Getting London Ready for the Transition to Connected, Automated and Shared Transportation

Michael Hurwitz

Metropolitan transit agencies worldwide are striving to adapt to a new mobility paradigm framed by rapid technological advancement and competition from ultra-convenient private services. Transport for London’s Transport Innovation Director Michael Hurwitz illuminated at the recent LA CoMotion Conference the British capital's successful approach to fostering innovation in the private sector and collaboration with the public sector. VX News followed up with Hurwitz to draw lessons for other jurisdictions on how to create a "guided sandbox” for new mobility platforms to ensure that they equitably serve the city and its residents. Prior to TfL, Hurwitz served as Director of Energy, Technology & International at the UK Department for Transport (DfT), where he led national programs on ultra-low emission vehicles, driverless and connected cars, and future fuels. He has also worked for Arthur Andersen and Deloitte.

Describe your work as Director of Transport Innovation at Transport for London (TfL) and what brings you to Los Angeles.

Michael Hurwitz: When I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s in England, our travel choices were essentially: ride your bike, drive your car, hail a taxi, call for a mini-cab, or catch the bus. We don’t live in that world anymore. Now, you might still ride a bike—but you might rent that bike, and it might be docked or dockless, or it might not be a bike at all but a scooter.

You won’t own your car; you might lease it, or you might not bother to have a car at all. You might prefer to use an app to book your taxi. When you get in, you may be sharing it, or you may not. You may be getting into a demand-responsive minivan, or you may be getting on the bus. The buses may look the same as they did, but information about where they are is open and they are increasingly electrified.

Our national legislation, our city regulations, our planning assumptions, and, often, our organizational structures were built for the world we lived in in the 1970s. We don’t live in that world now. As the world becomes increasingly connected, automated, and shared, we are going to have to change for the future. My job is to get London ready for that transition.

The Transport Innovation Department at Transport for London looks at what policies, laws, and regulations we have to bring into the common era. We have a very active program testing new mobility solutions in order to see which ones we want in the city and how. We’re looking for ways to collaborate with the disruptive innovators in the market. That’s why I’m at LA CoMotion: because it is a showcase for industries in this space. 

Given your responsibilities at TfL, what are your current policy priorities? 

Our overriding policy is Mayor Sadiq Khan’s Transport Strategy, which looks to 2041 and sets out clear priorities for healthy streets, a healthy city, and active travel. We’ve committed to an ambitious target of having 80 percent of private trips made by public transport, cycling, and walking by 2041. We’re already at 64-65 percent, which is very high in comparison to North American cities, but we really want to push it. Sustainable travel is fundamental for us.

Another priority is inclusion and safety. We want safe streets—we have a Vision Zero program—but we’re also very keen to provide a transport system that works for all Londoners and everyone who visits. We also have to support good growth. We have 31 million trips on our network every day, so we need to make sure that the network is efficient and clean.

The Transport Strategy also sets out a series of principles which are the lens through which we look at new mobility. We want innovation in the market and we want to harness the great ideas that disruptors have, but we also want them to operate in a beneficial way.

We love demand-responsive or micro-mobility services if they connect people to the transport network and give people who are less mobile a way to stay active. We like them less if they take 65 people off a well-stacked Red Bus and spread them out into 50 pods. We want to encourage innovation that helps the city function in a healthier, safer, more inclusive way.

Regarding ride-hailing, dockless bikes and scooters, and other new mobility services, how do you manage usage of London’s streets and curbs? 

The curb is really important; in my opinion, it’s one of the city’s most under-considered strategic assets. But my organization’s levers are quite limited in terms of local parking and development policy.

As the strategic authority, Transport for London is in charge of the big public transit; we run the tube and the buses. We control all the traffic lights in Greater London, but we own only 5 percent of the roads by distance. We don’t have jurisdiction over parking.

When I come to North America, cities officials here say, “I wish we were as integrated as London—with the same ticketing for everything and the open data policies.” In response I always say, “Yes, but I wish we could control parking.”

In 2015, The Planning Report interviewed TfL’s Ben Plowden on the nexus between transportation and land-use planning, particularly in regard to density, growth, and congestion. What do you see as the appropriate nexus between how a city is planned and built, and how transportation services are provided?

There are a number of important connections. One methodology that my colleagues in TfL have pioneered is land-value capture. In the next few months, we hope to finish the Crossrail Elizabeth rail line, which will expand our tube network by 10 percent and transform transit in central London.

We’ve found that opening up development opportunities in new areas is a productive way of funding major infrastructure investment. Local businesses and developers can access much more value from having new transport links. There’s a synergy between the economic and social value of transport links and the actual operation of the transport system.

Another area of overlap is our attention to healthy streets. We assess our transport developments through healthy streets criteria. For example: Are we encouraging priority for pedestrians? Are we creating an accessible space and a nice, attractive place to spend time in? More and more, we are designing our new schemes and developments through that lens.

For example, we recently did some upgrades in and around some major London stations, which required a lot of roadwork activity. During construction, we did a traffic flow analysis and found that much more space had been given to cars, but in fact, pedestrians were the main flow through that space. We rebalanced the allocation of space during construction, and now, as we reopen the roads again, we’ve retained that division of space to improve efficiency.

