Intelligent transportation systems: ending the gridlock


For cities to remain the engines of economic growth, there has to be a technological revolution in the way their transport works.

This story first appeared in the Guardian.

In Hamburg, UPS has worked with the city to deploy electrically assisted tricycles, removing trucks from the downtown area altogether, while still offering an efficient and reliable service.

Two years ago, Bill Ford, chairman of Ford Motors, warned of "global gridlock" unless we developed a better connected, more intelligent transportation system for our cities. Based on closer collaboration between carmakers, and greater use of technology, the system needed, he said, to link pedestrians, bicycles, cars and commercial and public transport as part of one interconnected system. "If we do nothing," Ford said, "the sheer number of people and cars in urban areas will mean global gridlock."

This state of affairs is not an option for our cities. They are the economic engines of most industrialized 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 transportation in London when the city's congestion charge was introduced in 2003.

Peter Harris, director of sustainability for UPS Europe, 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.

Fausset says that the key is to make the system as user-friendly as possible: "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."

Technology innovations

Increasingly, mobile phone technology has a role to play in good public transportation, 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 transportation.

Fausset also maintains that "cars have lost their luster" among young people in some countries, not just because of the expense involved in running a car, but also because using public transportation means 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 traveling 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 dropoff points at stations, for instance, where people who aren't at home to take delivery of their packages can pick them up 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 pickup.

Data is increasingly being used to optimize 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 bicycle.

In Hamburg, says Harris, UPS has worked with the city to deploy electrically assisted tricycles, removing trucks from the downtown area altogether, while still offering an efficient and reliable service.

Tomorrow's promise

So what does the future hold for transportation 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 U.K.'s technology and innovation center for intelligent mobility. But for technology to have an impact, it's important that new ideas are tested rather than simply pushed through, he says, and that means more collaboration between business and regulators.

Several companies are testing 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 increased investment.

Everett says the technology is also there for "green-laning" – intelligent traffic lights that recognize 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."

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. Flextime, remote working or simply shifting start and finish times by half an hour could help to flatten out rush-hour spikes. 

"You could improve productivity, too, because people are more relaxed when they get to work – and the deliveries are on time," he adds.

By Mark Hillsdon

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Eric Hutchins
(1) Move all personal travel to mass transit built just above streets; (2) designate all streets as "for commercial traffic only"; and (3) make all personal deliveries to customer-designated "drop-off points" (strategically-placed UPS stores, etc.)
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