Who's Who

Russ Yell: spurring mobility change

Russ-Yell-from-Aurecon-portrait
Russ Yell

Russell, could you tell me a little bit about, where you work and what you do?

I work for a company called Aurecon, having joined them in late October, 2018. My role as Global Smart Mobility Leader sees me helping clients and their understand the disruption that’s happening in the transport industry and the expectations that customers have come to expect in a digital world.

I take people on that journey of transformation from legacy systems, helping make them future-ready through realising and capitalising on the opportunities and benefits that come from technology disruptions and technology opportunities. And of course making sure that those things happen in a fair and equitable manner, and bring good outcomes to clients and their customers.

What sort of work have you done recently?

I’ve been in Auckland for just over a year and previous to joining Aurecon, I’d been advising a few clients locally in New Zealand and Australia. I guided the delivery of a transport technology roadmap for Ipswich City Council, looking at where it is today, where it’s come from, and thinking about how it can deliver better services to its citizens in the future.

Similarly, I helped the New Zealand Transport Agency understand how much influence it has over the technology landscape. There are certain things it can control and invest in and influence, but there are others which are external market forces, in which it has no control but needs to be aware of and plan for any potential disruption they cause.

You mentioned that you’re dealing with things looking 15 to 20 years out. Is that trickier now than it has been previously given that we’re on the cusp of reasonably rapid change?

Yes. I mean it’s always been tricky, and it’s always involved a lot of speculation, but I guess the risk that comes with that forecasting and speculation is much greater now. And because the level of uncertainty and the potential different outcomes and different scenarios that are possible are much broader.

That’s why looking at potential disruption from automated vehicles, or how quickly something like Mobility as a Service will be adopted, how quickly the vehicle fleet can be electrified, there’s so much uncertainty with all of this, that being able to ‘forecast’ out to 20 years is nigh on impossible. Which is why it’s more about helping clients put in processes and frameworks where they can monitor change, rather than trying to predict what’s going to happen. Giving them the tool kit so they can be better prepared and more adaptive to change.

For those who don’t know, what is Aurecon, and what does it do?

Aurecon is a global engineering and infrastructure advisory company. About 10 years ago it transitioned to the name Aurecon, after an amalgamation of South African and Australian businesses. We work across the urban infrastructure environment, with a strong advisory and digital presence as a complement to our excellent engineering capability.

The reason I was brought on, and the reason we are growing our Urban Mobility and Integrated Transport team is to really help understand how we can take a point of difference in terms of not just thinking we need to engineer and build something, but it’s more about changing people’s behaviour, optimising systems and getting the most value out of existing infrastructure.

As a company, that runs through everything we do, there’s a very strong focus on design thinking and really challenging the status quo, and part of the reason I joined is that appetite and ambition to be different. That’s why the strapline of the company is the concept of engineering re-imagined.

Let’s go back to the beginning of your career. How did you get into the mobility game, what did you study, and what were your first few roles?

I ended up in this world I think partly through my keen interest in transport as a kid, an interest passed on to me from my dad. He’s a (retired) civil engineer and passionate about all things transport. Growing up around a real interest in aviation and transport systems and cars it’s hard not to take an interest! My family has a long history of working in the transport industry. I’ve learned recently that my family was involved with building the railways around London in the mid-19th Century. It’s nice to reflect that I’ve probably worked on upgrades of some of those places in my career.

At university I studied something completely unrelated. I studied Materials Science and Engineering, which goes to the microscopic level of understanding of how ceramics, polymers, and metals come to be, and researching new materials, stronger metals, different types of polymers, or whatever it might be.

But that wasn’t really an area I wanted a career in, so when I finished my degree I went to work for Transport for London (TfL), in the Urban Traffic Control team. That was really enjoyable as an introduction to the world of transport, because it allowed me to get under the skin of how complex the network is in somewhere like London. The toolkit that TfL had at its disposal at the time was okay, but you could see there were lots of opportunities to improve upon it.

I then moved into the world of consulting. At Arup I was involved in many rail infrastructure projects, looking at crowdflow through stations and understanding how design can better accommodate crowds, and how their operations can be optimised. I’ve also worked on sports venues, and major events like the Baku European Games, which all require planning for very intense periods of high occupancy and extensive system optimisation and operational planning.

I lived in Sydney from 2009 to 2013, then went back to London, which is when I focused my thinking on enhancing the performance of systems through the application of analytics from data generated by Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, mobile phone data signatures, and app-based GPS signatures — basically any location data that personal devices were creating as people moved about.

