Six Notes for Smart City Futures Note 5: MOBILITY

Conversations about smart cities invariably focus on data as the new blood that runs through a city's veins. While this may be metaphorically accurate, it is the movement of people and goods that remain the among the smart city’s most crucial needs. Whether there is or isn’t data being collected about them, people need to traverse the length and breadth of urban environments in order to live their lives. Likewise, things need to keep moving to sustain our physical, economic, social, and political lives. The movement of people and of things which people use translates to economic movement, to health and well-being, and to keeping cities alive.

Such ideas may appear simplistic or self-evident—but the mobility models of many of our urban metros have historically been focused on motorization, inherently biased towards those who could afford private cars. "Motorization promised to save city dwellers from the piles of horse manure that clogged nineteenth century streets and deliver us from a shroud of factory smoke back to nature," writes Anthony Townsend, “Instead, it scarred the countryside with sprawl and rendered us sedentary and obese.” Vehicle-focused transportation logics have since also assumed that simply moving vehicles faster on more highways and better roads, or distributing movement better through the day, would reduce congestion and save time. A report by the Brookings Institution  offers, however, that such approaches have not worked: “in the pursuit of moving people faster, congestion still exists, household transportation expenses are up, and there are more roadways to maintain than ever.” The transportation community’s existing models have failed to deliver on the wider urban promises relating to economic growth, social integration, and sustainable development.

The Report proposes that "The real goal for the builders of transportation systems should be similar to those of the individuals using them: to ensure that residents can access a range of activities, such as jobs, in a reasonable amount of time at a reasonable cost. A city's ability to realize its greatest benefit—the economic growth that comes from agglomeration—depends heavily on transport systems and related policies facilitating access, not simply mobility."

Unsplash, Alex Mihis 

Smart mobility is a therefore paradigm shift... a flexible and multi-modal transport system that is focused on aiding accessibility in order to foster economic growth, social integration, and sustainable development. The ubiquity of GPS enabled devices means that mobility is among the easiest things to track, increasing our knowledge of human collective movement and the bottlenecks of our existing systems. Ironically, however, mobility is the hardest of the Smart City promises to realize via data alone, as radical changes to urban planning and infrastructure are likely to be the only effective responses to what much mobility data reveals.

But we can start with the realization that getting where we need to go is not just a matter of getting to work every day, but getting to places that allow us to lead rich, healthy, and fulfilling urban lives.

Data on mobility comes from GPS-enabled devices, taxi and car share services, social media, package tracking, traffic-cams, and many other sources. What do we do with all this information?

We can use it as a measure of urban vitality, or to see how "how vitality and diversity are correlated in the cities." A 6-city Italian study "used mobile-phone activity as a measure of urban vitality and land-use records, census data, and Foursquare activity as a measure of urban diversity," concluding that land use practices determined a city's potential vitality and vibrancy (confirming urban sociologist Jane Jacob's influential 1961 insights with methods that are cheaper, wider, and easier to reproduce).

Unsplash, Dan Paul

We can feed this data back to individual people...

...who still need to get around every day, preferably beating traffic. Google maps, Waze, Citymapper, and moovit are each real-time journey mapping tools. Some are oriented to just finding the least congested driving routes, while others (like Citymapper) have 'take me home' functions which scan every mode of transport from where you are to provide an optimal route home. Such tools facilitate new levels of engagement with the city, by potentially exploring unfamiliar roads and routes. As one reviewer says: "I’m writing this from a bus I’ve never heard of that picked me up from a bus stop I’ve never been to and it’s taking me to my road!"

Citymapper signals the emergence of what MIT Professor Carl Ratti calls “ambient mobility” or the diversification of our transportation portfolios: “In the past, you used to have to go to a central station to exchange from say a train to a bus. Now you can transfer in so many different places. You might take a train, then ride an Uber, then pick up a bike, and you can do it in a much easier way, because you have real-time information about all these modes of transportation.”

(There are, however, some important critiques of app-scripted way-finding tools, such as this one on Waze: which highlights more tactile ways of knowing the city and the human need for serendipity. In the meantime, Waze’s through-neighborhood routes are causing congestions in new places, new diversions—and new episodes of social protest.)

