Interview with Laia Pagès at CARNET

This month we chat with Laia Pagès, Executive and Research Manager at Future Mobility Research Hub CARNET and long-time passionate advocate for innovative solutions to mobility challenges. Laia completed her PhD dissertation on Mass Transport Vehicle Routing Problem (MTVRP) at a time when most people didn’t even know yet what Demand-Responsive Transportation (DRT) was.

You’re probably one of the first people to spot and tackle the problem of low-ridership fixed routes for cities and transport operators, correct?

It is true that we thought about these issues far before the implementation of DRT. The possible real applications back in 1998 were in rural areas with very low demand, since real ridership data availability and computer capacity were very limited compared to what we have now. Believe it or not, I programmed my PhD on a laptop (that I still have!) that weighs around 10 Kg. We didn’t have mobile phones. The innovation at that time was the introduction of real time data to the algorithms, and the idea to implement those solutions in cities and metropolitan areas, so complementing public transport. But even when I finished my PhD, back in 2006, the thought of implementing these solutions in cities, for even a small number of routes, was still confined to the field of research. In any case, we had a lot of fun with our algorithms and the mathematical difficulty hidden in the details, which hasn't changed much!

What were the main challenges in implementing your solutions and convincing stakeholders about the benefits of DRT? And how have these challenges evolved with time?

When I finished my PhD, some of the work was used for emergency management with a network in New York. Again, from a research point of view. Practical implementations came a couple of years later, when a reduced version of our algorithms was implemented in Texas for a very simplified service focused on rural (and low demand) areas. A Mass Transport Vehicle Routing Problem (MTVRP) on the scale that we simulated back in the 2000s in California still hasn’t been implemented yet.

Back in Europe, I remember going to a Catalan operator with Prof. Jaume Barceló and trying to “sell the idea” of implementing our algorithms for a basic on-demand bus service. These conversations could have been the beginning of a basic “on-demand” bus service and, maybe, what is today DRT. But the operators didn’t see the benefit. They had closed contracts with public entities and their business was doing fine. The market wasn’t ready because users weren’t digitally ready either. The bus company didn’t understand what we were trying to sell, or we didn’t explain it properly. Either way, they didn’t buy it.

And last but not least, while at CARNET, I recently found out that Shotl’s founder Gerard Martet visited my PhD advisor, Dr. Jayakrishnan, in California back in 2010 or so. I was already in Germany then. I hear they had interesting discussions about the algorithms we were using at the time and their possible implementations. Probably, industry was ready to innovate before operators were.

In any case, it’s interesting to see that a small part of our research ideas is starting to be profitable for companies, providing a service to society and improving citizens’ quality of life…after more than 15 years!

Now, as DRT becomes popular and more locations implement their own solutions, do you think there’s the risk every governing body will want to have its own DRT, regardless of real need? Maybe replacing high-ridership transport services that are working fine?

There is absolutely a risk that every governing body will want its own solution, without the appropriate coordination. There is even the risk of having several solutions and implementations within the same public administration. At CARNET, we identified this problem some time ago. This is why we worked on a project called Multidepart (Multi-operator tool for managing Demand Responsive Transport), which finished in March this year. The aim was to develop tools to plan, manage, and monitor DRT solutions, targeting Public Transport Authorities (PTAs), and facilitate the harmonization and scalability of DRT services across European cities.

Regarding the “risk” of replacing those functioning high-ridership transport services with other services, I am happy to say that we are working on that right now. At CARNET we have employed a MS student (soon to be a PhD student) who is finishing her thesis this summer at UPC with the title “Demand Responsive Transport Evaluation of a Fleet Dependent Model and the Challenge of Unprofitability and Environmental Impact with Increasing Demand”, which partially addresses these problems.

It looks like changes regarding people’s mobility are accelerating. Are innovative and groundbreaking events, like the introduction and normalization of autonomous vehicles (AVs), closer than the general public believes?

AV deployment not only involves technological factors. Other topics such as infrastructure, regulation and social acceptance are also very important. So it will be implemented at different rates around the world.

Here in Barcelona, public authorities are also thinking about the role of AVs. Back in 2019, CARNET carried out a study for ATM (Autoritat del Transport Metropolità) called “El desplegament del vehicle autònom a Catalunya” (The deployment of the autonomous vehicle in Catalonia) tackling theses issues.

I always say that AVs will be first implemented in the logistics sector (movement of goods) before people transit because acceptance is higher. I would put a parcel in an autonomous vehicle before I do that with my children. Autonomous driving for deliveries is almost here, at least for the last mile. There are tests and pilots everywhere now (we’re doing a pilot in a real street with our last-mile delivery robot “Ona” in a couple of weeks in Esplugues del Llobregat), but we will need regulations to include these vehicles in our roads and cities.

Estimates say there are more than 1,400 million vehicles in circulation around the world. What other actions can be taken to raise awareness about the need to reduce this number and achieve greener cities?

I don’t think we have to move in the direction of “reducing” anything. I have used much more transportation and mobility than my parents did when they were my age (in the sense of a total km driven in all modes of transport). My kids use even more than me. I am convinced that a greener transportation system will be driven by advances in technology. New optimized sharing systems, optimized DRT’s (much more “real time” than the ones in operation on our streets now), zero emission propulsion technologies and the disruption of air transport will make our cities greener, without reducing km traveled.

Trends show young people are giving up getting a driving license or buying their first car, which demonstrates a change in their priorities. Can generational change be a decisive factor in the adoption of a new model of sustainable mobility?

In Europe, yes. In other continents, no. Europe is not that big in terms of population, especially the young! Again, new generations are using transport and mobility more than their predecessors. New generations are digital natives, and this can be a decisive factor in the rapid adoption of new solutions.

And finally, on a more lighthearted issue: what three things would you take to a desert island?

To answer this question, I am going to suppose that my survival is assured; I am not sure how. Having said that, my answer depends on how long I would have to stay on the island. For the short term, two good books and my husband. For a long period of time, electricity, wifi, a laptop to write on and maybe start program routing problems again!

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