Blogging from TRB: Tomorrow's Public Transport

Does France's Autolib electric vehicle sharing system offer us a glimpse of the future? Photo by Francisco Gonzalez.

What will tomorrow’s public transport look like? Are we still going to take buses or trams, similar to what we do today, or will there be more innovative and transformative transit modes that offer users higher flexibility and more comfort? How will these systems address the issue of sustainability? Michel Parent from Inria France shared some answers from Europe at the “Emerging and Innovative Public Transport and Technologies Committee” event during the 91st Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C. this week.

Europe has been a long-time leader in providing high-quality public transport, and Michel’s presentation shows that the region is also a pioneer in sustainable transport. Two innovative public transit programs are particularly interesting:

  • Electric vehicle (EV) sharing programs in France
  • ULTra at London Heathrow Airport


France is leading the game in EV car sharing. Several other cities have recently launched related programs. In the city of Nice, Autobleu currently has 60 EVs of three types, and La Rochelle’s Yélomobile has 50 EVs of two types and 8 EV car stations. The most ambitious and recognizable EV car sharing program is Autolib in Paris. In October last year, Autolib started with 300 smart EV cars, and it now plans to gradually increase its fleet size to 4,000 vehicles by adding 50 new vehicles each week. With institutional support, Paris will provide 2,000 4-space parking stations to accommodate these new vehicles.

All of these EV-sharing programs allow users to access real-time vehicle location information and make reservations through smart phones. It is hard to tell for now whether these programs will be a success, but this statistic might give us a hint: In the first month of its launch, there were 5,000 subscribers to the service.


The ULTra personal rapid transit (PRT) system at London Heathrow Airport offers another inspiring model. ULTra is the first commercial PRT system in the world. Also launched in October 2011, its driverless pods carry up to four passengers, running along a 3.8-kilometer guideway between airport terminals. Since it is battery-powered, the entire system is low-energy and has zero emissions. As shown in the custom survey in Michel’s presentation, the ULTra system outperforms buses in almost all service categories.

However, each system has some problems that need to be addressed. According to ULTra’s experiences, PRT projects have proved to be time-consuming and money intense. ULTra took six years to plan and it cost £30 million (US$47 million.) As for EV car sharing programs, battery management is a unique challenge: it takes eight hours to fully charge a car. In Autolib’s case, a shared car cannot be unlocked until its battery is charged at more than 50 percent, which limits the number of useable shared vehicles.

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