The Autotech Council took a look into the future of cities this week, with our "Getting Around Smart Cities" meeting on June 23rd. The impetus for the meeting is the fact that cities are changing. And that change is coming about from new technologies, new culture, and modern lifestyle choices…but also change is being driven by the sheer weight of density of people in cities.
By 2030, the world is projected to have 43 megacities with more than 10 million inhabitants. In general, global populations are urbanizing, but congestion and pollution have shown us that 20th Century solutions for moving people and goods around cities simply won't work anymore. In the 20th Century, things were so simple: as cities grew, the solution to mobility was seen as more cars and more roads. We didn’t originally know about climate change, or pollution, and congestion existed, but on a much smaller scale. But we know now that this 20th Century strategy, this innovative Henry Ford notion of "more private cars" eventually hits a literal bottleneck as cities grow, and countless hours are wasted in traffic. Since the century turned, it has become increasingly clear that NEW solutions to human mobility and transport are necessary to unblock city streets, to again allow for the free and efficient movement of goods and people, and to do so inclusively across socio-economic boundaries, and ability differences.
Our June meeting brought forth a number of though leaders in the space, in the form of a keynote, a panel, and a series of rapid-fire startup pitches. In the process, we heard dozens of smart and new ideas. Here's just a sampling:
Unbundling: Mobility needs to be unbundled from the private car, and spread across multiple modalities. And part of doing that means shifting the cost structure away from a big capital outlay (which locks us into that capital good) and towards usage fees for mobility. This can be as simple as a car lease, a bus fare, an uber fee, a monthly pass - either way, it all fits into the 21st Century concept of MaaS, Mobility as a Service. Unbundling reduces waste, increases flexibility, and allows people and towns to optimize the flows of people and goods.
The Curb: There's a lot going on at the curb. Historically viewed as just "the side of the road", so "why not leave your car there?" aka parking, NOW the curb is being seen as what it truly is: an extremely valuable piece of real estate that is needed to serve multiple flexible roles which combine parking of at least 4 different time frames, drop-off, pick-up, delivery, loading, dining, green space, and commerce. Also, if curbside is parking, then for what? Cars, bikes, scooters, something else? Really, the curb decision is just a part of the wider discussion of the USE OF PUBLIC SPACE in smart cities. One thing our panel agreed on was that the days of "free parking" at the curb are numbered. That is a massive under-valuation of that space.
Safety: As planners try to make their cities more efficient, it doesn't matter much if that efficiency is killing or hurting people. Thus, many of our startups had innovative ideas around V2x.
Efficiency: Efficiency and safety don't have to mean slower trip times for cars. A couple of our startups demonstrated solutions for cities to adopt systemic views of traffic management by signal lights. Systemically planned, cloud managed, but aware traffic signals can reduce both the number of times a vehicle must stop, and also the amount of time they remain stopped - all while increasing safety for pedestrians and others. Envision a slower speed limit for human-driven vehicles, but combined with all green lights. Top speeds decrease, reducing fatalities and risk, but car trip times remain the same because of green lights. This also reduces acceleration noise and energy wasted in braking.
Electric and Pollution: It seemed unanimous that the future of city mobility would not derive its energy from carbon. Aside from lower costs of renewable energy, noise pollution, and especially air pollution can be reduced with electric propulsion.
Autonomous Cars: I mention this because it was most obvious in its absence. To be clear, it wasn't intended to be the subject of the day. But it made me appreciate that many of the smart ideas about cities of the future don't hinge only on autonomy.
Innovation/Regulation: Our panel noted that many of the changes we're going to see in smart cities of the future are going to come from one of these two driving forces. And while the private sector is going to provide Innovation, but not Regulation, the public sector is going to need to provide a bit of both. The public sector MUST also be innovative, and partner with innovative companies. This requires good leadership, but it also requires companies to make the effort to collaborate. City-scale innovations will often fall flat if they run head-first into a bylaw or regulation. Sometimes, "move fast and break things" may be the right strategy, but let's not overlook the possibility of "collaborate and build things".
Role of Cars: To be clear, we ONLY spoke of cities at this meeting. It's a given that there are suburban peculiarities and rural characteristics that differentiate them from "the city". We're already seeing the real distinction around the world with London's Congestion Zone, other cities banning older diesels, or combustion altogether. There are dividing lines…and we're not altogether sure where they are. But, in the city, the role of private cars will be reduced. Shared cars, autonomous taxis all look more promising. Cars that don't need to park (and consume space instead of provide mobility service) are better. But, really, we expect vehicles to increase the density of moving bodies on our roads. That means smaller vehicles for a single occupant, or more occupants for bigger vehicles. The benefit of this is that we can flow those vehicles faster, since they are fewer. Car companies should look into not just new kinds of cars and vehicles, but new "vehicle systems", or fleets.
The Rona: One last topic that came up a few times in our meeting was our most hated of guests, the Coronavirus. But, for once, we could look at an interesting, and possibly positive side-effect of this global disaster. The pandemic has been a catalyst around the world - particularly in cities - for inspiring courage in leaders to adopt new thinking about mobility. To dedicate public transit space to essential workers, to increase pedestrian zones, to create new bike lanes, and to re-dedicate space from mobility to social distancing or dining. This will provide a lot of learning, and there are lots of people who want to get rid of the virus, but don't want to go back to the way cities were before. They liked the cleaner air of quarantine, the open streets, the quiet, and the lack of cars. Not all of that can be retained…but some?
Flexibility: And my personal bit of inspiration from the Covid era discussed above is we have learned something incredibly unforeseen about our cities. WE CAN CHANGE. And we can change them fast. Shelter in Place rules, and the resulting changes and slow re-openings have shown us that our cities are incredibly flexible. They can adapt quicker than anyone ever thought. I can't say everyone is happy with the changes, or change in general, but I'll NEVER believe again that it can't be done.
Thanks to all our presenters, panelists, and speakers. The presentations are available to Autotech Council Members in the Library, and we'll see you next time.