KPMG’s Global Chairman of Infrastructure, James Stewart, sat down with three industry experts: David Prout, Director General of the UK’s HS2 high speed rail scheme; Desmond Kuek, CEO of SMRT (Singapore’s largest public transit operator); and Anton Valk, the former Chief Executive of Abellio (an operator of buses and trains in the UK, Germany and the Czech Republic) to discuss the topic of transportation and moving populations.
James Stewart (JS): When we work with cities and countries to help them understand and manage the impacts of population shifts, the issue of transportation is always high on the agenda. What is it about connecting people that is so important today?
David Prout (DP): I think everyone – from the person on the street through to national governments – intrinsically knows that there is an incredibly important link between transportation, productivity and quality of life. One only need look at the obvious correlations between property prices and transportation connectivity in cities like London to see the real value that people put on access to good and efficient transportation. Governments are also now recognizing that they are competing on a global scale – against fast growing cities like Beijing and Casablanca – and that if they don’t constantly invest in their infrastructure, they will quickly find themselves at a disadvantage in this global competition for investment and talent.
Anton Valk (AV): I think you are right. A lot goes into making a city more attractive but the biggest thing is its connectivity to the surrounding regions and, indeed, the wider world that make it a place where talent want to be or where companies want to invest. So, on the one hand you need to ensure that you have international connectivity to attract international attention. But, at the same time, you also need to make sure that you have strong regional links into the areas around the city to bring people to work and improve their access to everything that cities have to offer.
Desmond Kuek (DK): Our experience in Singapore has shown that it’s not just about getting people from Point A to Point B. It’s also about having an efficient transport system that combines access, convenience, comfort, reliability, safety and affordability. Increasingly, people also want to improve the quality of life in their cities and that often means improving the environment. As a result, we have seen public transit move up on the agenda of government and citizens as a cleaner and more efficient way to move people and goods around.
JS: One of the things I often tell our clients around the world is that they need to start by improving their existing transportation systems and – most importantly – creating better integration between their various modes of transit. Do you have any advice on how cities can better integrate their transit systems?
AV: In the past, planners tended to see different modes as almost competitors – cars versus trains – but I think most planners now understand that they need to offer people a variety of options that can be combined to get them to places quickly and efficiently. So now in the Netherlands we are seeing people bike from their homes to the train station and then, once in the city, they use the trams to get to their final destination. One thing that has really helped drive integration, however, has been the introduction of smart card technology which has made it really easy for people to move from one mode of transit to another within a given system.
DP: One of the advantages that we have with integrating HS2 into existing systems in the UK is that ours is a long-term scheme that won’t open until 2026. This has provided our local partners along the proposed line with a lot of time to think about how they will integrate our stations into their existing systems. In Britain we also have a Local Growth Fund that will provide funding to help many of our local partners pay for this integration and for improving their existing local systems. So we have started from a good place in terms of lead time and funding for integration with our scheme.
DK: One of the ways that we have improved integration in Singapore is by taking a more customer-centric approach to our decision-making and policy implementation. Every process, every design and every operational change that we make at SMRT is now looked at both in terms of efficiency and from the commuter’s perspective to understand how it impacts the choices that our commuters will make. We’re also looking at how we can harness technology – smart applications on phones and other mobile devices for example, because these are so widely proliferated – to help people better plan their journeys and virtually access the transportation system before they even physically enter into our network.
JS: Clearly governments need to think about how they can invest in the things around a transportation project in order to better integrate it into the existing transit and societal infrastructure. But I think one of the common challenges we see is that current methodologies for valuing and prioritizing transit investments do not really capture things like the changing dynamics of population or changing economic assumptions.
DP: I would agree with that. When we look at appraising transport projects, about 50 percent of the benefits we attribute come from journey time savings. The problem is that this approach incentivizes you to prioritize schemes that are based primarily on speed. And that might not always be the most critical issue at hand – sometimes things like increased capacity, reliability and regularity of service are attributes that should be equally important, but they don’t tend to make up a very large part of the traditional transportation appraisal benefits.
DK: The underlying challenge is really in understanding how the population of a city and region is likely to evolve and that’s not always easy to accurately project. It is a dynamic process that constantly changes throughout the life of a city. What that means is that urban planners and designers need to take a continual and long-term view to balance all of the factors and trade-offs which, in turn, requires the design and implementation process to be integrated across all relevant agencies and community stakeholders up front.
AV: It’s also important to remember that choices in transport are politically driven by the electorate, in part because it takes a lot of leadership from government to get the big projects done. But transport projects also have a lot of effects and impacts on the area, the community and local businesses which, in the Western world, tends to mean that other measures – beyond direct economic benefit and journey time – are sometimes high on the agenda.
JS: Each of you has extensive experience leading large-scale transportation projects and operations. Based on your experience, what advice would you give transportation authorities and governments around the world?
AV: I think the main point is that – in many places – there is still a lot to be done in improving existing services and products so that they are more efficient and better interconnected. But at the same time, planners also need to be able to recognize that some technologies or approaches are simply not viable in the long-term, no matter how much money you pour into them or how big a scale you achieve. So planners really need to come at transportation with the principle of creating an integrated system that grows in various ways and across various modes to offer more choice to passengers.
DP: It’s also important that people remember that developing major infrastructure projects is a long-term and difficult business that often spans multiple economic, political and social cycles. But if it’s a great project that improves the efficiency of a city or region, stick with it and you will eventually prevail. I’m absolutely certain that HS2 is going to deliver some fantastic investment opportunities for infrastructure players and amazing benefits for people right across the UK, not just in the City of London.
DK: I would suggest that sustainability will be the critical focus for transport authorities going forward: sustainability in terms of the environment; in terms of support for economic development of the city as a whole; and in terms of financing framework to build, maintain and renew the system in a meaningful and robust way. And I think the whole aspect of being able to engage and connect society through the transport network so that communities can have a stronger sense of shared belonging and ownership over the spaces that they live, work and play is an increasingly important aspect for city planners as the urban population grows.