Urban Mobility: Going Digital and Human-Centric
People highly value and appreciate the freedom of mobility. No wonder that our cars – the central means of individual mobility – have become our most important status symbol and that the costs associated with them are one of the biggest expense items in our personal budgets. However, it does seem that we are at the beginning of a major change that will redefine our vehicular mobility, especially in cities. There are many reasons for this. For one, the value of individual mobility and the value of using privately owned cars is decreasing. Secondly, advances in technology now allow for better alternatives. Additionally, millennials consider smart phones to be more of a status symbol than cars. This all points to the fact that our mobility will begin in the digital world and that physical infrastructure will be second to that.
Privately owned cars no longer fit into urban environments
The problem with private cars in an urban environment is that they are an extremely inefficient means of transportation. Privately owned cars are, on average, used 5% of the time and on average there are 1.2 people in the car. This means that in an urban environment where we have a high population density, non-utilization becomes extremely awkward. There are not enough parking spaces, roads are always too narrow, the cost of parking is rising and traffic jams can be unbearable. In most cities the road infrastructure is running at capacity and in a future where two trends are population growth and urbanization, it’s not clear how much longer it can continue. There’s simply no way to build significantly more parking spaces and more roads. Consequently, privately owned cars in cities can’t give us the individual freedom of mobility that we hoped for. With average speeds in the big cities below 10 mph, and 30% of the driving time associated with searching for parking spaces, the value that we get is far from ideal.
The other key issue is the environment. When we use privately owned cars, we mostly use cars with fossil fuel engines, which cause pollution. It’s estimated that about 10 times more people die prematurely because of air pollution then they do in car accidents. And road transportation play a major role in creating that pollution. Traffic-related air pollution is found in higher concentrations near major roads. People who live, work or attend schools near major roads appear to have an increased number and severity of health problems associated with air pollution, including higher rates of asthma, cardiovascular diseases, impaired lung development in children, pre-term and low-birthweight infants, childhood leukemia, and premature death. This means that the worst situation is in cities, even though it is precisely in urban and suburban environments that the typical traveling distances do not require fossil-fuel engines. Most of our trips are less than 30 miles away. However, because we use privately owned cars, which are intended for longer trips, we still largely choose cars that pollute the environment, even though today’s technology allows for comfortable driving at zero emissions for such distances. While privately owned cars provide us with a lot of flexibility in terms of door to door mobility, it also locks us into a single vehicle to be used for all trips, which is paradoxically inappropriate for most of the trips we’re actually taking. Around 90% of the trips that we take would be appropriate for zero-emission cars that use battery power instead of fossil fuels.
Is there a reasonable alternative to privately owned cars in cities?
Public transportation is certainly much more efficient in terms of space, the environment and financially as well. However, even in cities with the best public transportation, it’s still difficult to match the flexibility and comfort that we can get with privately owned cars. While public transportation works great as a backbone for urban mobility systems, it leaves a gap for the proper solution of the first and last miles.
Another key advantage of the privately owned car is that we get the mobility exactly when we need it. We achieve this via a huge non-utilization of our cars. In essence our car plays a dual role: for 1 hour per day we use it for transportation and for the other 23 hours per day it serves as a mobility guarantee. While the second part is obviously critically important to us, it does not really require a vehicle. A mobility guarantee is basically an information problem and we can solve it without the vehicle standing still and unused. Today digital information technology allows us to get information about available mobility at a fraction of the cost. Even during peak rush hour, most of the vehicles are not used. It’s estimated that around 35% of cars would need to be used to cover all mobility demand, while on average 10% of vehicles would be more than sufficient. This allows for the significant optimization of our vehicle infrastructure. Instead of wasting resources we can use a digital platform as a guarantee that we get the mobility that we need exactly when we need it and in the places where we need it.
Can our mobility benefit from digital technology?
Digital technology works best when a product is offered in the form of a service. With cars this can be achieved in several ways. On an infrastructure level, we can use the car as a service by using one of the concepts of car-sharing. This can be offered by a fleet management operator or via a peer-to-peer method. Alternatively, we can use a service where somebody gives us a ride with a car. Again, there are many different ways in which this can be achieved.
The beauty of using mobility in the form of a service is that we can combine different transportation services in an integrated fashion. This means that we can make part of a trip with one service and then we are fully able to continue with another, different one. This can depend on many different factors (such as weather, for example), and can also be changed during the trip according to real-time traffic information. For example, we could switch from car-sharing to a subway in case of road congestion.
Embracing digital technology brings significant changes in terms of space, environment and cost
Comtrade conducted a study this year that examines how a city could change in terms of mobility in case all citizens embraced digital technology, as a way to optimize the urban mobility system. The study was done with the example of the city of Ljubljana, which is a city that has fully embraced sustainability as one of its main strategic priorities: the city received the prestigious title of European Green Capital 2016. On the other hand, privately owned cars still constitute the main transportation means in the city. The study demonstrated what a significant change in terms of space, environment and cost could be achieved if all citizens would migrate to a digital platform in order to solve their mobility needs in a smarter way than today.
The study was published on Comtrade’s website. You can read it here.
The digitalization other industries has shown that success comes via a delightful user experience. This is clearly a critical aspect behind the transformation from a system of privately owned cars towards an integrated mobility concept.
Examples and numbers in Ljubljana – before and after the use of »Mobility as a Srvice«