Cities today are facing many of the same problems they were facing 100 years ago. We live in a changing world but lingering remnants of history still affect our lives, despite huge leaps in our technological capacities. From congestion and lack of parking to wasteful energy expenditure and environmental pollution, most cities across the globe are losing billions every year due to historically ineffective urban policy and planning.
Given this, both the historical and contemporary contexts of today’s urban challenges should inform the innovative responses to them.
Urban mobility has long been positioned at the nexus of all of these issues, both affecting and affected by different urban socio-political and environmental factors – from economic and technological development to local and geopolitics, to beliefs about liveability and the environment. If cities manage mobility in the right way, it can be a catalyst for the economy: if they don’t, it can slow down development and catalyze other issues. This means that innovating urban mobility is at the heart of creating the future city. As with other aspects of cities, we must use history to grasp why things are the way they are today when it comes to urban transport, at the same time as understanding the specific, current challenges and trends emerging in this area. In this article, we will therefore briefly examine the factors behind cities’ present mobility situation, before exploring the key macro-trends in mobility today. We will then look at how municipalities can place themselves at the center of mobility innovation in their cities.
The origin of heavy inner-city traffic lies in the US
As Raphael Fischler – academic and urban planner – highlights, we must look to the past before we plan and put in motion a new future for cities. Many of us on the planet live in sprawling cities filled with cars because of pivotal decisions made in the past. The vision of leading individuals, in particular, business leaders, urban visionaries and politicians, had a massive influence on the present state of our cities. The ideas and actions of Henry Ford, for instance, shaped the car-centric American cities of today. His dream in the 1920s to fill the streets with cars resulted in more Americans dying from car-related accidents than from the first world war, and continues to impact our lives today with traffic and congestion remaining huge problems in most of the world’s cities. Urban planner, Frank Lloyd Wright, had already imagined and implemented suburbia with Broadacre city in the 1920s and 30s, but in the 50s and 60s, general motors took advantage of the cold war and post-WWII growth to further promote the suburban American dream. This led to mass private-vehicle ownership, with car-oriented urban design meaning that most families needed a car to navigate the urban and suburban landscape. These are some examples of the ways in which the historical figures of the past shaped how we experience cities today according to their personal visions of how humans should live. Widespread commuting in many ‘Western’ cities – causing traffic, congestion, and pollution – is one exemplary consequence of these visions. Commuting, private-vehicle ownership and suburbia are all phenomena that might not exist if we had designed urban centers around other transit options, such as cycling and public transport, or around denser urban living options.
Image of Frank Lloyd Wright, photo courtesy of franklloydwright.org.
Cities have to both regulate and innovate
Traffic is an unforeseen consequence of a technology – in this case, the car – being introduced into cities for the first time without city governments having the right foresight or knowledge to implement sufficient regulation. As is predicted to happen with Artificial Intelligence (AI), cars were to have a far greater effect on our lives and on our planet than we could have envisaged at the time. What we can learn from the history of the car and urban planning is that cities have to both regulate and innovate and that both past and present must be accounted for. Today, cities are facing the same challenges as 100 years ago but in a different context: they are competing with each other to attract talent, dealing with mass urbanization, and heavily under pressure to conform to global climate standards.
Mobility plays a huge role in all of this, so it’s no surprise that there are many new innovators and disruptors in the urban mobility space coming up with fresh ideas about how to improve urban mobility in our changing world.
The key macro trends happening in urban mobility right now:
Over the last 5-6 years, the number of electric vehicles in use has increased significantly. One major reason for this is that the cost of batteries has been reduced by 65% year on year during this time, meaning that kilowatt cost is under 100 dollars. Increasing electrification of cars should entail at least one major benefit: a reduction in tail-pipe and CO2 emissions. Electrification of public transport will also be increasingly important since this has a particularly high impact: urban public transport vehicles run up to 16 hours per day, compared to less than one hour for the average conventional car.
Shared mobility is the word of the day. A number of startups such as Uber and Bird are emerging in this area, offering convenient, subscription or ride-based services involving anything from conventional cars to micro transit scooters. Shared mobility overlaps with electrification: ride-sharing systems are very quickly adopting electric vehicles because the unit cost of an electric vehicle is lower than fossil fuel ones if you exceed 35,000 miles a year. As shared vehicles are starting to exceed this amount, and the companies who own them generally have more flexible business models, we are increasingly seeing electric vehicle uptake in this sector.
