Could we establish a ‘minimum viable bureaucracy’ to manage our transport systems?

When buses and trains were privatised in the UK, we stripped away old bureaucracies that were perceived to be slow-moving and inefficient. Now, decades later, most of the country has a mish-mash of different operators failing to provide a joined up service, and government is managing increasingly complex tendering arrangements. The one place where transport seems to be working is London – with a public bureaucracy, TfL, doing the planning.

Last week I had occasion to contemplate this issue at the Transport Policy Futures day, part of the launch on the new ‘transport innovation centre’ at the Transport Systems Catapult. One speaker was outlining his prescription for transport policy in cities, suggesting that a central authority like TfL is a necessary condition.

Now I’m no fan of privatisation, and I agree we need some sort of joined up planning for transport. But wouldn’t it be rather depressing if we ended up reinstating a bureaucracy we dismantled not that long ago, swapping the current problems for the old ones?

I have a friend who’s a big fan of the ‘lean’ start-up methodology, which encourages entrepreneurs to just get started with the ‘minimum viable product’ to see what happens. I wondered – could we apply some of the same thinking to managing transport? Could we establish a ‘minimum viable bureaucracy’?

How do you come up with a better way to manage transport?

How do you come up with a better way to manage transport?

Perhaps rashly, I threw my new phrase into the debate, and it seemed to catch people’s imagination. So much so, that later in the day I found myself round a table with seven other people trying to establish what a ‘minimum viable bureaucracy’ might look like, and how we could make it happen.

To be honest, I felt a bit of a fraud. After all, it’s a catchy phrase, but trying to slim down bureaucracy is something politicians have been grappling with for ever – a new sound-bite doesn’t address the fundamental problem. But on reflection, maybe, just maybe there is something in the idea.

First of all, we need a ‘lean’ approach to managing transport more than we used to, because the pace of change is faster. It’s not so much the infrastructure itself, roads and rails still take years to plan and build. But vehicles and fuels are changing rapidly, and the way we use them more rapidly still. The row between London’s black cabs and taxi app Uber, which TfL sits in the middle of, is just one example. Then there are car clubs, car-sharing, bike share schemes, and even driver-less cars a few years away.

Second, there are some examples of what it might look like. TfL has taken a pretty ‘lean’ approach to managing its data, and all the things that could be done with it. They’ve made the data open to anyone to use (anonymised of course), with a common API, and just let app developers be as creative as they like.

Another good example is the redevelopment of Times Square in New York. The transit authority (yes, a big bureaucracy) started by just spraying paint on the road, and putting out plastic chairs and planters. The idea was to quickly see how people might use the space, and it worked. More permanent alterations followed once they actually observed what happened. The same approach could be used for junctions, putting in temporary traffic lights, or a roundabout made of cones and spray-paint. And also for bus services – how about just running a new route with a couple of mini-buses, and seeing who uses it, or indeed creating a ‘bus on demand’ service, to see where that demand exists.

Of course, a lot of the existing examples are more about the services themselves than about the bureaucracy you need to manage and plan things. But even in this regard, there is perhaps a model. One of our discussion group explained that in Melbourne they have a system where the transport authority acts like a broker, receiving data on transport demand, even individual requests, and then receiving offers from various transport modes and providers to meet that demand.

So, is there any substance to the idea of a ‘minimum viable transport bureaucracy’, or is it just restating the old ideological battle of public vs private provision? To be honest, I don’t know. But our group at the Transport Policy Futures event did agree we’d like to see it tried. Specifically, we’d like to find a local authority with a vision for the transport service it would like to see, and then put them in a room for a couple of days with the people who run those ‘lean start-up’ weekends. The results could be really interesting.

 

More about the Transport Systems Catapult:

http://ts.catapult.org.uk

More about ‘lean start-up’:

http://theleanstartup.com/principles

 

Who’d have thought running an electricity grid and running a railway would have so much in common?

I was at a transport industry networking event the other night, chatting to Peter White of the University of Westminster. He was outlining strategies for reducing emissions from rail travel, and I was explaining the potential role of electric vehicles in grid balancing, and we realised that both problems were surprisingly alike.

The problem with running a railway is that you have to invest in loads of rolling stock to meet rush hour demand, and then it sits there idle most of the day. Here’s the total number of passengers in and out of London stations, hour by hour, on average (DfT stats):

That’s a lot of unused capacity outside the rush hour. If we could just spread out that morning rush, by employers allowing (or even encouraging) employees to have staggered start and finish times, the railways would be a whole lot cheaper to run – and more pleasant to travel on.

Turns out, that’s just what happened during the Olympics. As well as encouraging businesses to promote home-working during the Olympics, the ODA and Transport for London asked them to stagger shifts.

One of the most striking successes was with City trading firms. They’d always maintained there was no way they could allow flexible working, because of trading times, but with the Olympic spirit behind them they tried out an ‘early’ and ‘late’ shift. Turns out it worked beautifully, because the early traders were clued up on the Eastern markets, and the late traders got to see how things played in the US. How many other types of business could benefit from this approach?

So how’s all this like running the electricity grid? Let’s say you’re National Grid, and you’re responsible for supplying us all with electricity. Your biggest problem is variable demand – everyone wants power at 5.30pm, and nobody wants it at 4am. Here’s the graph of demand on the UK grid through one day (1st January 2012 as it happens, data from National Grid):

So you have base-load generators, like coal and nuclear, which are cheap but hard to turn on and off, and you have peak-load generators (usually gas), which are only turned on when you need them, but which are therefore more expensive.

Just as with the railways, if we could spread demand more evenly, or store electricity, we could generate our power more efficiently. Grid operators call it ‘filling the bath-tub’. This is one reason why the electricity companies are so interested in electric cars – they all come with an energy storage device (i.e. the battery).

If we all went and bought electric cars tomorrow, and charged them overnight, it would allow for a much more even load on the grid. This would allow the energy companies to run more base load generation, and therefore provide cheaper electricity.  Of course, the opposite is also true – if everyone put their car on charge when they got home from work, we’d need even more peak capacity, making power more expensive.

Incidentally, price and greenhouse gas emissions are pretty closely linked here. If you buy an electric car in the UK right now, and charge it from midnight to 7am, you’ll be saving GHG compared to an equivalent petrol or diesel car. However, if you put your car on charge anytime from around midday to 10pm, you’ll be emitting around twice as much GHG as charging off-peak, and more than a petrol or diesel car.

Adding renewables like wind or solar to the mix is even more of a headache, because you don’t know when you’ll get the power. That’s when electric cars really come in handy – but more of that in a later post…