For public transport to keep running, operators must find ways to outlast coronavirus


Yale Z Wong, University of Sydney

Minimising health risks has rightly been the focus of discussion during the coronavirus outbreak. This includes efforts to protect both frontline public transport employees and the travelling public. But we should also be concerned about the strategic, financial consequences for transport operators and their workforces.

We have already seen the struggles of the aviation industry. The COVID-19 pandemic also has major financial implications for the public transport sector. While it has been declared an essential service, fears about coronavirus, widespread work-from-home directives, cancellations of major events and potential city-wide lockdowns will result in massive drops in patronage.

Railways are a high fixed-cost industry (like airlines) and are particularly vulnerable to demand volatility.




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The Chinese experience has been that people preferred to use private cars and services like taxis and ride hailing rather than public transport. In New York, we have seen a surge in cycling as people seek to avoid the subway crowds.

What are the impacts on revenue?

Developments like these appear inevitable. However, the loss of revenue for transport operators depends very much on the design and specifications of their contracts with government.

Most urban public transport systems in Australia are “gross cost” regimes. This means operators are paid on a per kilometre basis regardless of the number of passengers carried. These operators are much less susceptible to changes in demand.

Transport operators who work off “net cost” contracts – meaning they keep their fare revenue – are facing huge financial pressures. This in turn has implications for the cash flows of their suppliers, including vehicle manufacturers and consultancies.

Hong Kong rail operator MTR (which has businesses in Melbourne and Sydney), already battling almost a year of protests, has been forced into significant service reductions. In Japan, some Shinkansen services are being suspended as patronage plummets. Many Asian operators have diversified revenue streams from property developments, but large falls in patronage also affect the ability to collect rents (such as from retail).

We are also seeing US transit agencies calling for emergency funding as demand drops. Major service cuts are on the horizon – suggestions include running a weekend schedule on weekdays. This is likely to reduce patronage further as the service becomes less useful for the travelling public.




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Who’s most affected on public transport in the time of coronavirus?


Any service reduction has major ramifications for public transport workforces. Permanent staff may have their work hours reduced, while casual staff will struggle to get rostered. This will add to the psychological impacts on staff.

The global collapse in oil prices is another factor as the lower cost of fuel makes driving more attractive.

Beyond government-contracted public transport there are many intercity coach operators and small-to-medium-sized charter operators (many family-owned). These operators serve the school, tourist, airport, hotel and special-needs markets. They are all private commercial operators.

Many charter operators have already seen a massive reduction in bookings due to the summer bushfires and travel bans. The loss of international tourism and cancellation of school excursions and extracurricular activities will bring even greater pain to charter operators and their workforces. Chinese tours have been a large part of the charter market.

On the other side of the ledger are increased costs arising from enhanced cleaning efforts and changes in operational practices to reduce the risks of COVID-19 infection for as long as the crisis lasts.




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A major issue in these circumstances is how to provide incentives for transport operators to go above and beyond what is required as part of their usual remit. Do operators merely “comply” with their contract specifications, or do they see an opportunity to extract value from proactively deploying, for instance, an enhanced disinfection regime? Should the contracted operator bear the extra costs, or should government share these costs?

Reshaping the industry

COVID-19 brings enormous unknowns for the public transport sector. Cost and revenue pressures may lead to transport operators fighting for survival. The result could be market consolidation and less competition in the industry.

In the longer term, how can future contract design for both transport services and transport assets ensure resilience to “black swan” events and encourage a proactive, rather than reactive, response? Too often, a myopic focus on cost reduction has governed these discussions.

Finally, is there a way to protect commercial operators from huge swings in demand?

The coronavirus pandemic demands an urgent operational response by our public transport systems. But it should also encourage a strategic rethinking of our institutional structures and how public services are procured. Let us create an opportunity for longer-term reform out of the crisis.The Conversation

Yale Z Wong, Research Associate, Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Who’s most affected on public transport in the time of coronavirus?


Jennifer Kent, University of Sydney; Alexa Delbosc, Monash University, and Laura McCarthy, Monash University

The coronavirus pandemic is already affecting Australians’ daily travel, with suspension of public transport services a possibility as the number of COVID-19 cases grows. A common goal underpinning containment strategies in pandemic-like conditions is that the impacts should be borne as equitably as possible across the community. So would a public transport shutdown in Australian cities hit lower-income households harder than their higher-income counterparts?

In many countries this would certainly be the case. In these countries, public transport is largely the domain of the lower classes while wealthier households enjoy the comfort and convenience of their cars.

The data on Australians’ use of public transport and the distribution of services across our cities tell a more complex story. And not all users are equally at risk, because of how the virus spreads and the structure of public transport networks.




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Why the worry about public transport?

The interiors of trains and buses, and stations and stops along the network, are the perfect environment for a droplet-spread disease like COVID-19 to thrive. Masses of people congregate in these areas, increasing the risk of direct contact with an infected person.

About 1,000 passengers can crowd into a single train carriage. This greatly increases the virus’s potential spread through droplets if an infected person coughs or sneezes.

And the handles and seats inside trains and buses, and other surfaces such as escalator handrails at stations, are prime surfaces to host infectious nose and throat discharges. According to new research, this virus can live on surfaces for hours to days.

