The vulnerable traveller

We are all ‘vulnerable’ travellers. Richard Harris, a lifelong international traveller and ITS expert initially takes us through his own experiences – a seemingly confident traveller – to show the vulnerable situations we can find ourselves in, and how even the most advanced information systems can often let us down. He then outlines how this situation is now being transformed through smart phone applications and the development of mobility as a seamless service. The Mobility as a Service (MaaS) concept will change the use of different transport modes from separate systems to a service promise. It has the potential to fundamentally change the behaviour of travellers in and beyond cities, the biggest paradigm change in transport since affordable cars came to market. In the new mobile World, vulnerability and uncertainty will become a thing of the past.

01. Introduction

I always knew that eventually my luck would run out. So, after so many solo international trips to strange and distant countries and cities, it was no surprise when I realised that I was suddenly vulnerable. Travel with confidence, know what to do, where to go, how to make the right choices – avoid the pitfalls of unregistered taxi cabs, don’t end up hiring an expensive limousine by mistake, and don’t take the wrong short cut.

These lessons had been learnt the hard way, that expensive taxi ride in Athens, that seemingly good short cut in Frankfurt that became an uneasy walk past a large gathering of drug addicts in the long dark railway tunnel by the central station. So, was I just over confident or was I just tired after too many recent trips?

You know the moment when you clear immigration and emerge landside at the airport. Suddenly bombarded by the noise, the focus of the gathered chaos of eager people as they wait to meet and greet relatives, friends and colleagues. You look for signs to guide you through the crowd, avoiding the sidled approaches from taxi touts and break free into an area of apparent calm. Welcome, you have arrived and survived the airport initiation.

Do you take public transport or do you opt for a taxi? The taxi is easy, familiar, the rules are known and it will be simple and straightforward, quick but expensive. Public transport is more of a challenge, but you consider yourself a traveller not a tourist, it may take a little longer but it will be much cheaper.

Sound familiar? It’s the same at the railway station, but this time with added unknowns. Not so many people waiting behind barriers, less segregation of travellers and others, a less familiar layout and procedure, maybe not so well lit or welcoming, maybe some dark and deserted areas and multiple exits to the surrounding city streets. Welcome, you have arrived, the next choice you make could become significant.

So here I am in a railway station one evening feeling uncomfortable. I have made a mistake. I don’t know which way to go. Not sure if I want a U-Bahn, S-Bahn, Metro, Tram, Taxi, Bus or to walk. I don’t know how the local ticketing system works, how to get the right ticket or where and when to validate it.  My sudden loss of confidence marks me out and I know this. I am increasingly uncomfortable.  I don’t belong, I am a stranger. This is not my town. Even though I have removed the obvious airline tags from my luggage, the suitcase and haversack promise the potential pickings of smartphone, tablet, laptop, passport, wallet, credit cards and cash. I look like a victim. I feel vulnerable, alert and defensive. If I was a mugger, pickpocket or scammer I would be attracted to this easy target.

So am I in real danger or is it just that my perceived danger is higher. Warnings for travellers are frequent.

02. Warning of the week: Crime in Brussels

Take care at railway stations and on the metro in the Belgian capital. The US State Department warns that “pocket picking, purse snatching, and theft of light luggage and laptops are common at the three major train stations”, i.e. Central, Nord and Midi – where Eurostar trains arrive from London. “One common trick is for the thief to ask you for directions while an accomplice steals your luggage. Thieves also watch for people who put their luggage down and are inattentive for even a moment.”

In addition, the US advice warns that “Small groups of young men sometimes prey on unwary tourists, usually at night and often in metro stations in Brussels. These thieves typically seek small, high-value items such as mobile phones and MP3 players.”

The Foreign Office reports “a couple of serious muggings” at Schuman station (the EU quarter).

It also warns rail travellers of “Luggage being stolen from the racks at the end of carriages in high-speed trains (e.g. TGV and Thalys), usually just before the doors close in readiness for the train to depart.” Keep an eye on your bags until the train is on the move.”

I am not even sure that it matters to me whether I am in real danger or not, because it’s the perception of vulnerability that is important to me, to my self-confidence, to my self-image, to my resolve to travel, to who I am.

Familiar journeys

We all like the familiar safe routine of our travel. We tend to travel the same ways. If we are driving, we take the same routes, park in the same places, even shop in the same shops and buy the same things, then drive the same route home. Using public transport, we know where to stand, where to go, how to change and make connections, how to exit the system. Safe, easy, familiar, routine, known and understandable.

