offer. “I can't reveal too much, but think about the difference between a bus route, which can take up to a year to re-orient, and an Uber service, which can offer an alternate route almost instantaneously. We're aiming for something like that”.