Handrails on escalators and stairs at stations used by tens of thousands of people a day are prime surfaces for harbouring virus particles unless regularly and thoroughly disinfected.
Holli/Shutterstock

But the actual evidence is weak

Although public transport shutdowns are common in most contagious virus response plans, evidence of a relationship between public transport use and respiratory infection is actually relatively weak.

The most commonly cited study is based on the travel patterns of 72 people in London presenting for treatment of flu symptoms in 2008-09. It found those using public transport were up to six times more likely to pick up an acute respiratory infection than those who don’t.

This study also found, however, that regular public transport use was associated with less likelihood of contracting an illness. This was potentially because regular users develop protective antibodies to common respiratory viruses if repeatedly exposed. Unfortunately, this safeguard does not apply to a novel virus such as the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Those most at risk in this study were commuters who used busy stations, basically because they come into contact with more shared surfaces and people. In Sydney, for example, Central, Town Hall, Wynyard and Parramatta stations are potential hotspots. In Melbourne, Southern Cross, Flinders Street, Melbourne Central and Parliament stations head the list.




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Who would a shutdown most affect?

A wider cross-section of the Australian population owns and uses cars than in many other countries. Cars are not the domain of the wealthy. Rather, they are a necessary expense to navigate life in our low-density, poorly serviced cities. Car use dominates the outer suburbs where housing is more affordable.

Australians pay a premium to live near quality services including public transport. Lower-income groups are priced out and live in suburbs that are more poorly serviced by public transport.

In Melbourne, for example, 61% of the most socially and economically advantaged population live within five minutes’ walk of quality public transport services, compared with just 41% of the least advantaged. If you are one of the richest 20%, you are more likely to be able to walk to good public transport than anyone else in Australia.

Particularly in our larger cities, higher-income people are more likely to use public transport to get to work, as the table below shows. In Sydney, for example, 33% of high-income earners commute by public transport, compared with just 25% of those on lower incomes.

The proportion of people travelling to work by public transport by personal weekly income.
ABS Census 2016 data, Author provided

How might people handle a shutdown?

The data seem to suggest the impacts of a public transport shutdown will be felt more keenly in the top end of town than in low-income suburbs. But those numbers say nothing about what alternatives people have.

High-income households are far more likely to own more than one car. They are also better placed to absorb the costs of driving to work, such as parking, petrol and tolls. They can drive if public transport shuts down.

Residents of inner-urban areas, where property prices are high, are also more likely to have a shorter trip to work. They may be able to replace a public transport trip with a walk or cycle.

We don’t know the extent to which different employment groups will be able to innovate and adopt remote working practices under these unusual circumstances. However, people who can currently work from home are more likely to be high-income, highly educated white-collar workers. Almost half of workers in the financial services sector and 32% of the telecommunications sector use public transport – many of their roles are relatively easy to convert to working from home.




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Remote working is not an option for most low-income workers in the services sector. They must travel to their workplace if they want to be paid.

If these workers do rely on public transport to get to work, they are less likely to have a spare vehicle to commute with. This leaves few options for these households, especially in Australia’s dispersed suburbs.

A related issue is the impacts of a public transport shutdown on the all-important healthcare sector. Again, Australian journey-to-work data suggest the impact would not be as dire as some international research suggests. On census day in 2016, just 9% of Australia’s healthcare and social assistance workers travelled to work by public transport.

In general, the effects of COVID-19 will no doubt be borne inequitably by lower-income Australians. They are more likely to be employed in industries worst hit by the coming economic downturn. For low-income households that depend on public transport, a shutdown would rub salt in their wounds.The Conversation

Jennifer Kent, Research Fellow, Urban and Regional Planning, University of Sydney; Alexa Delbosc, Senior Lecturer in Transport, Monash University, and Laura McCarthy, Research fellow, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

To limit coronavirus risks on public transport, here’s what we can learn from efforts overseas



Yale Wong, Author provided

Yale Zhuxiao Wong, University of Sydney

Public transport in our cities is highly vulnerable to disease outbreaks such as the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. However, public transport is the lifeblood of our cities, so it’s desirable to keep services running as long as possible. Australia can learn from what has been done overseas, especially in China, where concrete strategies to reduce the spread of the virus on public transport helped eventually to contain the disease.

The confined spaces and limited ventilation of public transport vehicles could lead to infections among passengers, while frontline transport workers are particularly exposed. An outbreak among these workers could bring entire fleets to a standstill. It would also disrupt the travel of health workers who need to be mobilised during the pandemic.




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Unions representing transport workers have rightly voiced their concerns and imposed actions including a unilateral ban on cash handling. The Australian government has offered guidelines for drivers and passengers. Transport authorities have engaged expert taskforces and begun the process of sourcing products like hand sanitisers.

While these steps are important, surely we need advice beyond general instructions to “practise good hygiene” and “use disinfectant wipes”?

What are other countries doing?

In China, despite most of the country being in lockdown, public transport was entirely suspended only in Wuhan and its commuter belt. Buses were then used to move medical staff and deliver goods.




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Most other Chinese cities ran reduced public transport services, with a heavy focus on hygiene and sanitation.

