Improving sustainability with intelligent transportation

As cities look to find greener solutions to transport, a coordinated mixed-mode mobility system driven by the careful use of data may provide the answer

John Stenlake
By John Stenlake on 02 August 2021
Improving sustainability with intelligent transportation
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As we hopefully iterate our way out of the Covid-19 crisis, it is interesting to reflect on how it has taught society a few lessons and accelerated certain trends, even those not directly related to public health. The lowering of emissions and improvement in air quality during lockdowns was noted in multiple parts of the world. When a return to limited travel was mooted, the fear of an uptick in private car usage because of higher transmission risks in public and shared transportation was often referred to as the ‘revenge of the car’ and multiple city authorities were debating legislative approaches – almost a panic response – to curb such an increase. I cite this here to illustrate key principles; most urban authorities would like to move their transportation solutions towards greener and more shared methods – with the private car being unduly vilified – and the levers they have to influence such solutions are relatively limited.  

Another measure for this is the impact of introducing mobility solutions such as ride-hailing or micro-mobility solutions such as scooters into a city. For many travellers, this is hailed as an advance and a useful addition to available methods for getting around. For cities, it is not always so welcome, as unfettered ‘parking’ of scooters can cause pavement congestion and even pedestrian injuries, and the unplanned addition of mobility services to existing transportation systems has frequently increased congestion, caused kerbside access challenges, and reduced passenger volumes in existing transportation systems, sometimes to uneconomic levels. This is not unique to mobility services however – similar impacts can be seen when cities introduce unregulated bus services, with competition for key routes, stands, and passengers causing localised congestion and increased local pollution (anyone who lived in Oxford, UK, in the mid-1980s knows this scenario well). 

Rather than delving further into politics and macroeconomics, I will simply observe that many societies are driven more by the open market than centrally planned economies. But the statements above apply that no small degree of control or coordination of transport offerings is needed in order to avoid unintended consequences of commercial plays, so how can these tensions be reconciled? 

Many believe that the answer lies in what I will refer to here as the intelligent transportation system (ITS). In an urban context, this would be a multi-party construct, leveraging the power of public-private partnerships in an extension to arrangements often in place in cities today, where a city offers contracts or issues licenses to private operators for a period of time subject to certain constraints and conditions. The idea is to achieve what may not be fulfilled through market forces alone; the optimisation of the transportation system for sustainability, economic viability, and traveller experience. Other important dimensions may also be included, such as inclusivity for disadvantaged communities, but these three dimensions propel and create the need for an ITS. 

Looking at these three factors in turn, sustainability is driven mostly by the city on behalf of its citizens and the broader global community, with targets such as reduced congestion, reduced emissions, improved air quality and social environment. Economic viability is critical for operators, providing a context where they can make a good return on their investment. And traveller experience unsurprisingly is the concern mostly of individual travellers – where, to be successful and a desirable enough option to preclude less optimised transportation methods, a travel experience must be low friction, pleasant (even fun) and most of all predictable. Studies have shown that deterministic outcomes in transportation are critical to the success of public and shared approaches. 

Achieving this principally requires data! More specifically, a mixed-mode transportation system that is carefully synchronised to match demand with supply, with sufficient flexibility to meet different routing and mobility demands without imposing undue constraints on passenger options. This can only be achieved with high degrees of information transparency and the use of deep historic data and real-time signals, requiring data sharing between all operator participants and the city, as well as the use of digital planning, booking and ticketing systems by travellers, wherever possible. A city ‘transportation data hub’ – irrespective of who provides and operates this – is essential to this need. Data services start with providing demand- and location-signals to allow operators to optimise their services, and ultimately can extend to planning and dispatch, including traffic load balancing via variable routing.

Similar approaches apply to and can be leveraged for urban freight requirements, and in some cases transportation and freight requirements can be integrated for further optimisation. This combination of modes is of course very common in the aviation world, and is found even in the field of road transport. The UK had ‘postbuses’ in remote parts in the 1970s, while internal corporate shuttles often combine mail and people transit. 

With such transportation systems, the problems that affect today’s urban environments can be significantly mitigated, including over-or under-loaded public and private transport, kerbside access challenges, congestion and pollution hot spots, unpredictable journey times for multi-mode journeys, and under-served locations and populations.  

Subsequent articles in this series will drill down further into how the evolution of such systems can be accelerated and ways of overcoming some of the challenges in doing so. 

John Stenlake is director of vehicle innovation & mobility for the worldwide automotive industry at Microsoft 

This article was originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of The Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.

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