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The U.N predicts that 60% of the world’s global population will live in cities by the year 2030. Many cities across the world are already seeing massive population growth, particularly in Asia. As more of the world’s population moves to densely populated urban areas, cities must necessarily adapt to accommodate the needs of their new residents.
Transportation is at the heart of modern cities, connected to all of the components that make a city tick. Whether by car, bus, bike, train or foot, urban populations rely on a functional transportation system to get to school, go to work, socialize, and shop. However, many urban transportation systems are under considerable strain, and the transport options that most people rely on have also burdened the environment. Transport currently represents about 1/5th of the world’s energy consumption and 1/4th of the world’s CO2 emissions. Further, cars -- still a common form of transport in many cities -- cause problems such as congestion, pollution, and traffic accidents.
Smart mobility solutions could solve many urban transportation problems. Smart mobility describes a host of technology-enabled transportation and urban-living fixes that aim to increase safety and efficiency, improve citizens’ quality of life, reduce congestion and pollution, reduce costs, and make positive environmental impacts.
Smart mobility has become a hot topic among city planners, engineers and data scientists. Large in scope, smart mobility solutions require collaboration among urban governments, the public, and mobility and technology experts. This article explores several trends important to developing smart mobility solutions.
Big Data in Smart Mobility
Smart mobility is about using technology to solve urban mobility problems, but cities already use a lot of tech in their day-to-day functions. The technologies cities rely on produce a huge amount of data -- what to do with this data and how to use it ethically and efficiently has become a central question in smart mobility development.
The mass amounts of data circulating in cities are produced both by things (e.g. the Internet of Things, or IoT) and by people (e.g. social media data, consumer reviews, text conversations). This data has many potential applications in smart mobility. For instance, the data produced by smart cars and roads can be used to reduce congestion via a predictive analysis of traffic patterns and road usage. Data can also be utilized to help cities reduce their carbon footprint. Data produced by renewable energy sources, energy storage technologies, and microgrids can give cities a precise understanding of how much carbon they’re producing and which households or companies are the largest polluters.
To that end, data can also be used to help urban citizens understand their role in creating greener, more energy-efficient cities. Data governance refers to how data can be collected and communicated for the benefit of citizen publics. Data literacy can help citizens in smart cities engage in data-driven decision making processes. For example, the CDC’s COVID-19 data tracker was created to help the public make more informed decisions about risk and exposure during the pandemic.
But there are also many obstacles to effectively utilizing all the data that smart cities produce. These challenges can be summed up by the three V’s of data production: volume, variety, and velocity. In other words, the sheer volume of data being produced in cities is difficult to capture and use, the variety of data being produced makes organizing and analyzing it difficult, and the rate at which data production is growing and technology is changing produces a data landscape in a constant state of flux.
There are statistical tools that can aggregate and analyze mass amounts of data, but smart mobility experts must continually adapt to the challenges that data present -- especially as urban technologies become more complex. Data privacy is also a major concern. Citizens are becoming increasingly aware of how easily the data they produce can be exploited. Notably, Facebook was recently sued for allowing Cambridge Analytica -- a British consulting firm -- to collect political data from users’ profiles. The Cambridge Analytica scandal illustrates the importance of considering data as a public utility, rather than as a product to be bought and sold.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Smart Mobility
Theories of artificial intelligence (AI) have captivated the public imagination since the 1950s, but it’s only relatively recently that AI has been utilized to solve real-world problems, including in smart mobility. One of the most obvious smart mobility applications for AI is autonomous vehicles. Companies like Tesla are currently using AI to create driverless cars capable of complex decision-making, though this technology is still emergent.
Possible benefits of autonomous vehicles include improved energy-saving functions, better safety features, fewer vehicular accidents and casualties, and less traffic congestion. These benefits depend on a future where autonomous vehicles are smarter, more efficient, and more prevalent than they are today. Currently, AI performs better than humans only in certain contexts. Self-driving cars require advanced AI technology, and any technological errors can have major consequences. Still, according to a study by the McKinsey & Company, 24% of consumers polled say that they are “highly interested” in autonomous driving, and though full autonomy may still be a ways off, many modern vehicles use AI to achieve some scale of autonomy, such as improved autopilot features.
Beyond autonomous vehicles, AI has many other applications in smart mobility. AI has been used to improve the efficiency of energy grids by predicting renewable energy generation and assessing risks like outages and leaks. AI has also been used in public transport to predict levels of customer traffic and optimize the performance of city transit systems, as well as in parking management to analyze available parking versus demand and reduce parking-related congestion.
AI, in combination with other smart mobility solutions, has the potential to reduce the public’s reliance on personal vehicles and thus solve some of the quality-of-life issues that are created by cars -- such as noise pollution and congestion. Copenhagen, Denmark is one example of a city using smart mobility and AI applications to improve citizens’ quality of life and offer transportation alternatives to personal vehicles. Copenhagan plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025 through a combination of intelligent public transit systems, electric car-sharing services, and improved city infrastructure for cycling and walking. Smart mobility engineers will be an integral part of reaching this goal.
Green Transportation in Smart Mobility
Transportation systems play a critical role in the robustness of cities, but they are also responsible for 64% of global oil consumption and 27% of global energy use generally. The future health of the world’s environment depends in part on making transportation greener, and smart mobility is developing a plan for how.
Though technology is at the center of smart mobility, some of the most promising green transportation solutions are relatively old-fashioned: walking and bicycling. Prior to the advent of cars, walking and biking were urbanites’ primary means of traveling short distances. However, cars fundamentally altered the layout of many cities. In America, the 1956 Federal Highway Bill provided funding for 41,000 miles of interstate highways, many of which cut through the centers of major metropolises. Now, many American cities are dominated by vehicular traffic, which makes urban roads unsafe for walkers and bikers.
Some cities are attempting to make their roads walking and biking friendly by investing in car-free spaces. Creating car-free spaces may involve replacing a vehicular street with a pedestrian street, or limiting parking options for personal vehicles in the city center, or prioritizing creating wide bike lanes over investing in highways. The ultimate goal of car-free spaces is to promote alternative -- and greener -- forms of transportation, like walking, biking, and taking public transit.
Though the concept of car-free spaces is simple, implementing these changes can be complicated in practice. Creating a safer city for bikers and walkers requires changes in city infrastructure, the cooperation of local governments and businesses, and the willingness of the public to forego the convenience of personal vehicles. The COVID-19 pandemic provided many cities with a picture of what is possible. During lockdown, many cities created more pedestrian malls to accommodate outdoor dining and shopping, and more people started working from home -- a trend that contributed to a record drop in global carbon emissions. These shifts may have been inspired by a crisis, but they could have a lasting impact on how cites think about mobility.
Renewable energy sources -- such as electric and solar power -- are also essential to green transportation solutions. Electric-powered cars are becoming increasingly common, and many cities are incorporating electric into their public transportation systems. For example, Jakarta, Indonesia aims to have a zero-emission bus rapid transit (BRT) fleet by 2030 through investments in electric-powered buses.
Ultimately, smart mobility solutions are about more than the technologies that enable urban change. Smart mobility is fundamentally concerned with the systems and connections that make up modern cities and how to make those systems and connections more gratifying, efficient, and sustainable. Leaders in smart mobility must move beyond simple technological interventions and towards reimaging what cities are and, most importantly, what they can become.
Purdue University’s award-winning 100% online Masters of Science in Civil Engineering program now has a smart mobility track designed for promising engineering professionals who want to develop advanced knowledge in emerging transportation technologies. Learn more at the program’s website.