In most cities, the temperatures of transport staff are checked daily. They are equipped with adequate protection gear like face masks and gloves. Masks are compulsory for all staff and passengers, as is common practice across Asia.

In a typical city like Shenzhen, the bus fleet is sanitised after each trip. Particular attention is paid to seats, armrests and handles. At depots and interchanges, this is done as often as every two hours.

Buses are filled to no more than 50% capacity (one person per seat). On-board cameras are used to enforce this rule. Floor markings (also adopted in Europe) provide a guide to minimum distances between passengers and encourage social distancing.

Across China, health control checkpoints are being used at train and metro stations (as well as in many public and private buildings). This enables temperature checks and the tracing of the movement of people, in case of contact with a suspected COVID-19 carrier. In many taxis, buses and metro carriages, passengers are encouraged to scan a QR code to register their name and contact number, to help with contact tracing.

Constant public education reminders are broadcast to passengers.




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Cities across Asia are providing hand sanitiser gel in public transport vehicles and interchanges. Cleaning of air-conditioning filters has been enhanced. To increase natural ventilation and reduce the risk of infection, some operators have retrofitted window vents to air-conditioned fleets.

Some bus operators have retrofitted opening windows to help increase air circulation.
Kowloon Motor Bus, Author provided

Hong Kong rail operator MTR is even using a fleet of cleaning robots to disinfect trains and stations. In Shanghai, ultraviolet light is being used to disinfect buses.

In Europe, many public transport agencies have closed off use of the front door to reduce infection risk for drivers. Passengers now use the rear door (all-door boarding has been common practice).

What’s happening in Australia?

One of the best ways to reduce infection risk is to step up cleaning efforts. Public transport operators are already doing this, but not to the extent required during the course of the day.

Most private bus operators (contracted to government) are simply not equipped to take on the massive task if required to disinfect their vehicles, say, three times a day. For many operators, drivers are required to “sweep” their bus at the end of their shift. Buses undergo a full interior clean overnight.

There is no capability to clean buses en route during shifts. Extreme cases like biohazard incidents (blood and vomit) require vehicles to be taken out of service.

To increase the frequency of cleaning, perhaps a government authority could organise “rapid response” cleaners stationed at terminals. While this might cause delays between trips, it would reduce the pressure on individual operators. Having a cleaning crew work across multiple operators would also be more efficient.

The government could provide free health services via video consultation for frontline transport workers. The critical role of the transport sector also warrants their protection through government-issued face masks, especially given how hard it is now to source these in the community.




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These proactive measures based on disease prevention should always be preferred to any reactive approach after a major outbreak hits our transport system. Industry associations like the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and International Association of Public Transport (UITP) have developed a suite of responses that can be adopted.

Our transport authorities and operators must step up in this critical time of need.The Conversation

Yale Zhuxiao Wong, Research Associate, Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Vital Signs: a connected world makes this coronavirus scarier, but also helps us deal with it


Richard Holden, UNSW

The health implications of the Wuhan coronavirus (now called “Covid-19”) outbreak are, obviously, deeply concerning.

At the time of writing, it had infected more than 50,000 people and killed more than 1,300. Cities and cruise ships are in lockdown. Major trade shows like the Mobile World Congress have been cancelled. Even the Dalai Lama has indefinitely postponed all public appearances.

It has been widely noted that the crisis is having a large economic effect, not only on China but on countries such as Australia.

Those ripple effects stem from the fact that, compared to the time of the SARS outbreak in 2003, China is both a much larger economy and vastly more interconnected with the rest of the world.

Take Australia’s connections. China is Australia’s largest source for international students, with nearly 190,000 Chinese studying in our tertiary institutions. China is also Australia’s largest source of tourists and biggest trading partner.




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Even if other countries don’t have the same level of exposure, the whole world is now radically interconnected. Global supply chains for products from cars to mobile phones run across multiple countries.

The components of an iPhone, for example, come from manufacturers in the United States as well as China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

The tectonic technological forces that have driven globalisation also mean an unprecedented “black swan” health crisis can quickly turn into a full-blown economic crisis.




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Digital technology to the rescue

Against this backdrop, it is striking that the same technological forces behind global interconnectedness are key to coping with the coronavirus crisis.

An example comes from the Alibaba Group – arguably China’s leading e-commerce company. It is using everything from food delivery to cloud computing to help combat the crisis.

One of the first things that happens in a crisis is demand surges for goods and services in limited supply – face masks, for example.

Alibaba has encouraged sellers on its platforms to increase the supply of masks and other in-demand equipment. It has also used its influence to discourage the kind of price-gouging often seen during natural disasters.

On top of that, consider what life is like for about 11 million people in Wuhan, a city where normal life has ground to a halt as people avoid going out. How do they get groceries and other essentials?

A week before Chinese New Year, demand for takeaway food and other services increased 129%, according to Alibaba.

Deploying platforms

It’s worth pausing to reflect on how much worse the quarantine imposed on Wuhan and surrounding areas would be without the technology that makes transport and logistics today so sophisticated.

Keeping medical staff well cared for in Wuhan has also been crucial.

