For cities to remain the engines of economic growth, there has to be a technological revolution in the way their transport works.
Two years ago, Bill Ford, chairman of Ford Motors, warned of “global gridlock” unless we developed a better connected, more intelligent transport system for our cities.
“There is no off-the-shelf remedy to “global gridlock.” ”
This state of affairs is not an option for our cities. They are the economic engines of most industrialised nations, and the ability to move goods and people around them freely and quickly is essential to sustained growth.
Of course cities are all profoundly different, says Rupert Fausset, principal sustainability adviser at Forum for the Future. “European cities are very dense and old, but with lots of resources,” he says. “Cities in the developing world are growing enormously, but they don’t necessarily have the same resources … (and) American cities are at a completely different level of density (with) much heavier car use.”
This means there is no off-the-shelf remedy to “global gridlock” either. Instead, a mixture of solutions is needed that enhances mobility and, at the same time, reduces congestion, accidents and pollution.
“If you introduce a car-restraint measure you have to put something else in place,” says Fausset, “some other way for people to get around.” An example of this was the expansion of public transport in London when the city’s congestion charge was introduced in 2003.
Peter Harris, director of sustainability for Europe, at global logistics provider UPS, agrees. “One of the most effective ways for a city to decrease congestion and pollution – and become safer, more livable and more attractive to those looking to move to the city – is a strong network of public transportation,” he says.
“Most people will try a new mode of transport, but if they have one or two failures that’s it, they’re back in the car again.”
Increasingly, mobile phone technology has a role to play in good public transport, with a proliferation of phone apps such as Citymapper providing commuters with real-time information about buses, and helping them plan a connected journey across a city based solely on public transport.
Fausset also believes that “cars have lost their lustre” among young people in some countries, not just because of the expense involved in running a car, but also because using public transport means that they can use their smartphones at the same time. Free Wi-Fi on buses also helps get bums on seats.
Car clubs and lift-sharing are being revolutionised by IT. You can now book lifts in advance, and know who you’ll be travelling with, while a smartphone can find and unlock a pool car in the same way as you would hire a city bike.
But while car use may be declining, there has been a steady increase in van traffic, with a proliferation of service providers, such as phone and internet companies, and a huge hike in the number of people shopping from home.
Companies such as Amazon, UPS and Argos are introducing drop-off points at stations, for instance, where people who aren’t at home to take delivery of their parcels can collect them on their way home from work, saving on wasted visits. Other retailers have introduced a system that delivers online orders to a local store for collection.
Data is increasingly being used to optimise route planning too, making trucks more efficient while they’re on the road. Consolidation centres are also being introduced to take bulk deliveries, so that the final leg of a package’s journey can be undertaken by more sustainable methods, such as electric vehicles or bike.
“In Hamburg UPS has deployed electrically assisted tricycles, removing trucks from the downtown area altogether ”
So what does the future hold for transport in our cities? “As cities are growing the desire for people to move around and have goods delivered is going to increase,” says Andrew Everett, chief strategy officer of Transport Systems Catapult, the UK’s technology and innovation centre for intelligent mobility. But for technology to have an impact, it’s important that new ideas are trialled and tested rather than simply pushed through, he says, and that means more collaboration between companies, business and regulators.
Several companies are trialling autonomous vehicles, which drive themselves. The argument is that they can be driven more efficiently and closer together without a human behind the wheel, especially on motorways. Similar automated controls could also be used to run London’s tube more frequently, helping to increase capacity without any increased investment.
The technology is also there for green-laning, says Everett – intelligent traffic lights that recognise where traffic is coming from, allowing cars to flow more freely and cutting down on unnecessary braking and restarting, which wastes energy.
In terms of logistics, says Harris: “Efficiency is the place to start. After that, for freight we need to keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible with pedestrian-friendly tricycles, and then maybe drones, to drive down the number of trucks further.”
But Everett sees an even simpler solution. “There are opportunities for businesses to help cut urban traffic by looking at the way [employees] work,” he says. Flexi-time, remote working or simply shifting start and finish times by half an hour could help to flatten out rush-hour spikes.
This article first appeared on December 1, 2014 on the Guardian.com and was republished with permission.