Connected transport systems that work for more than just cars

Dr Neema Nassir is a Senior Lecturer in Transport Engineering at the Department of Infrastructure Engineering at the University of Melbourne. He develops new methods to simulate, model, design and manage public transport, shared-mobility and automated transport systems. He currently leads several transport research projects in collaboration with multiple state and federal governments in Australia.

Dr Nassir is a member of the Australian Integrated Multimodal EcoSystem (AIMES) team. AIMES works in close partnership with government and industry to deliver safer, cleaner and more sustainable urban transport.

Transport systems were always fascinating to me because they are multi-dimensional. Proper understanding and effective management of a transport system requires so much different engineering and science knowledge, ranging from human behaviour to vehicle manufacturing, and from emerging technologies in operating traffic and transit systems to the advanced theories in networks, principles in economic optimisation techniques, and the mathematics behind all these components. It is a multifaceted area of engineering and I really believe it's unique in this sense.

Multimodal transport encompasses all users of transport, not just cars. It's taking into account all the users that are involved in our transport system – including vulnerable road users, pedestrian cyclists, or the elderly and those with mobility impairment. We use technology to detect those people and to prioritise them using the space and time at our intersections.

Dr Neema Nassir talks to a group of students in front of a small driverless coach
If we prioritise cars every time at every intersection, we are promoting a negative cycle of car dependency and ownership. We need to accommodate, prioritise and make the network safe for more active modes of transport such as bicycles and pedestrians. Multimodality is intrinsically linked to the notion of sustainability.Dr Neema Nassir

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I’m also interested in studying the effect of autonomous shuttles in suburban mobility, and suburban connection to train networks. Right now, our suburban bus system is underutilised, and it's not cost-effective. The service is infrequent, and it's expensive to operate, because large buses with drivers are expensive to run frequently in low-density areas. The potential to use a smaller vehicle that doesn’t require a driver may actually give us the edge to produce a more reliable service.

Having the autobus, an autonomous shuttle, on campus allows members of the University community to better understand the technology and potential uses of autonomous vehicles. As part of our research, we’ve given people a ride on the shuttle, gauged their perception, and gained insight into whether people would consider it as a regular mode of transport, especially for connection to a train station.

As researchers, access to the autobus means that we’re able to project the direction of this technology, and how it can be best embedded in transport systems. There’s value for researchers from robotics to spatial engineering and computer science. There are teams working with sensors and navigation, and the data that produces the map on the shuttle is of interest to those working with software, machine learning algorithms and big data.

I am most interested in research that is industry-facing and practice-oriented. I like to engage with industry and first understand their needs, then design research to address those needs, instead of the other way around.

We regularly collaborate with industry and government, including transport departments from four different state governments. This brings a wide range of industry perspectives. We experience their challenges firsthand, and we try to address those challenges in our research. It is rewarding, and we get support too – support with data, funding, their inputs, and their expert opinions.

First published on 1 August 2023.

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