Intelligence in motion

If there’s one emblem of smart mobility, it’s probably this: a futuristic vision of a city filled with self-driving cars. While it’s an interesting picture, there’s much more to smart mobility than that. Here’s why it’s mission-critical to create a holistic smart mobility ecosystem in our urban spaces.

Navigating a densely populated urban environment is no easy affair, and these days, it often involves multiple modes of transportation. Most of our cities are relatively well-equipped with various options to get around; from subways, commuter trains, streetcars and buses, to personal vehicles and rideshare apps, to active transportation like e-bikes, there is an abundance of options to choose from.

But quite often, the separate elements of these multi-modal transportation systems are partially or completely siloed from each other, leaving the onus to the user to plan travel and connect the different systems they will use.

The next step in the technological evolution is Smart Mobility. Smart Mobility doesn’t have one single definition; rather, it encompasses several leading-edge trends in the mobility space to move people and goods with smarter technology, data and analytics in a manner that balances safety, efficiency, comfort, sustainability, ability, inclusion, equity and cost-effectiveness. Smart Mobility encompasses the Mobility as a Service (MaaS) and Mobility on Demand (MOD) conversations, along with other services for those with a personal vehicle, such as electric vehicle charging, tolling, parking, congestion pricing,

Smart Mobility can also mean closing the gaps in our different transportation systems, connecting them automatically using a centralized Smart Mobility Platform. Imagine using a single app to set up your trip, which could automatically arrange an Uber ride to the train station. With a Smart Mobility Platform, that much and more would be possible, seamlessly integrating public and private transportation providers with a single point of contact for the end-user.

The invisible threads

Most of us don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about our transit systems — except, of course, when something happens to go wrong. But mobility systems are the invisible threads connecting every aspect of our lives; we always need to get somewhere.

There are a lot of investment dollars focused on making us smarter when it comes to movement, as congestion becomes an increasing challenge in major urban centres. If we can make our transit systems more efficient, and use shared mobility and personal mobility in an integrated way (balancing different needs for different trips), we can improve safety and efficiency across different transportation networks.

Connecting the threads is the ultimate goal when it comes to improving efficiency. Consider, for example, a courier package moving from Wawa in Northern Ontario to Toronto, and a group making a car trip along the same route. If we could use smart technology to pair those two trips together and provide cost-savings for the people taking the trip, you’re creating a more efficient network.

If we can make our transit systems more efficient, and use shared mobility and personal mobility in an integrated way, we can improve safety and efficiency across different transportation networks.

A day in the life

The applications of smart mobility are numerous, and they can have multiple uses for even individuals who travel the same route every day.

As another example, take a commuter in the suburbs trying to get to work in a big city. Any given day, they probably have many options at hand: they could take public transit, a bus, or a light rail system, they could take regional rail, drive their own vehicle, or used transportation network company for shared mobility. But as we know, people are usually creatures of habit and take the same transportation mode most of the time.

In major urban centres, many people subscribe to news alerts to find out if there is disruption on their typical mode or route, and this might shift them into a different mode of transportation if there is a traffic collision, say, or a regional rail signal disruption that shuts down a line. People do think about alternative modes, but they are unlikely to explore them without an acute motivator.

But what if every day, their mode of transportation was optimized based on a number of factors – perhaps weather, reliability, the price of the trip, their exercise needs and other considerations?

Perhaps on a beautiful spring day, their smart mobility interface recommends an e-bike for a portion of their trip, or a longer walk, because they have said in their setup that they want to integrate more active transportation or more exercise into their day. Or perhaps on a winter day when there’s a forecasted blizzard, a shared mobility trip is planned in the morning, and they revert to rail for the trip home.

The future of smart mobility will rely on data and analytics determining the optimal way to travel based on changing daily conditions, preferences, abilities and needs.

Data governance

To deliver on the promises of Smart Mobility, we will need to establish strong data governance systems, build relationships and buy-in with the many public and private stakeholders, and create the groundwork for a smarter way to travel.

Merging and integrating smart mobility platforms, having ongoing conversations between public and private sectors, and facilitating crucial conversations around data governance will be key steps in the process. It’s important to ensure that the collected data is the same type so you can have an apples-to-apples comparison, and determine what regulations and processes need to be in place to allow data sharing while minimizing privacy risks and concerns. We must also balance new legislation or policies, and keep a critical eye on the data metrics that need to be captured so we can see if they’re efficient. And at the end of the day, much of this must be driven by the public sector.

The public sector can influence a great deal through policy and pricing – it can nudge behaviours and effectively drive people to different modes of transportation. The public sector can also provide much of the funding that will be required at different levels of government.

Smart mobility is a long-term vision, and it will take time and an iterative approach. But beginning work now on strong, consistent data governance practices will significantly streamline the process.

Sustainable transit systems

As with any system that underpins so many aspects of our lives, it’s important to consider future trends and scenarios as we plan for smart mobility systems. For transport systems to be sustainable, they must consistently enable meaningful mobility choices for a diversity of users. Transport options should be accessible, inclusive, fairly priced, convenient and easy to use. System components—infrastructure, vehicles and technology—should, of course, be designed to have the lowest possible environmental impact.

This may sound like a tall order, but if we look around the world, there are many examples where sustainable transport systems already exist. Consider how in Copenhagen it is often faster and easier to hop on a bike to go somewhere than it is to navigate streets by car, or how in Singapore the public transport system can move people from one area to another at a relatively low cost. The integration of land use and transportation decision-making is certainly a big reason behind the success of these systems. However, many of our cities have not been built on this foundation.

Planners can take this time of uncertainty to test out new ways to provide sustainable transport options and identify the approaches that will best serve the needs of all travellers in the future. For example, seasonal changes in some cities, both intense winter cold and summer heat, may pose challenges for those travellers relying on active transport year-round. If we want to turn the current increase in active transport usage into sustained change, we will need to consider how to continue to make active transport and micromobility options workable under these conditions. This requires thinking about the design of the actual infrastructure, the design of the surrounding environment, the planning of amenities — including rest stops, lighting, and bike-fixing stations — and the way we operate and maintain our infrastructure, such as winter snow removal.

As communities begin to transform with evolving work patterns and shifts in where people choose to live, planners need to consider how to address more dispersed transportation needs in lower-density areas. Smart mobility systems, emerging technologies and automation can go far to help meet these evolving needs.


More stories: