Feb 14, 2020 - Technology

Cities' transportation ideas remain too small to deliver clear results

Illustration of a tiny man looking at a huge tire with a flashlight

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Many cities are experimenting with innovative transportation ideas like scooters or autonomous shuttles, but their efforts are often too isolated or too small to deliver meaningful results, according to transportation experts.

Why it matters: Moving people and goods more efficiently is an urgent priority for many cities, which are grappling with issues like congestion, air pollution and accessibility while trying to raise money for necessary upgrades.

The big picture: About 4 billion people live in urban areas today, and by 2050, cities will be home to two-thirds of the world’s population.

What's needed: To adapt quickly to these changing demographics, cities should adopt a bird's-eye view of their mobility landscape — treating it as a system of systems — rather than continuing to experiment with small-scale pilots, according to a new report from the World Economic Forum and Deloitte.

  • With that approach, per the report, city leaders can adjust schedules, stops, vehicle types and routing to benefit citizens, while optimizing efficiency for the city as a whole.
  • By pulling back the lens, cities can also tap into the needs of neighboring municipalities, as well as area businesses, nonprofits and other institutions to orchestrate more public and private funding sources.
  • WEF calls it a seamless integrated mobility system, but admits implementing it will be hard.

Urban transportation, like politics, is local. What works in one city doesn't necessarily work in another.

  • But WEF studied 10 global cities and identified some common themes to help planners fast-track large-scale mobility systems.
  • The report isn't a prescription, but more like "a recipe book" that cities can consult to come up with their own smorgasbord of solutions, says Michelle Avary, WEF's head of automotive and autonomous mobility.
  • "Every city has to sit down and prioritize what is important to them. 80% might be similar, but that 20% matters a lot for each city. "

Some examples:

  • Singapore put a limit on the number of cars allowed on the road and made it prohibitively expensive to buy a new one. The result: 80% of residents use public transit.
  • Los Angeles created a new data-sharing format to collect and share information with mobility service companies, though it faces pressure to protect personal privacy.
  • London was among the first cities to launch digital ticketing and contactless payment systems, making free data available to app developers who in turn created transportation-related tools used by 40% of the population.

Yes, but: Most innovations in transportation are based on technology to improve an individual's journey, rather than offer a systemic solution.

  • One exception is Remix, a startup that is developing a software platform to help cities understand and plan their transportation networks.
  • It started in San Francisco and now works with more than 325 cities and transit agencies worldwide.

Where it stands: As the case studies show, pioneering cities are beginning to think more strategically, says Scott Corwin, leader of the global future of mobility practice at Deloitte.

  • "We're not just doing pilots for the sake of pilots anymore. We're way past that. I think the next wave of this is we’re looking for things that can scale."

What to watch: The mayor of Paris wants to create a "15-minute city" — a collection of mostly car-free neighborhoods where residents can get to work, home or anywhere else within 15 minutes.

Go deeper: Companies get innovative to fill in urban transportation gaps

Go deeper