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A smarter way to commute

By Zhu Jin | China Daily | Updated: 2013-08-24 08:12

To make commuting convenient and comfortable for people in cities, authorities have to develop an intelligent transport system

The average time people in Beijing take to commute to work is 52 minutes. In Guangzhou, they take 48 minutes and in Shanghai, 47 minutes. These are the findings of a recent Chinese Academy of Sciences survey.

However, there are people who spend more than an hour to get to work. For example, Zhang Gong, who works for a commercial bank in Beijing, spends three hours a day to commute to and from work. Little wonder, he dreams of a public transport system that would shorten his commute time.

Commuters like Zhang may have some relief, because Beijing is set to get a customized shuttle service from September for which people can make reservations and pay online. The service is aimed at promoting the use of public transport and reducing the number of private cars on Beijing's roads. Commuters can now log on to www.bjbus.com, the service operators' website, to fill out a survey questionnaire about their travel needs, including their home and office addresses and the time of their commute.

More than 14,400 residents have taken part in the survey since July 14, and the operators have set up a fare chart based on the response to the survey, with the cost of using the shuttle bus being no more than 30 percent of the cost of driving a car and about 15 percent of taxi fare.

If the service proves successful, it could set an example for other Chinese metropolises to follow for the efficient use of public transport, instead of continuing to build and modernize infrastructure.

There are, however, fears among potential shuttle service users because a similar idea failed to take off earlier. Potential service users, according to a recent survey covering more than 100 communities, are also worried whether they would be able to reach their destinations in time, although the operators have promised to draw up the best possible timetable and said the buses would be air conditioned and have WiFi facilities and a guaranteed seat for every passenger.

China's large cities face a daunting challenge in terms of public transport because of their large populations. And only an intelligent use of the public transport system can help them meet this challenge.

An intelligent transport system (ITS) would make commuting easier and more convenient for people. The intelligent use of the transport system would make it more efficient and optimize traffic flows by using electronic systems to monitor citywide traffic and provide real-time commuter information. More importantly, it would reduce pollution that plagues so many cities and help build green cities the government is striving for.

But smarter planning will be needed to make it work, because building more subways and introducing more buses and taxis will not necessarily improve the situation, especially in large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Smarter planning means developing a smart public transportation system that would not only take commuters and goods to their destinations in time, but also ease congestion and reduce air and noise pollution.

Many industrialized countries have developed large-scale ITS. In the United Kingdom, for example, drivers get incentives for driving in the city center during the day and displays at bus stops tell commuters how long they would have to wait for the next bus on a particular route.

Chinese cities are learning from such successful experiments. Beijing's buses are likely to be equipped with GPS this year and commuters would be able to know when to expect the next bus on a route just by scanning the code at a bus stop with their smartphones.

Moreover, "flux guides" will be put up at some subway stations to inform commuters how crowded trains are, because the average passenger count in a subway train is 1,400 people and could increase to almost 2,000 during peak time. Surveys show that people feel suffocated when the commuter count in a train goes up to 1,680.

Human-oriented design should help shape an ITS. The expectations of commuters using public transport are increasing, so authorities have to develop an ITS to achieve enhanced mobility and improve services.

But transport officials have to interact closely with commuters to better understand and meet their needs. Many commuters have ingrained behavior patterns based on their perceptions of convenience, reliability and cost of transport. To optimize the use of the public transport system and encourage people to shift away from private vehicles, cities need to change commuters' perceptions of the cost, value and use of various modes of public transport.

There is no alternative to an ITS for a modern city. Local governments need to devise passenger-oriented transport strategies that improve the commuting experience of people and influence their behavior patterns in a more environmentally and socially friendly way.

Smart planning should be based on data analyses, because cities already have a multitude of vehicles that are not being efficiently used. It is impossible for commuters in most cities to find a mode of public transport that is comfortable, convenient and affordable during rush hours. That is why Beijing Public Transport Holdings is cooperating with several large communities in the city to provide customized shuttle bus services.

The author is a writer with China Daily.

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