Leveraging Alibaba’s 18 Freshippo techno supermarkets in Wuhan, the group has set up a dedicated food-delivery team to provide free food and safe drinking water to local hospitals, rescue teams, reporters and volunteers. The group’s Amap Taxi operation has organised a volunteer force to provide free transport for all medical staff 24 hours a day. Alibaba’s travel platform “Fliggy” is be used to offer free accommodation to medical staff – a total of more than 10,000 rooms.

Finally, Alibaba’s cloud-computing business Ali Cloud – similar to Amazon Web Services – has helped health authorities track the outbreak and its spread. It has provided unlimited computing capacity to global medical researchers to accelerate the finding of a cure for the virus. It is also collaborating with Zhejiang Province’s Disease Control Centre to develop an artificial intelligence gene-analysis system that could could slash diagnosis time from two hours to half an hour.

At a time when globalisation is being sharply questioned, it is important to remember the upsides as well as the downsides of an interconnected world.




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Yes, radical global interconnectedness makes the world more vulnerable to financial and public health crises. Yet those same forces have also lifted roughly 2 billion people out of extreme poverty in the past 30 years.

Those same technological forces drive the e-commerce platforms, cloud computing and artificial intelligence that help mitigate the effects of these crises.The Conversation

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Aerial threat: why drone hacking could be bad news for the military



Are military drones a security threat to their own operators?
Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock

Mohiuddin Ahmed, Edith Cowan University and Paul Haskell-Dowland, Edith Cowan University

Unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly called drones, are now a fundamental part of defence force capability, from intelligence gathering to unmanned engagement in military operations. But what happens if our own technology is turned against us?

Between 2015 and 2022, the global commercial drone market is expected to grow from A$5.95 billion to A$7.47 billion.

Drones are now being used in a host of applications, including agriculture, media, parcel delivery, and defence.

However, as with all IT technology, manufacturers and users may leave the digital doors unlocked. This potentially leaves opportunities for cyber-criminals and perhaps even cyber-warfare.




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Imagine a defence operation in which a drone is sent out to spy on enemy territory. The enemy identifies the drone but instead of disabling it, compromises the sensors (vision, sonar, and so on) to inject false data. Acting upon such data could then result in inappropriate tactics and, in a worst case scenario, may even lead to avoidable casualties.

UK cybersecurity consultant James Dale warned earlier this year that “equipment is now available to hack drones so they can bypass technology controls”.

Drones are relatively cheap technologies for military use – certainly cheaper than the use of satellites for surveillance. Off-the-shelf drones can be used to gather intelligence, without any significant development effort.

Meanwhile, governments have cracked down on illegal civilian drone use, and imposed no-fly zones around secure infrastructure such as airports. Drone manufacturers have been forced to provide “geofencing” software to avoid situations such as the recent drone strike in a Saudi oil field. However, cyber criminals are smart enough to bypass such controls and openly provide services to help consumers get past government and military-enforced no-fly zones.

It doesn’t cost much to skirt around the no-fly rules.
Author provided

Russian software company Coptersafe sells such modifications for a few hundred dollars. Anyone can buy a drone from a retail store, purchase the modifications, and then send their drone into no-fly zones such as military bases and airports. Ironically, Russia’s military base in Syria came under attack from drones last year.

Australia on the frontline

Australia is at the frontier of the military drone revolution, equipping itself with a fleet of hundreds of new drones. Lieutenant Colonel Keirin Joyce, discussing the program in a recent defence podcast, declared Australia will soon be “the most unmanned [air vehicle] army in the world per capita”.

It will be essential to safeguard every single component of this sophisticated unmanned aerial fleet from cyber attack.

When drones were developed, cyber security was not a priority. Let’s explore a few potential threats to drone technology:

  • drone navigation is based on the Global Positioning System (GPS). It’s possible an attacker can break the encryption of this communication channel. Fake signals can be fed to the targeted drone and the drone effectively gets lost. This type of attack can be launched without being in close physical proximity

  • with knowledge of the flight controller systems, hackers can gain access using “brute force” attacks. Then, the captured video footage can be manipulated to mislead the operator and influence ground operations

  • a drone fitted with sensors could be manipulated by injecting rogue signals. For example, the gyroscopes on a drone can be misled using an external source of audio energy. Cyber criminals may take advantage of this design characteristic to create false sensor readings

  • drones’ onboard control systems are effectively small computers. Drone control systems (onboard and ground-based controllers) are also vulnerable to malicious software or Maldrone (malware for drones). The founder and CTO of CloudSEK, Rahul Sasi discovered a backdoor in the Parrot AR.Drone. Using malicious software, an attacker can establish remote communication and can take control of the drone. Attackers can also inject false data to mislead the operators. This type of malware can be installed silently without any visible sign to the operators. The consequences are significant if the drones are used for military operations.




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As with traditional cyber-crime, it’s likely 2019 will see a sharp rise in drone-related incidents. However, these security breaches should not discourage the use of drones for personal, industrial or military applications. Drones are great tools in the era of smart cities, for instance.

But we should not forget the potential for cyber crime – and nowhere are the stakes higher than in military drone use. Clearly, the use of drones needs to be carefully regulated. And the first step is for the government and the Australian Defence Force to be fully aware of the risks.The Conversation

Mohiuddin Ahmed, Lecturer of Computing & Security, Edith Cowan University and Paul Haskell-Dowland, Associate Dean (Computing and Security), Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Regional cities beware – fast rail might lead to disadvantaged dormitories, not booming economies



Many commuters already travel from regional cities to work in capital cities like Melbourne so what impacts will fast rail have?
Alpha/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Todd Denham, RMIT University and Jago Dodson, RMIT University

Governments are looking to fast rail services to regional cities to relieve population pressures in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. The federal government is funding nine business cases for such schemes. But what economic effect might these fast links have on the regional cities?

The current fast rail schemes seem oriented at relieving population pressures in the major cities rather than a productive regional economic purpose. The minister for population, cities and urban infrastructure recently stated:

… the National Faster Rail Agency begins operating from today [July 1]. The new Agency will oversee the government’s 20-year fast rail agenda, which will connect satellite regional cities to our big capitals. This will allow people to reside in regional centres with its [sic] cheaper housing and regional lifestyle but still access easily and daily the major employment centres.




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The argument seems built on a pitch to city workers priced out of metropolitan housing markets. It treats regional towns as remote dormitories for metropolitan workers rather than as regional cities that serve as service hubs and employment centres. But will subsidising metropolitan workers to live in cheaper regional towns have a positive economic effect on those towns?

An unequal relationship

Concern is growing among international observers that fast rail connections between two cities benefit the larger of the pair. Professor Michael Storper observed:

One of the biggest mistakes we’ve made was being naïve about connectivity – give infrastructure and it spreads. Well, often it concentrates. The high-speed train network in France, guess what it did. It advantaged Paris.

While Paris is seen as benefiting the most from the national fast rail TGV service, the regional cities of Lyon and Lille have strengthened their economic positions. The Lyon and Lille fast rail stations form the hub of their respective regional transport networks and have attracted new commercial activity. They also sit at intersections of major European fast rail networks.

It’s a pattern that cannot be easily achieved for Australia’s regional cities due to our widely dispersed settlements. So what does this mean for our regional cities?

Improving transport infrastructure doesn’t just improve regional business access to metropolitan markets. It decrease the costs of trade in both directions. And large cities are typically more productive economically. This is because they offer more specialised goods and services and can leverage the agglomeration effects of shared high-quality labour markets and infrastructure, plus a concentration of skills and knowledge.




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Reduced travel times can mean regional businesses become less efficient than metropolitan competitors that can offer a wider range of specialist goods and services. This may lead to regional business closures, employment losses and wage decline. Unless a regional city is able to develop a specialised set of high-skill, high-wage industries that complement or outcompete the metropolis it risks being economically disadvantaged by faster rail.

New regional demand arising from commuter population growth might counter the loss of higher-order regional jobs due to improved transport links. But that will largely be in lower-value retail and personal service sectors. The result will still be a net economic gain for the metropolis.




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An influx of commuters earning metropolitan wages might also inflate regional housing markets. This would disadvantage lower-paid regional workers. The beneficiaries of this scenario are likely to be local rentiers, such as landholders and developers who can profit from land-price inflation.

This interest group will likely vocally promote regional fast rail. But sustainable economic prosperity for regional cities requires more than population-driven land speculation.




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The example of Geelong

The most advanced of the current Australian proposals is the Geelong-Melbourne route. It has received federal and state funding for planning with an estimated total cost of at least A$10 billion. But planners need to ask how this spending will provide a net economic benefit, and how the benefits will be distributed.

Growth in commuter population and the services this attracts may be seem like a resolution to metropolitan population problems, but could further concentrate higher-paid jobs in Melbourne. Faster commutes mean Melbourne-based firms will have a greater pick of Geelong-based workers, thus consolidating metropolitan competitive advantage. Fast rail thus risks placing Geelong at a competitive disadvantage, with jobs and workers being exported to Melbourne.

Meanwhile the pressure of housing another 145,000 residents in the next 20 years already falls on Geelong, a city of 280,000 people. The strain on infrastructure and services is proportionately greater than would be the case in Melbourne, which has nearly 5 million residents.




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What can policymakers do about this?

To resolve this conundrum, thought must be given to what specialised high-value jobs will be attracted to regional cities to accompany fast rail investments, so these cities remain competitive and productive, regionally, nationally and internationally. This might include policies such as relocating public agencies, regional targeting of university-based research and development spending, boosting services such as schools and hospitals, and providing incentives for innovative private companies to relocate to regional towns.

Policymakers should also consider positioning regional cities as rail network hubs in their own right. An example would be connecting Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo by rail, along with better linkages to national and international airports.

We don’t yet know for sure what the effects of fast rail on regional cities will be. But the impact of this infrastructure needs to be assessed very carefully lest it turns Australia’s regional cities into dependent population dormitories rather than regional dynamos, at vast public expense.The Conversation

Todd Denham, PhD Candidate, School of Global, Urban & Social Studies, RMIT University and Jago Dodson, Professor of Urban Policy and Director, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Uber in the air: flying taxi trials may lead to passenger service by 2023



Air taxis could soon offer passengers rapid transport from an airport to a city.
from www.shutterstock.com

Matthew Marino, RMIT University

Uber Air will start test flights of its aerial taxi service in 2020, and move to commercial operations by 2023, the ABC reported today.

Melbourne, Dallas and Los Angels have been named as three test cities for the trial.

