Interview with Sándor Nagy, vice mayor of Szeged
How will a middle size city commute in 30 years on from now? What are the drivers which will unite companies and employers to support and manage mobility and commuting to work together? Did Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns cause radical changes in our perceptions of mobility? Read through to find out how!
The UIA financed Smart Alliance for Urban Mobility project has entered its final stage. It is a good time to stop for a second, look back to the start of the project and also take a big breath and look into the future of mobility cooperation in Szeged, to contemplate on what extent were the initial goals achieved during the project implementation and what could have been done differently?
There were two main types of activities within SASMob: On the one hand there were measurement/research type of activities what the municipality was conducting together with the University of Szeged and the Szeged Public Transport Company. This enables us to better understand traffic flows in Szeged with the help of the smart sensors. On the other hand, there were cooperation based behaviour change activities, which were more difficult to accomplish.
About better knowledge on mobility – we have positive results on the measurement technique, which captured well the changes caused by Covid-19 related regulations, while we still do not have experience on vehicle based sensor results to base any change on them yet. Sándor Nagy, vice mayor
Could you give us some examples on the possible usage of the smart sensors?
The power of example is the best way to transform a city
The inner city bridgehead for Újszeged bridge is an accident hub, where 15% of all accidents are happening in the hour after switching off the traffic lights for the night. Therefore, it has a great importance to know better the traffic and weather conditions to understand how and why accidents are happening. Our new sensors will have the capacity to monitor the origin of the traffic flow.
Thus, we could end the continuous expert debate on when to switch the lights off. We could develop a smart traffic light operation system – which could respond better not only to the volume of traffic flows from the different directions but could also incorporate weather conditions, school-schedules, and many other aspects.
Szeged is a pioneer city in Hungary in raising sustainable mobility planning and management to city level and seeking cooperation and work together with companies. Do you think you managed to build up a long-lasting partnership?
We managed to establish a powerful discourse with companies in the form of a strong co-planning process. They are ready to share their views with us, they put forward their requests and we can also turn to them, like now, in the time of Covid-19 pandemic where austerity measure has to be made: we can, together with the employers reshape public transport services in Szeged. It is important to know that we can count on each other. In a middle-sized city, like Szeged, these ties are easier to keep, but we are also working on more formalized cooperation as well.
The Municipality of Szeged designed the UIA SASMob project in order to build up local knowledge on mobility management so that companies who are interested could turn to local experts also in the future. The project trained colleagues at the University of Szeged, Faculty of Economic Sciences to become mobility planning experts. The SASMob project based its outreach to new companies on the above new competences, and they will continue to support the business community in Szeged. This local knowledge base is key for attitude change, which could be transformed to behaviour change.
Talking about the design of the project, with hindsight, what would you design differently?
Establishing supportive infrastructure for cycling is key to raise the level of cycling from 5% to 17% within 20 years.
I would put even more attention on communication and campaigning activities. Within the SASMob there were clear forerunner companies – on city level they could have been more visible, so that other companies could have learnt from them – we should have dedicated more capacity to make them better known.
There was also larger than expected demand for smaller scale local interventions at company level. The participating companies expressed their interest, mostly to install bike racks, changing rooms, bus ticket vending machines within their premises. They could continue investing by themselves, however we see that most of these companies are also seeking some kind of public support for these investments. Even if there are some enthusiastic individuals within the company it is still easier to get such investments through company decision making processes if there is public co-financing attached to it. The municipality is open to arrange a scheme for these efforts, however at the present austerity measures caused by Covid-19 pandemic it would not have a good optic to support strong multinationals or less affected IT companies.
What would be your next innovation step in urban mobility in Szeged?
As a follow up I would make larger scale experiments. It is rather difficult to predict how people would react to a new bus line or to a more frequent service until you implement these changes and measure the reactions. Even using the state-of-the-art IT technologies and psychological knowledge it is still difficult to predict behavior change. This can only be tested with larger scale experiments. I wish I had resources to open up a new bus line or build up frequency – as requested by some of our partners – and see if there is indeed considerable demand for these services.
Behaviour change also depends on reputation. A bus with a capacity of 100 can easily serve 80 people, it is well within municipal standards. However, the perception of this service could be that the bus is “always crowded” and in turn people become reluctant to board. I cannot base my decisions on public service delivery on this “feelings”, no matter how true they are. To change such perceptions would require at least half a year servicing and this would cost a lot of money, maybe a few hundred thousand euros, without any guarantee that it will be worthwhile. This is sheer experimenting.
SASMob is a unique cooperation among companies in Szeged and also in Hungary. Public and private companies are working on a common goal, sharing their knowledge, their initiatives, processes, equipment and experiences with each other. How can this cooperation be maintained? How can you keep up the initial enthusiasm of the partners and how can you involve more and more companies into the alliance? What could be the glue which keeps the cooperation together?
It is our clear intention to maintain the cooperation. I can distinguish 3 well defined steps in this process. The first step is to keep contact and communicate with all large employers. This task is entrusted to the Szeged Public Transport Company. They have human resource capacity, customer service and marketing departments, they are immediately able to professionally evaluate employers’ requests. So the public transport company is the best depository of connecting with large employers, to conduct needs assessment with them, how to bend the services to reflect changes in employment. This works smoothly.
The next level is the company level mobility planning. So far, we do not have a city-wide programme for employers to work on mobility planning. But the possibility is there, the good example is here with us within the SASMob partnership, as well as the local knowledge to coordinate and co-develop such mobility plans. It would be good if companies would turn to the University team and commission such planning processes from them. But there is no coercion. However, we operate another mechanism, which gives exemption from building statutory amount of parking lots at office building construction in return to supporting sustainable mobility through operating mobility planning practices for 15 years. This is a new local legislation and the city council is still not in the position to evaluate the effect of this measure. The Movabilty cooperation in Austin, Texas, which was SASMob’s innovation source, supports 20 companies a year with 5000 dollars to work on mobility plans.
