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The technology that’s transforming urban transportation

 

It’s no secret that the world’s population is becoming increasingly urban. By 2045, estimates put 6 billion people living in urban centers.

Dealing with all those people will be no small task for urban centers. As John Wilmoth, Director of UN DESA’s Population Division puts it, “Managing urban areas has become one of the most important development challenges of the 21st century.”

One of the key challenges facing cities with urban growth is deceptively complex: how to manage the movement of human bodies. Just getting from point A to point B will become increasingly difficult as urban populations swell, clogging roadways and stressing public transportation.

The solution could lie in emerging technology, much of which is already being integrated into cities around the country and globe. It’s part of what makes a city smart, but what exactly is this technology that promises to keep us happily moving about, even when populations boom?

Connected public transportation

Many cities now have mobile apps where riders can check bus schedules, pay fares and even view bus and train locations in real time.

But making a public bus smart means more than just plugging it into the Internet. The data that can be collected from smart public transportation holds the potential to ease congestion, improve environmental impact and add tangible value for riders.

Transportation managers can use data that looks at when and where people actually get on and off buses to optimize routes. Sensors inside the bus can alert maintenance workers to potential problems before a costly roadside breakdown occurs. In the case of school buses, it’s a safety issue for children, and smart buses are already helping to prevent potential disasters.

The ability to see whether your bus is running late is a clear and immediate benefit to the public, but it requires investment in sophisticated GPS tracking systems and software that can manage the complex data required to track multiple assets, like those of a city’s public transportation fleet, in real time.

Some of the technology is there now, but it’s about to get even better. Raw data is great, but making sense of it requires enormous time and energy. Artificial intelligence promises to take connected public transportation to the next level, making data analysis an easy, routine task. AI can also enable smart transportation to share data among assets. If a bus encounters a pothole, it can automatically alert other vehicles in the fleet to avoid the area, as well as notify transportation managers that a repair is needed.

The benefits for cities to move towards smart public transportation is clear, but it will require smart investment in technologies that will have the biggest impact.

Pedal power

Bikes are fun, and they will also be critical to easing congestion in the urban centers of tomorrow.

As Skip Dessant writes for Govtech.com, “The more forward-thinking — and in many cases smart — cities today are those that consider cyclists as crucial players in their mobility landscape and are welcoming toward developing bicycle infrastructure, say researchers.”

Encouraging cycling eases traffic congestion, particularly in crowded downtown areas where parking is a major problem. Denver instituted a bike-sharing program through B-Cycle in 2010, which last year had over 60,000 members using the shared bikes at docking stations throughout the city. B-Cycle estimates that 41% of those bike rides replaced what would have been car trips.

And now there are companies in Aurora, Colo. utilizing dockless bike sharing. GPS enabled, connected bikes could eliminate the potential problem of arriving at a dock only to find it’s full, or being unable to find a dock near your destination. While still in their infancy, companies that are integrating Internet of Things (IoT) technology into cycling solutions will aim to help encourage citizens to bike more often, not only easing congestion but improving air quality and fitness levels in the process.

Smart sensors can also help to pinpoint where more bike lanes and better protection will encourage safer bike usage, as well as more efficient integration with existing metro transportation.

Autonomous vehicles

You were hoping teleportation would be next on the list, weren’t you? Unfortunately, we still haven’t cracked how to build a wormhole, although surely someone is working on it.

Beyond connected vehicles, autonomous vehicles (AVs) promise to transform urban roadways in dramatic ways. By 2050, AVs are expected to be part of a $7 trillion market.

Unfortunately, no matter how accessible cities make public transportation, or improve safety conditions on roads, human error increases the risk of transportation. With rising population, this challenge only increases. AVs will not only make it easier to enjoy a night out on the town, but are estimated to save up to 500,000 lives a year.

Today, if you find yourself needing to quickly change lanes and make a turn at the last second, the best you can do is turn on your blinker and hope for some good Samaritans let you through. More realistically, it’s a symphony of honks and curse words.

AVs will talk to each other seamlessly. If a turn needs to be made, your vehicle will alert those around it, and the needed maneuver will be made in concert with traffic. The car probably won’t even need to slow down to change lanes.

AVs also reduce the need for parking and make curbside delivery for food, medical supplies or other items a breeze.

Bringing the future closer

While emerging technology is already being integrated in some urban areas, adoption needs to be accelerated to meet the coming demands of urban growth.

Programs like the Transportation for America (T4America) Smart Cities Collaborative are helping to accelerate innovation in this space. The Denver South Economic Development Partnership (DSEPD) was selected to participate in this collobartive, which means the south Denver corridor will soon be seeing it’s share of innovative approaches to transportation.

“Whether electric scooters, new bikesharing systems, curbside delivery, or ridesourcing services, the pace of innovation is accelerating,” said Russ Brooks, T4America’s Director of Smart Cities.

We’ve already seen tangible effects of integrating this technology into a smart-city blueprint, but cities can’t let up anytime soon. Bringing tomorrow’s technology to today’s urban populations promises to bring immediate benefits and long-term solutions for a complex problem.

 

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