As a researcher in unmanned aerial systems, I was asked recently if I would ride on an Uber Air taxi. After a brief ponder, my answer is “yes”.

The introduction of Uber Air in 2023 may feel way out of reach for many people, but I believe this is a feasible and exciting development in air travel.

If Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has signed off on the safe operation of this new aircraft I would love to experience an aerial taxi.




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Passenger drones

The aviation industry is well developed, and various aircraft share the skies.
Helicopters, general aviation and large commercial aircraft are all regarded as a safe and considered an acceptable form of transportation.

A newer addition to the industry is the passenger carrying drone, and one which is being introduced at speed.

Boeing’s GoFly competition has been set up to “foster the development of safe, quiet, ultra-compact, near-VTOL personal flying devices capable of flying twenty miles while carrying a single person”. (VTOL refers to vertical take-off and landing).

US$2 million is up for grabs for successful designs and prototypes. Of the competitors, five phase two winners were announced in March 2019, and the competition is still ongoing to find the most innovative and optimum solution for a passenger-carrying aircraft.

Dubai’s police force is reportedly conducting trials with a hovering vehicle, something that resembles a flying motorcycle.

Uber says it has a vision to provide VTOL ride share services for passengers throughout the world.

Whether the first Uber Air vehicle will be piloted by a human on board or remotely, or via an autopilot is still unknown. This will depend on the required levels of safety set by CASA.

I believe the end goal would be to be fully autonomous, however, this would require extensive proof these system are completely safe.

Quite simple technology

Unlike a helicopter, the technology base of a drone is far simpler. Controlled by computers, they use electricity as a primary power source from batteries and brushless electric motors to make them thrust into the sky. This type of system has been used with great success with smaller drones in the commercial market.

Current smaller drones have the capability of flying autonomously: no pilot is needed. A pick up location and a return location can be programmed into the drone, and it is able to land, takeoff and fly without pilot assistance.

This is not strictly considered to be an artificial intelligence system. Drones operate through a series of checkpoints in the sky, which they track all the way to the final destination. This is reliant on GPS, much like the GPS in your phone or navigating the streets using a Google Maps.

The scaling up of this technology to carry passengers was only a matter of time.

But the clear next step is research on how safe these aircraft are going to be. This is important not just for future passengers on board, but also for the people and property they will fly over.




Read more:
Flying taxis within five years? Not likely


Like traditional aircraft which go through a rigorous certification process, drones may be subjected to the same amount of scrutiny.

Due to the simplicity of the drone system, this type of certification may take less time than a traditional aircraft (which can take many years, depending on the complexity of the design being certified).

Fortunately, we have a very proactive regulatory body in CASA. This authority is seen as a world leader in not only drone policies and procedures for safe drone operation, but it already actively consults and assists people in the drone industry.

It’s likely CASA played a role in getting Uber Air trials assigned to Melbourne.

A few nerves

Much like the helicopter when it was introduced back in the 1940s, people are likely to be apprehensive about a passenger-carrying drone in the first instance. The idea that unmanned vehicles may soon be flying through the sky raises many questions and concerns about the implications on people’s lives and the safety of the community.

This is a natural response. It takes time to develop confidence in new technology – especially one that has the responsibility of flying people around cities.

Over time helicopter technology progressed, and it was made safe and reliable – it was eventually seen as an acceptable mode of transportation. A similar progression with drones is likely.

We can be confident the technology will be properly tested and proven safe before the common citizen will be able to phone order an Uber Air trip across town.

Australia is the perfect place for testing, especially this country’s capacity for rapid development and continuous testing in outback Australia.

Google and other international bodies have tested new drone technology in Australia in a safe and regulated manner.

The Uber Air taxi will be no different with extensive testing to improve the technology, efficiency and reliability.




Read more:
Driverless cars are going to disrupt the airline industry


The Conversation


Matthew Marino, Lecturer and Researcher, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Business-as-usual record on transport leaves next government plenty of room to improve


Marion Terrill, Grattan Institute

This article is part of a series examining the Coalition government’s record on key issues while in power and what Labor is promising if it wins the 2019 federal election.


Election season means transport season: just as the recent New South Wales and Victorian elections gave us massive new transport promises, so too is the federal government relying on the enduring popularity of new roads and rail. But look beyond the rhetoric and the past three years have been largely business as usual. That leaves plenty of room for the next government, of whatever colour, to take a fresh look at how transport promises are made – and plenty of room to improve.

Last week’s federal budget committed to transport expenditure of A$7.4 billion in 2019-20, and A$33 billion over the four-year forward estimates period.




Read more:
Budget transport spending is about par for the course, but the pattern is unusual


The government claims it’s spending a record A$100 billion over a decade. Yet the opposition claims: “Across the four years of this budget, Commonwealth investment in infrastructure actually falls, from A$8 billion to A$4.5 billion.” And Infrastructure Partnerships Australia says recent budgets are down on the long-term average by about A$11 billion over the forward estimates.

How much is the government actually spending?

With such polarised views, who are we to believe?

In reality, the expenditure for 2019-20 is absolutely normal. At 0.37% of GDP, it’s close to the midpoint of spending on transport under treasurers Scott Morrison, Joe Hockey and Wayne Swan. In each of the past ten budgets, annual transport spending in the year following the budget has been 0.26-0.53% of GDP.