 London has employed congestion pricing as a mobility strategy for some time. Address how congestion pricing has or has not worked for London, and whether it’s still a priority for Mayor Khan.

These charges are important for the way we run London, and they are going to become increasingly important. We recently added another phase: We’re continuing to run the congestion charge, and are now also introducing and quickly expanding the Ultra Low Emission Zone.

This has been an extremely difficult challenge. People have long felt that the roads were a free utility. Now, though, there is greater acknowledgement in both the public and political spheres that we must collectively address air quality. Improving air quality is a strong priority for us.

One logical conclusion of these pricing schemes could be a road-user charge based on time or distance at some point in the future. We’re not committed to that, but it’s an important item to explore.

Data is a priority of the mayor’s Transport Strategy. How are you collecting it? How are you using it? And who owns it?

London has had a very strong open data policy for about 10 years. We have made more than 70 APIs available to the public, and more than 11,000 developers have made nearly 600 apps on the basis of that. Some are even useful. Whole businesses exist on the back of our data. We’ve created this ecosystem intentionally.

We know that we’re not always going to be the best innovators creating the best apps with the best user interface. But if we put the tools out there, we can harness the very strong set of tech skills that we’re lucky to have in London. Deloitte estimates that the annual benefit of this ecosystem is nearly 140 million pounds in saved time. Putting that information out there generates real value to people traveling around the city.

It’s also valuable to us. When people tap in and out of our system, we know where they enter and exit the network, but we don’t always know how they move within it. So last year, we did an interesting pilot tracking Wi-Fi usage around our tube network. That enabled us to see, in an anonymized way, how people chose to move between nodes. That has design implications for stations, signage, and platforms. Encouraging more efficient use of the network is helpful both for us as operators and for a better customer experience.

We take security and privacy very seriously. Because we are an integrated authority, we transact a huge amount of personal and commercial data. It’s important that we are seen as a trusted, independent handler of that data. We don’t use it to work out where you go shopping or where you prefer to get your coffee.

Transport is defined as part of the critical national infrastructure, and that comes with requirements for very high-level safeguards. We’re constantly testing ourselves on cybersecurity, because we have to work very hard to stay ahead of the people who want to disrupt it. This will always be a priority for us.

You came from the private sector and then to the national government before coming to London. What are you learning as your operational responsibilities grow? 

I’m seeing that the brilliance and ingenuity that exists in the world never ceases to amaze. The value of speaking to people who have never thought about a problem before, but yet can bring fantastic capability to a question, is consistently amazing.

After my time in the private sector, I went to Central Government, leading national programs on electromobility, connected and autonomous vehicles, and emissions. At a national level, you’re trying to prime the market, so you want to encourage a thousand flowers to bloom. Now that I’ve moved to the city, I’m also responsible for all the citizens traveling around. I have to be really open with potential disruptors about the difference between the aspiration they may have described when they pitched for funding, and what’s actually going to make things work on the street.

For example, new apps can be great, but we don’t want to create digital exclusion. Around 15-20 percent of people in London don’t use apps for whatever reason. On a given day, we estimate that there are about 1 million people with some form of mobility impairment—perhaps a disability, or perhaps pushing a buggy. I work hard to make the most of the innovation while making sure it’s delivered in a way that makes the city work for all.

Is the “greater good” message heard by the private sector disruptors?

It is increasingly. We’ve been very active in the last few years about our philosophy of talking to the private sector.

Part of the reason my role was created was to look at all the new things that the city might not know what to do with. My job is called innovation; in reality, I spend a lot of my time worrying. Mayor Garcetti recently used the phrase “anx-citement;” my team is the lightning rod for anx-citement in London. That’s the experience of thinking, “Crikey, there’s some great stuff happening out there, but we’ve got to make sure that when it comes, it comes in the right way.”

Lastly, many commentators have noted that a weakness of government institutions with respect to technology is their inability to iterate—largely because they balance so many interests that the downside of being wrong is a greater disincentive than the upside of being right is an incentive. What have you learned about the capacity of public institutions to iterate on technology?

In a city of London’s characteristic, certain things will always be the priority. For mass transit, it’s safety and reliability. This means that the bar has to be set very high. Big structural decisions have to be taken very thoughtfully based on evidence. But our philosophy is to set out our aspiration, and then create the structures to support it.

For example, when ride-hailing services came about, our regulation was not designed for app-enabled ride-sharing. Early last year we wrote a policy about what we see as the future of ride-sharing—setting out what we think “good” looks like. One priority is the terms and conditions for drivers. Another is safety for passengers.

It was also important that we created a safe, limited space to test and to learn. Once you’ve written a regulation, it’s there for a long time. So we established temporary licenses. We now give 15 months for innovative services to see what we can learn and what we might need to change.

We try to create a sandbox environment, with appropriate safeguards, that allows government and innovators to introduce ourselves to each other. We introduce the innovator to what the regulatory environment needs to be, and we get introduced to how a new business dips its toes in the water. From there, we move forward with evidence, learning, and a collaborative spirit, and hopefully, we create a sustainable blueprint for the future.


"Our national legislation, our city regulations, our planning assumptions, and, often, our organizational structures were built for the world we lived in in the 1970s. We don’t live in that world now." —Michael Hurwitz