The third level is to keep up the present level of SASMob cooperation, with monthly meetings, with jointly organised events, programmes. It is the task of the coming months to set clear goals for such a long-lasting cooperation and find the best organizational structure for it. I would prefer if SASMob cooperation could be trusted to a civic organiastion, since it would have a societal goal. I can imagine SASMob cooperation as a city-wide network of employers coming together maybe 4 times a year, coordinating their actions for biker breakfasts, bike to work campaigns, city wide health days, etc. I also understand that for this reason the city should also take its turn and provide some financial incentives to it. However, at the time of Covid-19 pandemic this aim has clear political limitations.
The municipality acknowledges its responsibility to maintain the SASMob cooperation. We are willing to put our share - financial and managerial – into the alliance. We are planning to co-finance through an open call mobility planning effort for newcomers and small scale investments and community programmes, such as bike to work campaigns for the member employers. I plan to allocate the necessary funds within next year’s budget.
In which ways has Covid-19 changed urban mobility as we knew?
The lockdown measures as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic had a catalyst effect. Cities became large scale living labs. I give you an example: In Hungary one of the governmental decisions was to introduce free urban parking. As a result, even with all the shops closed, work moved to home office, and hardly any passersby, the inner city of Szeged became full of cars within a day. The number of irregularly parked cars has also increased considerably. This was a large scale – although socially expensive – experiment on the traffic controller effect of parking fees in cities. This is a lesson we must take with us.
The lockdown measures, the message of social distancing and the fear of being next to other people battered the reputation of public transport options. People felt uncomfortable and unsafe traveling among 30 people on a bus with a capacity of 100. Thus, the perception of a “crowded bus” has changed considerably in relation with social distancing measure. However, it is impossible to financially sustain a vehicle fleet to meet such expectations. On the other hand, we have also seen the disappearance of peak hours both within public transport and city traffic during the lockdown. I believe, flattening the peak hour curves, there are large financial reserves within public transport infrastructure and vehicle fleet management, what we could gain in the coming years.
As a politician and a mobility expert you must have some clear visions for the future of mobility in Szeged. How could you describe, what would be the largest difference in 50 years from now on the streets of Szeged?
I truly believe that the number of per capita relocations will decrease, simply because many of our activities will get virtual. The Covid-19 pandemics is a good example for this. Societal answers to the pandemic only accelerated existing processes towards virtualization. It gave a glimpse of future to a wider population. Home working also existed before but now there were more people on a larger scale homeworking. But there will be definitely less traffic.
This traffic in turn of course could be much more sustainable, less polluting, running on locally produced renewable fuels. The number of micro-mobility options will also rise with a lasting effect on the future of urban mobility. Every new mobility option has a product curve and eventually will become more affordable for many households.
On the other hand I would doubt mobility as a service (MAAS) options will proliferate too much. MAAS solutions are responding to the fragmentation process within mobility services, which could offer mobility options including 3-4-5 different modes for a single journey. But this has a limit. Only those mobility options, which can be grasped mentally, and involve not more than maximum 2 changes will be sustainable. Thus, people might start their journey on an electric scooter to the metro station, take the folding scooter with them and use it again after using public transport, only to recharge it at their destination. Mobility solutions which can be perceived with normal brain activity and could be organized by a human will be the ones which will proliferate.
Then again micro-mobility devices and options will eliminate double or triple vehicle ownership from households. The family might keep one family car for the whole family to travel together or go for vacation or excursion, but day-to-day mobility will be served by electric scooters, self-driving taxis or shared services.
This will have an important effect on public transport services as well. Large capacity public transport cannot be replaced by a large number of self-driving door-to-door services, because that would cause just as much traffic jam, maybe with less accidents. It is essential to finance traditional public transport. It well could be that only these main transport corridors will be served by a large capacity, shared public transport service. Public transport on these intensive corridors will not have alternatives. We might have to redesign side lines – half an hour interval between bus services might not be acceptable for a pubic which could alternatively use scooters or uber type of services. We might end up with a much leaner public service network, while focusing on serving vulnerable users. It might turn out as a more segregated and more user-focused transport system. Public mass transport will always be an alternative to mobility amid parking and zoning fees to reduce traffic jams.
Do you think it is feasible that public transport servicing will develop two separate pillars: beside the core large capacity corridors, demand based services will cover less frequented areas and times of the day?
So far in Hungary demand-based initiatives have failed. Demand based services require a basic infrastructure which has to be maintained: the elderly population is still not familiar with mobile apps, or otherwise a dispatcher service also costs money. On top there are fix costs maintaining the transport fleet even if it stands in the garage all day. I do not really believe that public transport can rely on demand-based services.
SASMob cooperation was working within the workplaces, to change the commuting habit of employees. Do you see any other well-defined group which would be worth working with? Whom would you work with next?
The neighborhoods: There are well-defined communities within the city where people feel a kind of belonging, which define themselves as independent city parts. The municipality applied for neighborhood based mobility planning within Central Europe Interreg programme, but it did not get funding. Workplaces are creating communities, places of residences are also forming communities, people meeting each other in the library, in the GPs waiting room, at the market, children going to the same school, parents waiting for the kids to finish their training. I see a clear opportunity to try to communicate with a well-defined group of people through their neighborhoods about sustainable mobility and there could be locally based solutions as well.