What is different is the extent of promises that lie beyond the forward estimates period. The move to a ten-year pipeline of promises might be fine in theory, but an interested elector can rely only on what’s in the budget papers. And from that they would conclude there’s nothing unusual to see here.




Read more:
$500m for station car parks? Other transport solutions could do much more for the money


A new enthusiasm for equity investments

All these figures concern grants to state governments, which are responsible for transport networks. But, in addition to these grants, the federal government has developed an enthusiasm for funding projects “off-budget”. In the past two years, the Commonwealth made equity investments of A$9.3 billion in Inland Rail and A$5.3 billion in Western Sydney Airport.

The Charter of Budget Honesty states that an investment can be treated as an off-budget equity injection only if the government has a “reasonable expectation” of recovering the investment. In other words, the entity must be expected to make a positive return over time.

But this gives governments a lot of latitude. A positive rate of return is not the same as a commercial one. And there seems little likelihood of commercial returns in either case.

For Inland Rail, it’s no secret that the Australian Rail Track Corporation will never be asked to repay the A$9.3 billion, even when project revenues start to flow in 2025. Let’s hope the finance minister is right to insist there’s no prospect the project will need even more taxpayer support, despite the risks identified in the budget papers themselves and by the Commonwealth Auditor-General. With no expectation of repayment, there is no practical difference between this “equity investment” and a grant.

For Western Sydney Airport, the government decided to build the airport itself after Sydney Airport Corporation declined its right to build it. The airport operator said the offer as it stood was “deeply uneconomic”. It cited operational, traffic, financial and political risks.

So it’s hard to share the confidence of the then treasurer (and now prime minister), Scott Morrison, when he said the new airport will “generate an income stream that’s going to pay for itself”.

In both cases, if a future government ends up writing down the fair value of these assets, this will appear on the balance sheet as a change to “other economic flows”. It won’t be separately identified. Nor will the write-down show up in the underlying cash balance figure that the media spotlight highlights on budget night.

The unavoidable conclusion is that pushing transport spending off-budget seriously diminishes not only the discipline that comes from competing for funds through the budget process, but also transparency in how public money is being spent.




Read more:
A closer look at business cases raises questions about ‘priority’ national infrastructure projects


A foray into road pricing is stillborn

In November 2016 the government took an unusually bold step: it committed to holding an inquiry into road-user charging. The then minister for urban infrastructure, Paul Fletcher, was in good company. His commitment to commission a review led by an eminent Australian was in response to a 2016 recommendation from Infrastructure Australia, which invoked a similar recommendation in the 2015 Harper Review of competition policy, which in turn referred to a 2014 Productivity Commission recommendation. And the backdrop to all these reports was a recommendation of the 2010 Henry Tax Review.

But time passed and no eminent person was appointed. More time passed, ministers moved portfolio, and no eminent person was appointed. Finally, in October 2018, current minister Michael McCormack declined to commit to the inquiry.

An inquiry is no more than an inquiry, but a non-inquiry is a commitment to the status quo. Roads funding and roads investment are serious topics, and many commentators have argued that they are the laggards of regulatory reform.

A change to how road use is funded could significantly alter which roads are funded, what maintenance is done, and how networks are managed. It appears to have been all too much for this government. This task awaits a future government.




Read more:
Delay in changing direction on how we tax drivers will cost us all


The alternative government’s most important promises aren’t the sexy ones about electric vehicles. They are Labor’s promises that Infrastructure Australia should assess projects before the decision to invest, and to release assessed business cases. These promises may sound worthy and a little dull, but in reality they are big and welcome commitments.

Less obvious is how to square them with federal Labor’s promise to advance high-speed rail, or the promise to work with the Victorian premier “to deliver the visionary Melbourne Suburban Rail Loop”. Both of these are massively expensive projects with nothing approaching an assessed and publicly available business case.

It would be a significant improvement if whichever party wins government next month were to commit to, and follow through on, careful assessment of transport gaps and problems, consideration of the various feasible solutions, and rigorous evaluation of the preferred approach. And it’s not enough just to do this; it should be done in public.

Let’s hope.




Read more:
Missing evidence base for big calls on infrastructure costs us all


The Conversation


Marion Terrill, Transport and Cities Program Director, Grattan Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

All Boeing 737 MAX flights grounded – and travellers could feel it in the hip pocket


Chrystal Zhang, Swinburne University of Technology

With investigations under way into two crashes of Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 aircraft, the US manufacturer has caved to pressure and grounded the entire global fleet totalling 371 planes. That includes both model 8 and 9 versions of the aircraft.

The company issued a statement saying this occurred:

… out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of the aircraft’s safety.




Read more:
Flights suspended and vital questions remain after second Boeing 737 MAX 8 crash within five months


But the impact on passengers and air travel could last for months as airlines try to reschedule flights and seek other aircraft to meet demands. While things are still evolving, what should you anticipate as a traveller?

Everybody down

US President Donald Trump’s order on Wednesday prompted the Federal Aviation Authority to ground all 737 MAX aircraft flying in and out of the US.