Look at the rather familiar map of the London Underground network below. Consider a journey between Embankment Station and Covent Garden Station.  Obviously there are a couple of viable options:

  • The Northern Line (black) to Leicester Square and then the Piccadilly Line (blue) to Covent Garden
  • The Bakerloo Line (brown) to Piccadilly Circus and then the Piccadilly Line (blue) to Covent Garden

Simple to visualise, fairly well signposted to help make the connection to the next underground line, understandable and probably familiar.


So, that’s how we are likely to travel. But there is another way:

  • Simply leave the station, step out onto the pavement and walk. The walk takes about eight minutes, doesn’t involve being squashed into an often-overcrowded train and even feels like less walking than that needed to swop underground lines.

But if people are not aware of this option, they will normally continue with their default choice. To help people travel in new ways we should show them the options and guide and support their first new experiences, otherwise they will not alter their behaviour.

Building trust

It takes hard work and consistent performance to build up trust, but only a single bad experience to destroy that trust.

Most of us are familiar with the emergency and variable message signs, that warn of hazards, recommend advisory and statutory speed restrictions, lane closures etc., as we travel the motorway networks of Europe. But how many times must you experience warnings of hazards that do not appear, before you become complacent and cynical about the accuracy of the warnings and systems? How long before you begin to trust again?

03. New technology

There is no doubt that the age of the smartphone has revolutionised information dissemination. It used to be the sole responsibility of the authorities and travel operators to collect, process and share transport information. Now app developers provide access to services and information that enable travellers to make more informed decisions on how and when to travel.

Want a bike, use the app to see which bike stations have availability. Train delayed, check out the options for taking a different route. Disruption on the roads, use a Sat Nav to follow a revised route. Need to pay for a transport service, use your NFC (Near Field Communications) enabled smart phone for the transaction. Need a ticket for the train or a boarding card for the plane, download it to the phone.

It’s not just business based services that help with travel. When concerns that volcanic ash ejected during the 2010 eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland would damage aircraft engines, the controlled airspace of many European countries was closed to instrument flight rules traffic, resulting in the largest air-traffic shut-down since World War II. The closures caused millions of passengers to be stranded not only in Europe, but across the world. With large parts of European airspace closed to air traffic, many more countries were affected as flights to, from and over Europe were cancelled. The traditional local information services and sources were just not able to cope, they could not provide information on travel options because they only had information on their own (non-operating) services. Social media, real people prepared to help and support each other, stepped in to fill the information vacuum. Facebook provided the forum to help stranded travellers organise their own trips by combining and sharing information.

What a difference it would be if the local idiosyncrasies of public transport were not important. What if when I entered the train/bus/tram/metro station I didn’t need to worry about the local ticketing conventions?  

When it comes to public transport systems around the world it would make life so much easier if they had a common mechanism to allow me to take a journey without the local conditions being a barrier?

This vison is almost a reality, with service integrators offering transportation operators a system that is compatible with existing ticketing infrastructures and that allows travellers to use their smartphone to select, book and pay for their travel.

However, relying on technology does have potential pitfalls.

A study claims sat navs could be dangerous as the brain is incapable of listening to directions and keeping an eye on the road at the same time.

The study says that using sat-nav could lead to accidents

They used experiments to show that it is not just physical objects that run the risk of distracting drivers, but the act of thinking and processing information too.

This means that the very act of following Sat-Navs instructions could be enough to cause ‘road blindness’ and potentially cause accidents. 

‘Our research would suggest that focusing on remembering the directions we’ve just seen on the screen means that we’re more likely to fail to observe other hazards around us on the road,’ said Professor Nilli Lavie from University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, who led the study.

‘For example an approaching motorbike or a pedestrian on a crossing, even though we may be ‘looking’ at where we’re going.’

The ‘blindness’ seems to be caused by a breakdown in visual messages getting to the brain at the earliest stage in the pathway of information flow, which means that whilst the eyes ‘see’ the object, the brain does not.’

Motorists waste an average of 29 hours every year following bad sat-nav directions, and one in four admit that reliance on the devices means they are losing the ability to navigate for themselves or read a map. Sat-navs, which are used by 76 per cent of drivers, have long been derided by critics for sending people the ‘wrong way or the long way’.

In a study of 2,000 drivers about their reliance on the dashboard gadgets, most motorists also confessed to being ‘zoned out’ when using a sat-nav, switching off their concentration entirely. More than a quarter have become so reliant on them that they now use a sat-nav on routes they have previously driven without needing assistance. And 26 per cent admit their navigation skills have declined since they began using an electronic route planner. One in five motorists confessed to losing the ability to navigate back home from locations which they used their sat-nav to find.

New Mobility Platforms

New businesses often struggle finding their first customers. The challenge is even more difficult with startups in the sharing economy that launch as platforms connecting independent service providers with consumers.