Autonomous vehicles are vehicles that ‘sense’ their surrounding environment in order navigate without a human driver. Although the technology is still being developed, it is estimated that by 2025, the car market for only partially autonomous vehicles will be at 36 billion U.S. dollars, with the regular vehicle market very far behind at 6 billion U.S. dollars. Autonomous vehicles are likely to play a major part in solving the first and last-mile transit problem, heavily associated with urban sprawl and suburbia. When autonomous cars come into play, they will both eliminate the cost of the driver and be electric and, therefore, even less expensive. This means that the unit economic cost per km in the suburbs will likely become as low as for Uber in cities. The adoption and development of autonomous vehicles will vary depending on the city, but it will likely have a huge impact in some way in every urban center. For instance, if Mexico City adopted autonomous vehicles today, it is estimated that 7400 dollars could be saved per user every year.
These trends are leading to new forms of urban mobility that will change the way we will live. Combined with other phenomena such as urbanization and the disintermediation of public mobility services, we are moving into an era of ‘seamless’ or ‘frictionless’ mobility offered increasingly by private service providers, notably disruptive technology startups.
A French-made autonomous bus cruises through a university campus in Taipei, photo courtesy of Tyrone Siu/Reuters.
What can cities do to keep on top of these trends?
In the midst of all of this disruption, and in an era where new technologies are difficult to predict and regulate, how can municipalities be involved in urban mobility innovation? The answer is data and control. Municipalities are increasingly recognizing the need to move from an action-driven approach, where they manage mobility and public services to promote public transport usage, to a passive disintermediation or facilitation approach.
Many local governments across the world are now actively encouraging private-sector service providers to innovate, often in a public-private partnership (PPP) model, and positioning themselves in a controlling or regulating role.
This means monitoring: in order to improve their control and disintermediation of public services, municipalities need to understand what’s going on in their city at any given moment, and then create and promote new regulatory measures.
Monitor urban mobility through digitization
One of the main ways to monitor real-time situations is through digitization and operational intelligence. When digitized assets such as parking spaces, cars, and shared bikes and scooters are integrated into one Operational Intelligence (OI) solution, cities can make decisions based on real-time mobility information. The insights produced by real-time intelligence enable operators, such as city mobility operators, to understand the performance of the different mobility assets, make predictions, improve efficiency and even prevent disasters. This gives them greater capacity to make the right operational decisions and engage important stakeholders, like citizens. As OI software learns from past actions through AI (specifically, machine learning), the software can improve its own decision-making processes.
Through OI solutions, municipalities can connect software solutions that are normally limited to the city control room of cities to a multiplicity of data sources – from Uber, TomTom, and people tracking systems, to ambulance locations, traffic light management systems, and camera systems, to light systems and bike sharing systems – you name it. This allows municipalities to gain real-time data about what’s happening all over their city within one control room.
OneMind Airport Dashboard.
Why is real-time mobility visibility important?
Having total visibility allows cities to predict, act and engage. Through real-time and accumulated long-term data, cities can adapt existing and create new systems and regulations to accommodate new technologies with concrete evidence about what’s happening on the ground. For example, when autonomous vehicles become more widespread, some people may buy them and ‘uber them out’. This will require the municipality to instigate new tax laws to regulate people making a profit from their privately-owned autonomous car(s). But first, they will need to know who owns the car, how they use it, how many journeys the car takes each day, and how much they charge per journey. This kind of data will be key to regulating both predictively and retrospectively.
Operational intelligence will also enable municipalities to engage with citizens, who are not only the users but also the producers of mobility services – think of Waze, the citizen traffic information-sharing app. Having access to all technological systems allows the city to create and connect to user apps – giving citizens information about local traffic jams, or ‘telling’ their connected cars about the approach of an emergency vehicle. Other consequences will also result from increased controlling and monitoring. Diminished congestion, improved emergency response times, and reduced CO2 emissions, for instance, are the potential results of reducing traffic through the implementation of a citywide congestion and parking monitoring system.
If Ford and Lloyd had worked with real-time data
Ford and Lloyd Wright didn’t have the data to predict the consequences of their future city visions; they couldn’t establish the ‘best’ kind of urban development and mobility for both people and the planet with solid evidence. Today we have that capacity: with technologies like Operational Intelligence and sophisticated sensing equipment, municipalities and businesses can work together to collect real-time data on different aspects of their city so that they can not only improve urban mobility but other areas of city life. In the end, this allows municipalities to not only make city processes more efficient and climate-friendly but ultimately to improve quality of life for all their citizens.