Titbits From the 2017 UITP Conference by Seyi Osiyemi

I had the privilege of attending the 2017 UITP (International Association of Public Transport) Global Public Transport Summit in Montreal, Canada. The theme of the conference was, ‘Lead the TRANSITion’.

For those who do not know, the UITP conference is the largest gathering of public transport experts in the world. The event provided an opportunity for transport experts to share best practices in field of public transportation and also showcase latest innovation in transportation. The 2017 edition as usual lived up to expectations with 2,400 delegates from 84 countries.

The 3-day event in Montreal attracted well over 13,000 visitors and 330 companies from 30 countries displaying their very latest innovative products and solutions. For a developing nation like Nigeria with poorly developed transport system, such an event provides a platform to learn about the happenings in the global transport space.

One of the highlights of the exhibition was the Saudi Arabia government $25bn ‘Riyadh Metro’ which comprises of 176km of railway lines and 956 high capacity buses. The Russian Govt also showcased their ‘Moscow Circle’, which is a railway version of the London M25 motorway, which circles around the city of Moscow.

It was however disappointing that out of the well over 2,000 delegates at the summit, I was the only delegate from Nigeria. Whilst there was a registered delegate from the National Assembly, I didn’t see a trace of this ‘delegate’ throughout my stay in Montreal. Whether this person actually travelled to Canada and decided to wander off to other things, I don’t know. If he indeed wander off, that wouldn’t be a surprise because, Nigerian govt official s sponsored on overseas trips with taxpayers money are notorious for abandoning conferences to engage in shopping expedition.

Some of the key issues that dominated the discourse during the event were emerging the changes and challenges such as digitalisation, advances in green energy (ie electric buses) and the emergence of new players such as Uber and Lyft in the mobility market. The event also served to highlight the vast amount of innovation in the sector, from data wizards to autonomous vehicle pioneers.

So what does the emergence of new vehicle technology and green energy mean for developing nations like Nigeria? The fact remains that many developing countries are not faced with the same challenge experienced in the western world. Innovation such as development of autonomous vehicles (driverless vehicles) will help a great deal in reducing bus operators’ cost in developed countries.

Research shows that one of highest contributor to bus operators’ cost in the western world is driver wages. Driver wages account for almost 35% of typical operations cost in developed nations, and it is largely caused by shortage of experienced bus drivers in the job market. A London bus driver earns approximately GBP12 per hour, which is almost twice the national minimum wage of GBP6.50 per hour. So this means that the savings in driver wages can be offset against the likely high capital cost of driverless vehicles.

Coming back to Nigeria, driver wages could be as low as 10% of operational costs; as compared to fuel and maintenance costs, which accounts for about 35-40% and 25% of total cost of operating a mass transit bus. This implies that in the short to medium term, there’s no incentive to adopt autonomous vehicles for urban mass transit operations in developing countries.

Over the years, we have also seen vehicle engine technology move from diesel (Euro VI) to compressed natural gas(CNG) then to hybrid (electric/diesel). The next on the agenda right now are buses fully powered by electricity.

I recall having a conversation with a delegate from a Canadian transit agency, who told me that her agency has finalized plans to replace all their CNG buses with full electric buses by 2019.

Unfortunately, whilst vehicle technology is aggressively moving towards use of renewable energy, bus operators in Nigeria and many African countries are still operating ‘Euro II’ diesel engines. These are engine types that were manufactured in 1996. And one of the reasons why many local operators have failed to upgrade to lower emission diesel engines is due to the poor quality of diesel available in the local market, which can cause severe damage higher grade diesel engines.

The aggressive move towards electric buses also calls into question the future of crude oil in transport. Currently, nearly all fossil fuel energy consumption in the transportation sector is from petroleum-based fuels with a small amount from renewable sources. There’s no gainsaying that there would be less global demand for petroleum-based fuel as a result of the ongoing shift towards renewable energy.

The impact of this paradigm shift on oil dependent mono-economies will become apparent in years to come. The question therefore is, how prepared are our leaders for this change? First it was the exploration of shale oil that almost drove oil price to its knees. Suffice to say that oil prices have since not recovered from the 2015/16 slump. What will be the next trigger? Could it be the use of renewable energy, accelerated by improvement in vehicle technology?

The key message from the summit is, the world is not sleeping. We can either choose to start putting in structure to support new technological advancements or continue to live in the dark ages

Seyi Osiyemi is a Senior Transportation Executive  and lives in Lagos

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