Unsplash, Darren Bockman

We can use it to inform policy

Data collected from London underground's smart Oyster Card helps planners come to terms with the congestion patterns of a polycentric transport system—having many hubs doesn’t necessarily eliminate congestion, but reconfigures it.

We can use it to rethink existing transportation models: Hubcab collects data on taxi cab journeys and makes an argument for "the vast potential of taxi shareability."

Light Traffic from MIT’s Senseable labs imagines cities without traffic lights: “This idea is based on a scenario where sensor-laden vehicles pass through intersections by communicating and remaining at a safe distance from each other, rather than grinding to a halt at traffic lights.” The idea is to speed up traffic flow by eliminating needless stoppages, decreasing emissions in the process. The system can integrate pedestrian and bicycle crossing with vehicular traffic.

Or even to advocate for facilities for urban cyclists, as the Cycle Atlanta app (discussed in our note on Inclusivity) does.

Unsplash, Denis Bayer

Transport can be about much more than just transport…

The interest in understanding human mobility patterns derives from their wide relevance in predicting flows and future behaviors. A Chinese company called Zimo partnered with Microsoft Research to study the travel patterns of locals and tourists (non-locals) in Beijing.

Such data helps not just to anticipate traveler needs or to target marketing, but to understand migration: how long does it take someone to settle into a new place? How long before they start to act "like locals"—and what does that mean for different immigrant or refugee groups?

Researchers have used mobile telecommunications data to model and predict the spread of infectious diseases such as malaria and cholera.

Smart mobility has become synonymous with autonomous vehicles.

Unsplash, Gustavo Belemmi

Private cars are in use just about 5% of the time. Google predicts that sharing such vehicles will increase their use to 75%--which also means that fewer vehicles will suffice for greater numbers of people. So, says Carlo Ratti, self-driving vehicles "will remove cars from our cities and create a lot more green space."

They can marry “public” and “private”

Autonomous cars “have the potential to change how we think of personal mobility, especially in urban settings.,” says MIT aeronautics Professor Frazzoli. “Cars that are able to drive autonomously to pick up customers, take them to their destination, and then park themselves (or serve the next customer) can provide a mobility service that is almost as convenient as privately owned cars, with the sustainability of public transportation."

They can go where nobody else wants to

Linden, Ohio is a case in point. The area has high incarceration rates, high infant mortality, and is cut off from good public transportation—and therefore also from employment opportunities and medical care. Uber drivers avoid the area. Residents don't use electronic payments anyway.

To address the problem of access, the city proposes using autonomous shuttles to complete the last leg of residents’ commute. Local Motors, the open-source vehicle design company, has reportedly offered to supply the shuttles; just last week it debuted Olli, a self-driving electric shuttle powered by IBM’s Watson.

But such technologies are still a ways off..

Semi-autonomous vehicles may appear before any that are driverless—a step on a journey that needs mindsets to change. Big picture human issues (Think: what happens to the jobs of all those driving trucks in a driverless future?) will need to be addressed before autonomous vehicles deliver their big rewards. It may take as long to supplant ingrained car-owning entitlements with a flexible sharing culture. Finally, the infrastructure to support EVs and driverless vehicles isn't all there and will take years of commitment to put in place.

To draw out the contours of what the "smart city" is and could yet become, we offer six core notes by which the "expressive, cognitive, and imaginative possibilities" of the city in the age of data may be realized—six promises to guide the way to improved urban futures:

· Introduction
· Connectivity
· Inclusivity
· Responsivity
· Heritage
· Mobility
· Sustainability

Subsequent notes will be released in serialized form throughout November 2016. We invite you to join us in our quest to re-imagine the city and our shared urban futures through the data we collect.

Have an example or an idea of how data can be used to address urban dilemmas and build brighter urban futures? Share it with us on our UX Trendspotting page.

Report authors: Deepa S Reddy, Anand Vijayan, and Tushar Jain, for the Institute for Customer Experience at Human Factors International