Mention public transport today and most people think of protecting the environment and making congested cities more breathable. Though this is increasingly vital in urban areas, there is more to buses, subways and streetcars than sustainability. Lars
Backström, the head of Sweden’s second largest public transport authority, certainly doesn’t need any convincing of this. Eight years ago, Lars was appointed CEO of Västtrafik (see box on the following page). At the time, the authority was run like you would expect any such organization enjoying a monopoly to be run. The focus was on providing standardised service to people who have to use public transport and ensuring the network functions smoothly, securely and on a regular basis.
The customer first
Lars saw more needed to be done. Having been educated in the US, he worked in IT, advertising and the hospitality industry before managing the largest taxi company
in Sweden’s second city, Gothenburg, his hometown and core of Västtrafik’s operations. From the moment he was brought onboard by the regional council, he decided to shake things up. “My vision has been to transform Västtrafik into a modern services company that puts the customer first. For me, we needed to change our mindset: stop thinking that transport is a different type of business and see having a monopoly as a responsibility to be the best we can be.”
Of course, this was easier said than done. Lars says he was convinced Västtrafik needed to have commercial goals to turn its operations around. Ridership was flagging when he was recruited. He immediately realised that if it were to grow, Västtrafik would have to do more than simply increase the number of trips taken it would have to attract new riders. So he set the ambitious goal of doubling ridership, the so-called “public transport x2” concept developed in Sweden that has grown popular in cities around the world.
But doubling ridership required changing the authority’s image altogether. “You don’t attract more customers by just providing more public transport. Like in any other business, you have to play to people’s emotions. People are not completely rational. If they were, they wouldn’t buy BMWs or Porsches to go to work.”
Lars knows how much the brand is key to this transformation and the business results. And building a strong brand image meant rallying everyone together, which was particularly important as different operators work under the Västtrafik banner. To this end, he developed common indicators for all stakeholders and established certain important routines, such as holding Monday morning management meetings to go over goals and track progress. “It’s in Keolis’ best interest if Transdev is successful and vice versa. It leads to emulation, and they can also share best practices to help each other.”
The key to brand association for Lars consisted of viewing the transport business like a franchise. “The customers don’t care who our partners are and who is doing what, their relationship is with Västtrafik. But at the same time, without the franchisee [the operator], there is no business. In that sense we’re the same as McDonald’s or Burger King. If one partner isn’t successful, it will hurt everyone – we’re all working under the same brand.”
Partnerships to go the distance
When asked about the reasons for joining Västtrafik, Lars smiles, admitting that despite being initially attracted to the commercial challenges of his position, he very quickly became interested in the wider issues surrounding public transport. He recognised how it could be a key partner in driving the energy transition forward. “It is absolutely key for us to look to environmental sustainability. We’ve been working with Volvo, who are based here in Gothenburg. They called me and presented their strategy for a route for electrified buses. It was a no-brainer, really.”
Lars is referring to Gothenburg’s groundbreaking cooperative transport project, ElectriCity. Launched in 2015, it has brought together Volvo, Västtrafik, the City of Gothenburg, Keolis, Ericsson and several research institutions to develop and test an electrified bus route. Not only do the vehicles on route 55 run on renewable energy, but there are also indoor bus stops.
For Västtrafik, ElectriCity represents a unique opportunity to participate in a transport project that could pave the way for the public transport of tomorrow. It shows how partnerships with other actors bring together different skills, leading to innovative and novel solutions. This, in turn, can boost ridership. “It was an instant success; it has been something uniqueand new. And riders were certainly attracted to it.”
Innovating for the benefit of the community like this is clearly something public transport is well placed to do, and it can push people who wouldn’t normally use public transport to try it out. The massive interest in the project attests to this potential. In its first two years some 100 delegations from all over the world have visited Gothenburg to find out more about the project. It has also been listed as one of the top 100 sustainable solutions for urban environments in the world by think
tank Sustania, has been singled out for its innovation by the UN and won the 2016 Euro-China Green & Smart City Award for sustainable transport and mobility.
The success of ElectriCity has led to the extension of the trial period till 2020, with the addition of two electric high-capacity buses on route 16. In Lars’ mind, there is no doubt the project has helped burnish the image of public transport and increase ridership.
Mobility as a service
Ever forward-looking, Lars is convinced the future of public transport and the recipe for sustainable cities lie in catering to individual needs. “The challenge is how to use our data to improve our services and create value from them. Airbnb created new value out of something that’s been around a long time, renting accommodation. We can do the same in public transport.” He feels mobility as a service may be one response to this challenge. “We want to create a platform where we offer our services and allow others, like Whim, to use them as a platform to provide theirs,” he says, referring to the Finnish multimodal transport app that links cities and public transport networks.
There are a lot of initiatives for, and interest in, combined mobility (for example, from Siemens and Ericsson), but Lars stresses that as of yet the players don’t know what the product will be as it will be difficult to piece together the different modes with one point of entry.
Lars’ commitment to digitisation is also exemplified by the ‘Västtrafik to go’ app (see Box 1), launched in April 2016. Västtrafik is fully invested in open data. “Ultimately, it can help us make sure our customers get the right information when things aren’t working as they should be.”
This may well prove extremely valuable sooner rather than later. Gothenburg is to undergo an extended period of at least several years of major public works, with the construction of a rail tunnel under the city.
“It will definitely be a challenge for us in dealing with it, but it will also give us an opportunity to prove public transport is better,” he says with a smile.
If the last eight years are anything to go by, Västtrafik is well placed to do so. “Since 2009, we’ve increased our ridership more than anywhere else in Sweden – slightly over 40% since I started. Just under 400,000 people today make 940,000 trips per day.” To put this into perspective, the Gothenburg metropolitan area has just under 1 million inhabitants.
“We’ve also managed to increase customer satisfaction a lot. A full 96% percent of people polled onboard express satisfaction with their latest trip. And overall, just over 80% of riders have a positive image of Västtrafik, up from a mere 50% five years ago.”
No doubt the coming years will be a challenge. But given Västtrafik’s track record, not only does it look set to meet it with flying colors, it will likely serve as an inspiration for cities and transport authorities far and wide.