It might have seemed incongruous for the Future Mobility panel at Smart City InFocus last week to begin with a clip from 80s British comedy Yes Minister, featuring politicians endlessly debating the best mode of transport to prioritize in the transport strategy.
However, while many things are in flux, including social attitudes, technology and population growth, the core debates around cost-efficiency, longevity and political popularity remain constant.
Panelist Ted Ross, CIO, City of Los Angeles, said, “In many ways the issues are the same. There are many types of transportation, so which one is right?”.
However, there are key differences which are making things “exponentially more complicated now” and the major one is digitalization, which is disrupting every industry, not least transportation.
Geoff Snelson, Director of Strategy & Futures of Milton Keynes Council in the UK, agreed that he recognized many of the arguments around engineering, design and different modes of transport. However, he said the agenda is increasingly moving from “creating a system and expecting people to [use it]” towards demand-based and responsive systems, which are often data-driven, where the city provides the best conditions for people to get to where they want to go.
This, though, raises new questions about roles and responsibilities. Who provides and orchestrates the platforms for those systems? What’s the role of private companies in this? And how do we regulate it? Cities are still working on these issues.
Dr. Ryan Falconer, Director, Transportation Consulting, Arup, said that when it comes to transport, “Everyone is an expert and we spend too much time talking about the means as opposed to the end.”
In his experience, he said, there are typically “four universal truths” about transport: Exceedingly high user expectations; congestion; governance and its complexity; and inequity.”
He noted, however, that not all traffic is bad, commenting, “In some ways, congestion can be a sign of economic activity and a city being successful. We need to find the proper metrics.”
For Ron Zimmer, President & CEO, CABA, the “real debate” to be had now is preparing for the future in the wake of autonomous vehicles. He said, “This will disrupt municipalities in a number of ways with regard to land use and planning, for example.”
Managing transportation is politically tricky. As Ross put it, “The reality is, if people feel it, politicians hears about it.”
Acting on this isn’t always so simple, though. Snelson explained, “One challenge is finding ways of making investment in alternative modes of transport at a time when taxation of motor vehicles and raising parking revenues is very difficult as that is all wrapped up in a car-based system.”
He added, “It does come down to the politics again — there’s enough value in the mobility market to create some exciting opportunities but the way of realizing that value will often mean constraining car use …those are often the painful discussions.”
The City of Los Angeles is looking at interesting ways to change ingrained behavior. It is known for being a ‘driving city’. Gas is relatively cheap, parking is ample and there are very few toll roads so there are few incentives to not drive. The City recently launched the Go LA app with Xerox. The app provides methods of getting from A to B with a choice of going faster, greener or cheaper.
Ross said, “It starts to impart the idea that there are many ways to get from A to B. Just because you have a car doesn’t mean you have to drive.”
Planning for the unknown
We are seeing many concurrent shifts: For the younger generation, car ownership has nowhere near the appeal it once had, although we are not seeing the full effects of that yet. Technology is moving fast and exponentially. Forecasts vary and we don’t know exactly what impact autonomous vehicles will have and therefore the knock-on impact on infrastructure. How do you plan around all that?
Ross said, “I feel like I am the CEO of a company in the face of massive disruption. We are preparing for a future that is very much unknown.”
LA’s approach? “Putting everything on the table and going with it.” That means improving public transport, building dense housing and the right types of amenities along public transportation lines, as well as investing in public transport and autonomous vehicles.
Falconer’s advice for dealing with this uncertainty is to use pilot tests but warned they’re “only useful if you are collecting the data” to assess how well solutions are working.
He commented: “Inevitably cities are going to get things wrong.” ‘Wrong’ could mean, for example, being left behind on a particular trend or technology and having to react to it.
“It’s going to happen, though,” he said, but urged cities to focus on identifying challenges and looking for solutions, and to avoid “knee-jerk reactions”.
The big picture
TM Forum’s Carl Piva, who chaired the Smart City InFocus event and moderated the panel, summed up, noting that smart transport is connected to every other aspect of a smart city and cannot be looked at in isolation.
For example, Milton Keynes is looking at how neighborhoods might be designed to be more healthy and better support walking and cycling.
Snelson said, “We are thinking about all aspects of the city’s design and operation. Mobility is a good way of thinking about all this in a very creative way.”
Ross sees a growing link between transportation and public safety – for example, in the case of an emergency using smart transport to reduce dispatch times for emergency vehicles or to manage traffic in the city better during an emergency scenario such as an earthquake.
TM Forum takeaway
Carl Piva, Head of the Smart City Forum, TM Forum, comments, “Being appointed a transport supremo wasn’t the dream job Jim Hacker envisaged in this Yes Minister episode. In a way this was a pre-cursor to mobility as a service – but based on yesterday’s technology. Today, we have a more diverse set of technology options at our disposal.”