New Solutions to Shape the Future of Urban Mobility

If we imagine the next revolution of urban space, we probably wouldn’t see flying cars or high-speed lanes, but the full merger of information technology and personal transport. A new generation of vehicles, including driverless and electric ones, will put an end to the apartheid that currently separates cars and pedestrians and bicyclists for comfort, health or safety reasons.

The result will be an elastic urban space that can expand and contract to accommodate peak traffic hours or allow a park or a plaza to invade the car lanes to fit the demands and desires of its citizens.

Today, the real barrier to autonomous driving is infrastructural more than technological. Smarter infrastructure would be necessary to enable smarter vehicles: the modern highway allowed the proliferation of the current car, yet roads are constantly being resurfaced every 15 years, nearly double the average of buildings. The revolution in information technology should be used as an opportunity to upgrade rather than “same-grade” urban street infrastructure.  

A continuing trend towards urbanization, coupled with strong population growth, suggests that by 2050 two-thirds of the world’s population will be based in urban areas, according to United Nations’ data. And 90% of the urban growth is predicted to happen in the developing world. China and India, for example, are expected to have about 1 billion people living in cities by 2050.

With 64% of all travel made within urban environments, cities around the world will face an increasing need to secure, accessible, safe and environmentally-friendly urban mobility: forecasts by the U.N. suggest an increase in demand of 2.6 times the current level of mobility by 2050.

Modern-day megacities like Mumbai, Beijing and Mexico City offer a glimpse of the complexity of living, working and moving in cities that are likely to become more and more widespread.

Future mobility projects will then have to solve a host of complex issues, including congestion, pollution, access and gridlock. 

In a recent report, experts at McKinsey&Company have identified some macro trends, which are expected to have the biggest impact in the future development of integrated mobility solutions in urban areas.

Shared mobility – which includes mobility services such as Uber and Lyft – has already played a key role in the shifting urban mobility language and will continue to do so, competing with public transportation as well as private vehicle ownership. Investments in ride-hailing companies have taken off, more than doubling to $11.3 billion in 2015 from $5.3 billion in 2014.

Autonomous driving promises to improve road safety, reduce the cost of transportation and expand the access to mobility, with more and more companies attracted by the appeal of self-driving vehicles. A widespread adoption of this technology has the potential to increase trips, while competing with public transit. Autonomous driving should also turn driving time into working or free time.

Connectivity and the Internet of Things’ applications into vehicles and infrastructure will generate data with a variety of uses. For city dwellers, software systems can facilitate trip planning and guide autonomous vehicles based on real-time conditions. Transit authorities could use the same data to analyze the movement of people and vehicles, identifying bottlenecks and adjusting services based on long-term transit plans.

Vehicle electrification is another booming trend noted by experts. Sales of electric vehicles exploded between 2011 and 2015, ballooning to 450,000 from 50,000 over the four-year period.

This surge has been supported by subsidies, falling battery costs, fuel-economy regulations and product improvements. With battery costs expected to drop even further, electric vehicles could soon achieve cost competitiveness with conventional vehicles.

McKinsey forecasts that 40 percent of vehicles in developing, dense cities -- such as Mumbai, Delhi and Istanbul – will be electric by 2030.

“Not only electric cars, but also electric taxis and buses could offer local administrators a solution to improve public transportation,” said Cesare Pozzi, professor of Industrial Economy at Rome’s LUISS University and transport expert.

“Electric buses, which are easy to recharge, could also be a way to cover short and medium distances between Italian cities. That would mean rethinking all the investments that have been made on high-speed trains and railways,” Pozzi added.

Pozzi also stressed that planning new infrastructures in Italy, including new or expanded bypasses essential for big cities like Rome and Milan, will have to be based on a vast analysis of data explaining who exactly are the users.

“We need to know who are the people using this infrastructure, where they come from and where they are going, their age, social condition and working model,” Pozzi said. “Only that way, we’ll be able to create infrastructure that will last for a few years after being built. Infrastructure must be the result of a strategic bet.”

Amid a heated debate over the social and environmental costs of expanding urban highways, in Denver, Colorado, a $1.2 billion cut-and-cover project promises to transform city neighborhoods that the highway once isolated. The massive construction project, which includes the expansion of a 10-mile stretch of Interstate 70 through Denver, will begin in the spring of 2018. It will see the demolition of a 53-year-old bridge, as well as the re-routing of two miles of the interstate 30 feet underground. A four-acre park will be built over the top of the interstate and will include open space, playground equipment, a splash pad and sledding hills. The project also includes a new toll lane aimed at easing congestion.

Highway caps are enjoying a surge of interest in the United States and around the globe, as reconnecting neighborhoods divided by infrastructure has become a top priority. Klyde Warren Park, in downtown Dallas, Texas, has inspired the Denver project. Opened in 2012, the park knits a five-acre green patch over an eight-lane sunken highway, attaching surface streets previously snapped apart. Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta are all floating similar proposals.

In Italy, the Tuscan city of Pisa has launched in March the PisaMover, a new and totally automated shuttle system able to connect the city airport and the main train station in about five minutes. The project also includes a mid-way station, with a commuter car park for 1,400 cars, which should encourage visitors to park outside the city.

The two trains are cable driven, electrically powered, have no onboard driver, and are controlled by a central control room. They are expected to serve about two million passengers each year, with the figure expected to increase to roughly 2.6 million from 2020 on.

In Brazil, 9 of the 12 cities selected to host the FIFA World Cup in 2014 chose to introduce or further develop Bus Rapid Transit Systems (BRTs). Originally designed, tested and operated in the Brazilian city of Curitiba, BRT systems became a key ingredient of Brazil’s urban transport mix and have been exported as a model to many other cities around the world.

They combine exclusive and segregated bus ways and traffic signal management that can help minimize delays by holding green signals for BRT buses approaching an intersection.

According to experts, the decentralization of energy systems could also accelerate the uptake in electric vehicles by making electricity cheaper, cleaner and more reliable. In some areas, it is already less expensive to power a vehicle with electricity rather than traditional fuel. Decentralization could also reduce demand on urban power grids, lowering electricity prices at peak times and freeing up more capacity for vehicle charging, McKinsey analysts noted.

“We need to start thinking about the future urban highways and bypasses as infrastructures that will host a mix of public and private transportation, autonomous and electric vehicles,” said Federico Parolotto, senior partner at transport-planning firm Mobility in Chain (MIC). “Infrastructure operators will have to rethink themselves as providers of a whole new kind of services,” he added.

Moving from current transit infrastructure to what comes next involves solving a wide array of technological, regulatory and design challenges that require the input and collaboration of stakeholders from across public and private sectors.

In this perspective, the important role played by providers of both physical and technological infrastructure will persist. Transit stations, roads, highways, waterways, and public parking will become even more interconnected as citizens increasingly expect multimodal transportation.