My career has been a tale of evolution and interest in the technology market, so I started thinking ‘Well, I understand how the components come together, now I’m moving myself up the value chain, understanding how these new business models are born off the back of new technologies’.

This is what I’ve been focused on over the last six or seven years, understanding how the components can come together and then trying to translate that into client needs, customer needs, and then developing structured processes to map out how services are implemented today and evolve in the future — what are the best ingredients in an eco-system to deliver the best outcomes for people, and how can these help manage transport systems most effectively?

What year was that Russell, that you started at Transport for London?

That was back in 2003. Which is a long, distant memory now.

I regularly encounter the diaspora of people from Transport for London.

Oh yes, especially in Australia, there’s so many Transport for London alumni that have ended up over here.

In all of this change that’s here, or on the way, what do you think is the hardest thing, getting governments and corporations on-board with new technologies, or simply helping them prepare in general for the changes that are definitely coming one way or another?

All governments and businesses recognise that change is coming, but some are better prepared than other. The hardest thing, or put another way, the most exciting opportunity for us to advise on is helping these clients prepare for and embrace change on their terms. Uber first started back in around 2009, but didn’t expand beyond the US until 2011/12.

When it hit the shores of Europe and Australia it launched in an environment where there was no regulation for the service it offered. It forced the hand of governments to rapidly evolve regulatory frameworks and caused alarm in the legacy taxi industry. Governments have caught up with this now, and some are well placed to anticipate and manage the next disruption, but plenty aren’t.

I was going to say that with Uber it didn’t so much knock on the front door, as use the back fence.

Yes, true. There’s a good example from the recent experiences up on the Gold Coast, where Lime e-scooters were introduced without permission/support from the Council, and the assets were confiscated. Could this have been managed better? Absolutely. I’m not apportioning any blame here — it’s a good example where both the technology vendor and the Council needed a greater level of maturity and frameworks in place to ensure that services are introduced in a city under terms that both parties benefit from.

I think we need to have a better understanding of who the customer base is, their motivations, and the services that will enhance their travel experience. Traditionally that’s not been something that transport planners would really focus on too much. They might do the occasional stated preference survey, understanding people’s willingness to pay or preferences around whether it’s a bus or taking a car or going on a train. But I’d say that really, really understanding people’s personal motivations and pain points on a customer journey, has only been something that’s come about in the last three or four years.

I think that has been driven by the likes of Uber with its customer-centric focus on products and continually evolving interfaces, with the less agile agencies trying to play catch-up. You see the likes of New South Wales doing quite well and focusing on understanding the customer as part of their 2056 strategy. Victoria and the rest of Australia (and NZ) are also embracing the customer-centric mantra but they’re still a ways from being in a position that the whole agency and all of the transport staff really appreciate that customer-centric focus on delivering transport services. My personal view is that some people still don’t quite understand the differences between the Uber ‘experience’ and the pain points which come with taking a bus, for example.

So there’s a real need to help agencies understand how they can level the playing field in terms of delivering experiences and reliable services, and I think the other aspect is that they shouldn’t feel the need to control the mobility market, and they shouldn’t feel that they need to deliver products themselves. It’s about creating the right level of maturity whereby they have confidence with the evolution of the ecosystem, and they can enable third parties to deliver mobility services to the customers that maximise the use of the core public transport network.

I guess that one of the disruptions that is perhaps less talked about is the disruption to their decision processes, their information gathering processes. They are disruptions that are really quite fresh.

In terms of the customer?

No, in terms of government transport agencies and so forth. They’ve been quite heavily disrupted in their thinking about decision making, data collection and use, breadth of control … all of this has come at them quite quickly.

Yes. When you look at the traditional process, having come from the background of traffic control and the way that it has been done, the technology that’s used is now 40-odd years old, and hasn’t fundamentally changed in that time. You look at a lot of the transport agencies in the way that they go about planning and engineering studies, within reason it hasn’t really changed that much in 20-odd years.

So then there’s a real process of transformation. The agencies and the consultancies that advise them need to capitalise on the data that’s out there now and transform the way we tackle the planning process, being more aware, quicker to intervene and leaving new infrastructure as the last resort.

