Sustainable city transport: revving up for innovation?

Globally, urbanisation is continuing at a significant pace, with 66% of the population expected to live in urban areas by 2050, with an estimated 41 mega-cities - those with more than 10 million in habitants - by 2030.

Sustainable city transport: revving up for innovation?

As people continue to flock to these centres of commerce and culture, unless significant interventions are made, essential transport infrastructure will come under significant strain, quality of life will reduce, and transport-related emissions will rise inexorably.

But to ensure transport networks generate maximum gains in quality of life for all, along with minimal environmental impact, more innovation is required, both with the efficiency of the vehicles themselves, and the systems and infrastructure within which they operate.

Vehicle powertrain technology is constantly evolving, with most manufacturers now offering hybrid options alongside auto stop-start, helping minimise emissions in congested traffic. Pure electric cars are becoming more financially accessible too, popularised by Tesla’s recent Model 3, and BMW’s i3.

Public transport must play a key role too, with London’s buses increasingly migrating to hybrid powertrains, use of biodiesel and good progress is being made towards all single-decker buses being electric (including hydrogen) by 2020.  Double-decker pure-electric buses manufactured by BYD with a 180 mile range have also been introduced on one route. And from September this year, London’s new Mayor Sadiq Khan will introduce ‘one hour hopper’ fares allowing journeys on multiple buses to be made for the same cost.

Consumer habits are also changing, and with smartphones becoming omnipresent, there’s an opportunity to set new expectations for mobility itself.  With car ownership no longer a priority for younger generations, new business models have emerged.  For example, sharing economy-enabled, online platforms like BlaBlaCar and Zipcar nudge people towards ‘access over ownership’, making more efficient use of existing vehicles in the city. Traditional automotive manufacturers have understood the threat to their core business model, so GM-funded Lyft, Audi Connect, BMW’s ReachNow, Daimler’s Car2Go, FordPass and Peugeot’s Mu and will grapple for market share and loyalty. 

And technology giants aren’t ignoring the business opportunity either, with Apple recently announcing a significant investment in Chinese Uber-rival, Didi Chuxing. As the lines between private and public transport start to blur, mobility innovation should promote collaboration between private and public sectors, harnessing disruptive examples like Uber, providing users with seamlessly convenient travel, acting as the backbone of tomorrow’s smart cities.  For example, CityMapper supports this objective for route-planning, and innovative cross-modal ticketing solutions and payment methods will inevitably follow, including cycle hire schemes.  And in Germany the rail operator Deutsche Bahn has announced that it’s working on adding autonomous vehicle fleets to its network for travel to/from stations.

City infrastructure will need to adapt to support more sustainable mobility, with cycle superhighways, smart traffic lights and smart parking solutions integrating with data feeds tracking everything from traffic data, to bus occupancy, air pollution and the weather. For example, in Montreal city data is integrated with crowd-sourced updates via Waze to ease traffic flow.  And Audi has developed a ‘car-to-x’ technology, providing drivers with dashboard information about which speed to approach traffic lights, with trials delivering a 15% reduction in carbon emissions.

At BT we’ve endeavoured to lead by example: in Milton Keynes BT partnered with the city council to establish a data-informed parking system that has helped ease congestion; and our collaboration with the Williams Martini Racing Formula One team seeks to harness the power of communications by facilitating secure and high speed communication amongst team members.

The power of data sharing has only just started to be exploited, with fleets of self-parking autonomous EV vehicles supporting route-optimised ride-sharing mobility platforms no longer a pipedream.  And such systems-level changes then introduce even further opportunities like a community of mobile EV storage which can be used to support local electricity grid balancing as renewable generation grows, and new associated revenue streams (Nissan and Enel have recently announced a trial doing exactly this in the UK).  All of these solutions will need to rely on secure and reliable communications, with BT’s recent acquisition of EE positioning BT’s UK capabilities in a unique position to support this.

As hubs of academic, engineering and technological excellence, our cities will continue to be a magnet which attracts new citizens and commuters – and be an important hot-bed of innovation in transport and mobility solutions. 

Richard Waters is head of sustainable business innovation at BT Group

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