While it is legitimate for a government to issue regulatory orders to intervene in an airline’s operation due to safety or security concerns, it is unprecedented that such a large number of countries are taking action.

At least 45 International Civil Aviation Organisation member states had already either ordered their airlines to ground 737 MAX aircraft, or suspended entry of such planes into enter their airspaces.

Countries affected include China, Indonesia, Germany, UK, France, the Netherlands, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and now the US.

While investigations into the two crashes could last for months or even years before any conclusion is drawn, the length of suspension is also unknown at this stage.

Yet holiday seasons such as Easter and school vacations are approaching, and many of us will no doubt be looking to fly away for a break.

Expect disruption

Airlines face disruption almost every day: airline operation is a complex system. Disruption can be caused by unforeseeable weather conditions, unexpected technical or mechanical issues of an aircraft, or associated safety hazards or security concerns.

Airlines therefore have strategies in place to manage or at least mitigate the effect of the disruption and reduce any potential delays. This could include but is not limited to:

  • changing or swapping an aircraft type

  • combining two or three flights into one operation

  • arranging alternative flights for travellers

  • moving travellers to other airlines if their tickets have been issued.

With only 371 Boeing 737 MAX family jets in operation, this is a small percentage of the total of more than 6,000 of the previous model and gives airlines the ability to use other jets in their fleet as a replacement.

A snapshot of Boeing 737 models in flight at 7:52am UTC Thursday (6:52pm AEDT) shows 1,500 aircraft. Not a 737 MAX in sight.
Courtesy of Flightradar24.com

But the current suspension will present significant challenges for some airlines.

Subject to their fleet size, the scope of their network, and other resources and capacity available, big airlines with multiple types of aircraft in their fleet are more capable of managing such disruption.

For example, Air China, China Eastern, China Southern, American Airlines and Southwest will have more resources to arrange for travellers to fly to their destinations.

In contrast, low-cost or regional carriers will be limited in their capacity to manage the disruption.

For instance, SilkAir and Fiji Airways have six and two Boeing 737 MAX aircraft in their respective fleets. Grounding the model means that both carriers will lose 16% of their total capacity.

Fares could go up

While airlines are making every effort to minimise the disruption, all these arrangements come at a cost.

Airlines might have difficulties in sourcing capacity to replace the aircraft, resulting in inevitable delays or cancellations. And delays and cancellations also result in additional cost to airlines operation.

Travellers could soon see an increase in airfares. The rising fuel cost and shortage of pilots have already put global airlines under pressure to manage operational costs.

Impact on Boeing

Boeing and Airbus are a duopoly, said to dominate 99% of the global large aircraft orders, which make up more than 90% of the total aircraft market.

Over the past few decades, Boeing has weathered problems before and maintained an exceptional reputation for its reliable and efficient aircraft design, manufacturing and service.

In 2018 , Boeing received US$60 billion for 806 aircraft deliveries, comparing to Airbus’s US$54 billion for 800 aircraft deliveries.

Of all the aircraft sales, the Boeing 737 MAX series – designed to replace the current 737 family – was becoming one of the most popular airliners, despite being only introduced to the market in May 2017.

But the two recent crashes have raised concerns about reliability of the 737 MAX 8 autopilot system, the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System.

Some pilots have complained about a lack of training for the MAX 8. Others have complained of problems.

The aircraft represents a significant change from its predecessor models, including new engines, new avionics and different aerodynamic characteristics.

Potential risks

The risk for Boeing now is the potential consequences flowing from any investigation into the aircraft crashes. These could include:

  • complete or partial cancellation of orders placed by global airlines yet to be delivered

  • litigation by the affected airlines and the victims of the ill-fated aircraft, seeking damages caused by any product defect (if proof of any defect could be established)

  • new opportunities for its rivals to promote their aircraft; this could allow, for example, China’s state-owned aircraft manufacturer, COMAC, to make new waves in the industry.

Regardless, Boeing could face enormous financial losses and devastating economic consequences.

Boeing’s shares dropped after the Ethiopian Airlines crash on Sunday, but have started to recover.

While Boeing surely carries enough insurance coverage for losses, it is inevitable the damage to its brand is more far-reaching in the medium to long term. This will affect the confidence of aircraft operators and the general public.

Even if any technical defects discovered are quick to fix, a damaged brand tends to require more time and much more significant efforts to recover.

Is it safe?

Of course there is a question everyone wants answered: is it safe to fly?

The answer is definitely. Statistically speaking, flying on a commercial passenger airliner is the safest mode of transportation.

A recent study of US census data puts the odds of dying as a plane passenger at 1 in 188,364. That compares with odds of 1 in 4,047 for a cyclist, 1 in 1,117 for drowning and 1 in 103 for a car crash.

Globally, 2017 was the safest year in aviation history with no passenger jet crashes recorded.

The most advanced technology used in aircraft design and manufacturing, and in air traffic control management, and the comprehensive, efficient pilot training and management are aimed at a safe flight.

So the decision of Boeing to suspend flights of its 737 MAX aircraft is welcomed, for now. But, pending the findings of the investigations, the questions as to how long the suspension will be in effect and how Boeing will address the issue remain unanswered.The Conversation

Chrystal Zhang, Senior Lecturer in Aviation, Swinburne University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.