There’s good examples of bus corridor optimisation studies in the US, where traditionally they would probably have someone sat on a bus checking people on and off, timing how long the bus would spend at each stop, and then doing some assessment, which could then take months of analysis to understand how the bus corridor could be improved. Whereas today, there’s plenty of companies out there that will connect to an API feed of real-time bus positions and they can tell you how to optimise your bus corridor within a matter of days or weeks. That time lag between identifying a problem and then analysing it and coming up with a potential solution is much more compressed.

I think the concept of undertaking a planning study, recommending a list of options and then putting that on the shelf and saying, ‘Okay, we should do these things soon’ is an area ripe for disruption. There’s a real opportunity to do more real-world prototyping (or tactical urbanism) in the transport space.

For example, in the urban environment you can look to Melbourne, where there were these pop-up parklets. Parking was taken away, and replaced with some nice street furniture and greenery to create a different city experience. Take that to the next level and do that across the transport network, using data-driven tools to quantify and understand if you took something out one day, how do people respond to that?

And have that real-time feedback on people’s interactions with the new environment. Is that making a positive difference? Knocking out a lane of parking, does that really have material difference in the way that people are using the space? Let’s have a quick response to that economic impact of taking out parking. I think the way that the agencies capture information and the decision-making process that goes with it is changing, and needs to evolve a lot quicker if we’re going to create more liveable and sustainable cities.

Okay. Back to you Russell, of all the work you’ve done since 2005 when you kicked off at Transport for London, what projects have you been most proud of to date?

There’s a few that, for lots of different reasons, I’m very proud of having worked on. Having played a part in the design of Crossrail, which is the biggest transport project in Europe at the moment – having worked on the design of stations and the broader precincts and now seeing that delivered and being a real signature project in London gives me a sense of pride.

There’s also my time in Sydney having working on the new Convention Centre and on the Sydney Metro projects, again, seeing all these big infrastructure projects being realised, is great.

Also, I’m a keen sports fan, so on a personal level I was involved in the redesign of Tottenham Hotspurs’ new stadium in London. During my four years when I was back in the UK and being involved in that project, meeting the people from my Club was an amazing experience.

More recently, one of my proudest moments came from really pushing myself and challenging what I do in my career. In 2016/17 I worked on the UEFA Champions League final in Cardiff, and I was lucky enough to pitch a concept to the client and be appointed to deliver the official event app for the finals. Having never built an app before, it was a real baptism of fire, and having to learn about the way that app developers work and getting the right team around me was very rewarding.

That was a year of very, very challenging fast learning, but a really amazing experience and one confirmed that the digital ecosystems and the future of mobility is a space that I want to continue to work in. It was a real defining moment. It was a pivot in my career, to be a lot more involved in the whole digital ecosystem and the way that these, whether it’s Mobility as a Service or anything else will be delivered in the future. I find it fascinating just understanding the complexity, but also the simplicity and design that comes from a well-executed app.

I think it’s a good place now to enter the world of the hypothetical. If you had an unlimited budget and very little in the way of time constraints, what project would you like to take on if given that set of circumstances?

Rather than a project, I think if I had unlimited budget, in fact this was something I was talking about with a colleague recently. Something I’d be really keen to try and enable, is this concept of Universal Basic Mobility, which is giving anyone — no matter what their standing in society, or their physical ability — a base layer of access to a transport system.

This would be as an alternative to people having to rely on private vehicles for access and mobility. So it doesn’t matter where you live in a city or in a region, everyone has that base layer that they can expect, reaching out to a phone number, pressing a button, or using an app, and a shared vehicle would be there to collect them within a set level of service — say 15 minutes.

People have tried to do something approaching this with all the disparate social welfare schemes and community transport services, but I think the technology is there today and the greater will is there to do it as well. I think it would be an amazing piece of research to try and at least prove that it would work, and to demonstrate the economic and social outcomes from having something like that for everyone.

No matter who you are or where you are, you can get to any place of work or your local shops or doctor or wherever, without any issue. You wouldn’t have to rely on anyone else and you wouldn’t have to feel that you’re stuck at home because you have no means of transport.

Kind of like a next level Mobility as a Service really?

Yes, and I think it’s taking the concept of Mobility as a Service, but with a real focus on the social outcomes from it. The social equity of access to a transport system that would come from something like Mobility as a Service.

And there would have to be significant subsidisation of it, building on some of the findings from trials that are happening in Europe where they have started providing free access to public transport in certain cities. Could we do that on a more widespread basis and give everyone that kind of a Mobility as Service for free?