Take Uber. Its platform is two-sided, connecting people who need rides with people who have rides to offer. So, to launch as a platform service, the company needed to find users on both the supply and demand sides.

Uber started by focusing on the service side of the equation first, customers second.

Ride-sharing app Uber pursued a strategy that rather than starting out with Uber Pool or Uber X, in which drivers use their own cars, the company started with black cars driven by professional drivers. That way, they could ensure that customers would have a great experience virtually every time they used the service and they could then rely on customers to spread the news of that experience by word of mouth.

Uber were also smart about how they chose to expand, picking the right cities at the right time to maximise their success. Since Uber’s main competition was taxi cab companies, the startup researched which cities had the biggest discrepancy between supply and demand for taxis. They then launched during times when that demand was likely to be the highest, for example during the holidays when people tend to stay out late partying. It also ran promotions during large concerts or sporting events, when big crowds of people all needed cabs at the same time, and an individual might be more likely to take a chance on an unfamiliar company named Uber.

In that way, the company acquired a large group of customers in one swoop. The company banked on the fact that once users realised how easy it was, it was only a matter of time before they started using it to go to work, then shopping for groceries, and so on.

Launching in situations of high demand and low supply also helps startups acquire the right type of customers—those early adopters who might be more forgiving of a company while it works out the kinks. After all, beggars can’t be choosers, and if you are thankful to even have a room during a conference, maybe you’ll forgive the lack of hand towels. The last thing a company wants during its early phases is negative word-of-mouth.

04. Concluding thoughts

I think we are about to see an explosion of new services designed to improve mobility in our cities and regions.

The Mobility as a Service (MaaS) concept will change the use of different transport modes from separate systems to a service promise. It has the potential to fundamentally change the behaviour of travellers in and beyond cities, hence regarded as a biggest paradigm change in transport since affordable cars came to market. Integrating services through smart, MaaS solutions puts users at the heart of the transport network, offering tailor-made travel services based on preferences. These services also provide the means to achieve the smarter, simplified transportation landscape envisioned and expected by future users. Two approaches to MaaS are envisaged, one where users pay a regular monthly fee for all their mobility needs (similar to mobile phone billing) and one where users have a single account that is used for their particular mobility service charges.

However, the debate about who will run such MaaS systems continues. Maybe the local authorities should be in charge, so that the policy objectives of the community are fulfilled, or maybe the private sector which is more nimble, agile and dynamic should prevail. One concern is that the private sector appears more interested in earning the “disruptive technologies” accolade and the fame and adulation associated with it, rather than capturing the opportunity to work with the authorities, to better serve the customer base.

Learning new systems and services – that first-time use issue.

At the beginning of June 2017, I was in Beijing participating in a transport conference held at the former Olympic Park. Beijing used to be famous for the number of bicycles in use. However, in the recent past, Beijing has become a motorised city with the private car dominating mobility across a booming city of some 21 million people. So, imagine my surprise when I arrived to see so many bikes available all over the city.   The bike schemes are identified by the colour of the bikes, blue, green, yellow etc. My host form the Ministry of Transport was proud of these new bike services and used his mobile phone to hire a yellow bike for me. No bike stations and heavy bikes for Beijing, merely an app which enables a bike to be unlocked and used immediately.

The flexibility provided by these easily accessible bikes has, once again, made Beijing the biking capital of the world.  30 million trips a year for these bikes already. They have changed people’s behaviour and resolved many first mile, last mile trips.

Having experienced how simple the system is to use, I will certainly register and become a user on my next trip. A good initial experience translates into advocacy.

So, what happened to that vulnerable traveller suddenly aware of an uncomfortable situation and increasingly concerned about his safety? Recognising the situation that I had inadvertently wondered into, I took immediate action. I picked a direction, headed off confidently and soon managed to pick out the clues to enable me to recover to a safer location.  Travel is in my soul and to stop is unthinkable. I look forward to future travel, to new trips, new modes of mobility and new experiences. In the words of Hans Christian Andersen “To travel is to live.” ii

Richard Harris

Richard is internationally recognised as a leading expert and thought leader in Intelligent Transport systems (ITS). He has over 30 years’ experience, held senior positions in companies and industry associations and been at the forefront of ITS development and deployment.   Richard was inducted into the ITS World Congress Hall of Fame in 2015 as the recipient of the life time achievement award. His citation read ‘An effective and charismatic champion and thought-leader for ITS for over 25 years who selflessly promotes ITS in general, without commercial considerations or bias. Known, respected, trusted and liked by ITS professionals all over the world, his commitment in worldwide organizations continues to inspire and benefit the international ITS community.’

  • University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Hans Christian Andersen, The Fairy Tale of My Life: An Autobiography

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