Transportation is a Major Concern for Smart City Planners

Stephen DeAngelis

August 12, 2014

By now most people are aware that over 50 percent of the world’s population live in an urban setting. All of those people need to get around in some way or another — be it walking, skating, biking, motoring, or riding. For a number of reasons, including air pollution and gridlocked streets, smart city planners are looking for ways to move people around conveniently without having to rely on automobiles. Even automobile manufacturers understand that there is limit to the number of cars you can stuff into an urban environment. Robert Wright (@RKWinvisibleman) reports, “Ford Motor, which pioneered the affordable mass-produced motor car, is looking to play a bigger role in building public transport vehicles or integrating cities’ transport systems as it grapples with the growing challenge of helping people move around the world’s traffic-choked cities. Alan Mulally, Ford’s chief executive, said questions of ‘personal mobility’ and ‘quality of life’ were some of the ‘most important and exciting developments’ around the world and simply providing more and more cars was ‘not going to work’.” [“Ford says more cars are not the answer to cities’ problems,” Financial Times, 14 January 2014] Mulally’s comments were made to attendees at a Detroit auto show. He added, “I think the most important thing is to look at the way the world is and where the world is going and to develop a plan. We’re going to see more and more larger cities. Personal mobility is going to be of really ever-increasing importance to livable lifestyles in big cities.” Dario Hidalgo (@dhidalgo65) notes, “Ever since the mass production of automobiles began nearly a century ago, the prevailing paradigm in urban transport has been the domination of private cars.” [“On the move: Steering urban transport in a new direction,” The City Fix, 25 December 2013] He adds:

“At first, the freedom and speed made possible by cars spurred great strides forward in quality of life and economic prosperity. As decades passed, however, reliance on the automobile generated increasingly negative impacts including air pollution, chronic congestion, traffic accidents, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and social exclusion. These challenges have pushed human society to a tipping point. The mobility of people and goods requires a more economically efficient, socially inclusive, and environmentally friendly system.”

I’m glad that Hidalgo mentioned the importance of moving goods around in a urban environment. Too often discussions focus solely on the challenge of moving people and ignore the challenge of moving goods in, out, and around urban areas. Nevertheless, most of the negative effects associated with transportation involve the movement of people. In fact, Hidalgo asserts, “The majority of emissions will come from cities – where over half of the world’s population now lives.”

 

Hidalgo insists that we need to implement an ASI framework. He explains:

“In order to reverse … unsustainable trends, … there must be a conscious, global effort to avoid unnecessary trips, shift necessary trips to the most efficient modes of transport, and improve the energy efficiency of transport systems and vehicle operations for the necessary trips.”

At a conference I attended earlier this year in London, I listened to a presentation by Andrew Wolstenholme, OBE, Chief Executive of Crossrail. He talked about how Crossrail is working to reduce surface street congestion and improve transportation by constructing 42 kilometers of tunnels under central London. He asserted that this infrastructure upgrade, which would increase capacity by 10 percent, would result in over £42 billion GDP benefits for the metropolitan area.

 

Crossrail is using huge boring machines to dig its tunnels. To reduce lorry movements through London, 85 percent of the excavated material will be transported by rail or water. Additionally, 4.5 million tons of that material will be taken to Wallasea Island in Essex, which is a project to create a new wetland habitat. Wolstenholme asserted that Crossrail is using innovation to design its system, in building its system, and will continue to innovate when running the system. Ensuring that alternative and convenient methods are available for getting around an urban environment is essential if the ASI framework described by Hidalgo is going to be implemented. Hidalgo writes:

“Implementing avoid, shift, and improve strategies in countries with emerging economies requires a shift away from the prevailing car-oriented development that has become standard in industrialized economies. Important factors that will impact the success of these strategies in the developing world include consumer preferences, culture, and the cost and quality of alternatives to private vehicle ownership.”

A press release from Pike Research reports, “More than 50 percent of smart city projects are focused on innovations in transportation and urban mobility.” [“Smart Transportation Becoming the Focal Point for Smart City Projects Worldwide, According to New Pi,” Daily Finance, 4 March 2013] Research director Eric Woods stated, “Smart city initiatives cover a wide range of projects, but urban mobility is becoming a lynchpin issue that ties together energy reduction, sustainability, and technology innovation. Devising an environmentally friendly, economically efficient, and voter-acceptable mobility strategy for the modern city is at the top of the priority list for many smart city planners.” Kat Zambon (@KZambon) reminds us that building new infrastructure isn’t the only way to address the transportation conundrum faced by urbanites. “Before building more roads, bridges, and highways,” she writes, “policymakers need to evaluate how current transportation options can be used more effectively.” [“Big Data Can Make the Most of Transportation Infrastructure,” AAAS, 1 July 2014] Zambon was reporting on panel discussions held during an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) event. She continues:

“At a panel on big data and transportation during the forum, speakers focused on the importance of using big data — large and complex data sets coming from a variety of sources at a high velocity — to make the most of existing transportation infrastructure before building new roads, bridges, and highways. … With roughly 238 million cars, trucks, trains, and buses on the road in the United States, with an average of 4.5 seats per vehicle, there are more than a billion seats of capacity, said Joseph Kopser, founder and chief executive officer of the mobile app RideScout. However, Americans are in transit on average for about two hours daily, meaning that roughly 98.6% of those seats are empty at any given time. ‘We think that there’s enough infrastructure, we’re just not using it well,’ Kopser said. ‘So we have to do better with existing infrastructure.’ RideScout strives to make it easier for commuters to fill those empty seats and take advantage of current transportation options by allowing them to see all of their options in one place when they plan a route, including bike share, car share, ride for hire, commuter rail, local buses and subways, and pedicabs.”

There is clearly no single silver-bullet solution that addresses all urban transportation challenges. What we do know is that if transportation is not convenient, flexible, and affordable people are not going to use it routinely.