An interesting idea! Okay. This time we’re going to drop your budget quite a lot. You’ve got quite a limited budget and limited time constraints. What would you take on to make a probably punching above its weight to impact on transport?

I think with limited budget, and also have to say limited timeframe on myself, as I alluded to before, one of the things I see happen too often is that people complain about congestion and that the transport network is suffering, and the community is demanding that they want to the network to be better managed.

There are some very quick wins, some very easy things that could be done in terms of realising the value of the existing systems and data that they have at their disposal today. Too often there’s a data asset that’s sat in another part of an organisation that has never been shared with others, which could derive a lot more value and help optimise system performance.

So my limited budget hypothetical would be helping clients reflect on and be honest about how well they’ve used the systems that they already have, and how much they’ve managed to optimise existing networks. This shouldn’t cost very much.

It’d be a hard exercise to get people to reflect on and be honest about how effective they have been in their jobs up until now, and how quickly they might turn it around.

There’s an example where it took three hours or so for my digital team to take what had been hidden away on an internal server for years, and turn it into a concept which was then deployed via a website. It showed how busy all the car parks where across the city, gave information about pricing, and other things. It was a simple process, and we immediately changed the way the organisation engaged with the public around parking availability. That was one of the biggest bugbears in that location, resulting in significant congestion as a result of people circling the city, trying to find parking.

So it can be simple, there can be quick wins, and all it needs is going on a bit of a journey with the client to uncover the value of all the assets they already have, and then make best use of those in terms of operating their transport systems or informing the public.

So a real shift towards data being more open?

Yes. Ultimately even if it weren’t open yet it’s just helping them understand how they can derive most value from it and get those data sets being used across their organisations rather than being hidden away in a silo. Ultimately, if it’s not commercially sensitive, open it out to the public, then have a play with it to see if someone can innovate something from it.

Shifting again back to you, is there a field or opportunity or a part in the transport industry that you haven’t touched yet that you’d like to?

Over my career I’ve been a lot more in the operations and design and delivery of systems and infrastructure, and less so in a policy space. I see a huge opportunity for influencing policy at the highest levels of government in terms of making sure that countries and cities are future-proofed and embracing technology disruption.

We have a Government Advisory team at Aurecon, and this is a team I’m taking to regularly to become more attuned to, and have more experience in. I’m excited by the challenge of influencing top-level government decision makers and getting the right policies and legislation in place to make sure that Australia, New Zealand, or any region we work in, is future-ready.

Or future-curious?

Or future-curious, yes.

In the next three to five years what technology in the realm of transport and smart cities are you most excited about?

The one that intrigues me at the moment, and I think it’s going to be a really exciting evolution, is the way that the automotive sector is changing.

You only have to go back probably four years, to think about how often companies like Holden or Ford would be talking to a city transport agency? Whereas today, you’ve got Ford and Daimler and BMW snapping up all these smart mobility platforms and even getting into building analytics engines that can manage city transport systems.

Within that space how pervasive are the OEMs going to get into the way that cities function? There are examples in North America where companies like Ford are actually trying to take over the management of the whole transport network themselves.

That shift from being just a car that you buy and drive from a caryard, to these companies being so ingrained in the way that a city transport system functions is remarkable. And it could be that in the next 10 years that one of these companies actually takes over the complete operation of a transport system, rather than a company like Transdev or the like.

I think the next three to five years where you see these companies making promises about levels of automation and levels of electrification – Volvo and others committing to a completely electric product range by date X is great, and is pushed by consumer sentiment, coming from their marketing teams.

Forecasts delivered by cities probably underestimate the commercial drivers for electric vehicles (EV) or automated vehicles, so it’ll be an interesting time to see how we can help transition to EVs, and ensure that the consumer is making the right choice, not being influenced by a lagging city’s charging infrastructure, for example.

Then there’s the connected vehicle ecosystem. There’s going to be so much change in the way that vehicles operate on the road and the type of vehicles that are out there, and the ownership models that come with it. Everything around the traditional notion of a car, a car dealership, your garage, your driveway, is going to change so much in the next two or three years. I think it’s fascinating!

I don’t think cities really understand how much it will change. You only have to look at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas every January, and the amount of new vehicle types and widgets and connectivity levels that people are talking about. It’s huge! And for cities to be able to follow it up, or ideally be ahead of the curve on that is a huge challenge for them, and I think it’s fascinating.

It’s a real revolution in the transport world to be involved in and to be tracking and see how this all pans out in the next five years. It’s incredibly exciting.

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