We live in a world where traffic congestion not only contributes to lost time, accidents, and pollution, but cities lose billions of dollars as well. The World Economic Forum estimates that the average person living in Colombia or Brazil loses 191 hours, or nearly 24 8-hour workdays, to traffic; furthermore, Forbes states that New York lost $11 billion to traffic congestion just last year. Building new roads to accommodate the population growth adds capacity, but also more cars. This is counterintuitive to solving the problem.
Mass transit is the most effective way to move large numbers of people. City planners are partnering with mobile technology companies to utilize and augment current city infrastructures to solve human transportation needs. Micromobility refers to short-distance transport using lightweight vehicles, such as bicycles, E-bikes, and scooters, to name a few. Microtransit data is being used to understand where transit deserts exist and how to provide transit equity in lower-income neighborhoods.
Through these data points, municipalities can adjust and rebalance overburdened transit zones, improve existing infrastructure, improve accessibility to transit hubs, and relieve congestion. In addition, with the expansion of technological infrastructure (i.e., cell service/broadband technologies), this data will allow for greater multimodal access. This infrastructure incorporates the first mile and the last mile micromobility solutions that help people get to and from their homes and mass transit systems.
Mobike, a dockless bike-sharing system in China, is used to fill the transit gap to public transportation while helping societies reduce reliance on private cars. If we can successfully meet the needs for mass transit and get more people to leave their cars at home, we can focus on making cities more livable with bike and walking paths, micromobility access, and converting unused land to greenspaces, which are normally taken up by parking lots, garages, and roads. We not only gain a more connected transit system, but we also reduce our carbon footprint and create a more sustainable environment for the future.
We are on the cusp of figuring out how we will travel through cities in the future. There have been exciting developments with autonomous and electric vehicles lately, bringing radical changes to how we will get around. The question is, how will this be achieved? Will it be on the solar-powered Hyperloop developed by Elon Musk or will we look to the skies and utilize UberAir flying taxis? Both technologies will free up on-ground congestion providing a much faster way to travel and cover greater distances. Although these innovations are closer to reality than you may think, they will be an expensive way to travel when first launched. The focus for the immediate mass transit needs will have to be affordable and easily accessed.
The new mobility services being introduced and utilized have a flexible component allowing for adjustments to be made to accommodate a myriad of situations. For example, in August of 2019, Neuron EV, a California based company, introduced the Neuron Electric Bus. The bus is completely modular, allowing it to take on different forms, it is compatible with high-speed railways and can convert into a metro train. Powering buses by using electricity is not a new idea, but only recently has the technology matured to the point where it could be implemented and mass-produced. With this type of technology, the adoption of zero-emission vehicles by 2030 is becoming a reality.
In January 2018, with a driver on board, Norway began testing autonomous minibusses in actual traffic situations and in a variety of environments to ensure road readiness. To date, they have three driverless bus routes in operation on relatively quiet routes to apply real-time data before rolling out into heavier traffic patterns. This type of technology will allow public transport to move to an on-demand model, making fixed schedules and routes obsolete. The technology will also allow for a more efficient travel route and eventually take passengers door to door.
To address smaller transit needs, Dubai, which has become a global technology and innovation hub, has been running trials, since 2018, on NEXT “smart pods” which offer self-driving technology at low speeds to get passengers familiar with the concept. These pods can be connected to form a chain, minimizing congestion, traffic accidents, and reduce the city’s carbon footprint. Dubai has set a target to have 25% of journeys in the city take place with driverless transports by 2030.
A mid-sized model, the Olli bus, first shuttled passengers in Washington in 2016. Olli now operates in cities around the world providing an 8-passenger wheelchair-accessible model to accommodate the needs of the elderly and mobility-limited passengers. In addition to the physical advancements of electric and autonomous vehicles, technologies are being introduced to quickly charge these vehicles: Vehicle to Grid (V2G), wireless EV charging, mobile charging, ultra-fast charging sites, and new battery technology. These concepts, once seeming so far into the future are now being implemented and refined in an ongoing effort to solve the mass transit needs of the present and future.
Although there are many challenges and intricacies we have yet to learn, it is important to keep in mind that the technology is relatively new and is gaining traction and, therefore, ever-changing. Soon enough, Autonomous vehicles, micromobility, technology-influenced infrastructure, and environmentally friendly, efficient mass transit will be as ubiquitous as a smartphone.