The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

New technologies are tackling the problem of getting people, products, and information around cities sustainably and efficiently.

In the teeming metropolis of Istanbul, a staggering 22 million trips animate the cityscape daily. Over the past decade, a noticeable shift has occurred: bus usage has dwindled by 10%, and the average journey time has stretched from 40 to 50 minutes. Against this backdrop of mounting congestion, the local authority’s prescription of new thoroughfares—roads, junctions, bridges—has been met with despair by city planner Orhan Demir, who laments such measures as woefully misguided.

“There are roughly 22 million trips made in Istanbul every day and in the past ten years, we have seen bus use decrease by 10%. Average travel times in the city, which were 40 minutes ten years ago, are now 50 minutes. Yet the mayor thinks that new roads, new junctions, and new bridges are the solution, it is terrible,” explains Demir.

Conceiving sustainable and efficient urban movement should be an exercise in simplicity: Imagine a city, born from the very concept of renewable energy, its foundations a network of transport channels powered by the sun, populated by a workforce whose office is their home. The challenge of eco-friendly urban mobility would become trivial.

Yet Istanbul’s quagmire is not unique; it reflects a global predicament where the slate is never clean. The ease with which one might integrate state-of-the-art safety features into new constructions stands in stark contrast to the Herculean effort required to retrofit them into existing edifices. Similarly, envisioning a new city with sustainable transit is one thing; retrofitting the chaotic, lived-in sprawl of existing cities is quite another.

Nonetheless, the task, though daunting, is infused with a sense of urgency and innovation, as over half of humanity now dwells within urban confines. A panoply of ideas, spanning vehicular design to urban planning, behavioral shifts to emergent technologies, are beginning to coalesce, promising to ameliorate the flows of urban life.

The conversation around urban transportation technology has become particularly animated around a concept known as CityCar. These diminutive vehicles, drawing power from rechargeable batteries and tipping the scales at under a thousand pounds, are envisioned to zip through urban environments with ease.

Designed with spatial economy in mind, CityCars discard traditional side doors. Instead, as they prepare to receive or discharge their occupants, the vehicles contract, elevating seats and transforming windshields into ingress portals.
This design, coupled with wheels that pivot to slide laterally, enables these vehicles to nestle into parking spaces with an economy of space a Smart Car might envy. CityCars are envisioned as a communal asset, available for shared use and huddled in recharging zones, a tessellation of urban mobility.

Yet, CityCars do not represent a panacea for the complexities of urban transport. They do little to directly address safety concerns or ease congestion. However, emerging wireless communication technologies, such as IntelliDrive, are poised to contribute to this arena.

IntelliDrive merges WiFi-like technology with GPS, fostering an environment where vehicles communicate with each other and with the infrastructure that orchestrates their movement. A collaboration between the U.S. Department of Transportation, state transport departments, and auto industry titans is nurturing this technology to endow vehicles with the capacity to transmit and receive critical data.

From a safety vantage point, IntelliDrive is revolutionary. Vehicles become aware of their surroundings, empowering them to alert drivers to potential collisions—vehicles lurking in blind spots, for instance.

Moreover, emergency vehicles gain the ability to broadcast their approach preemptively, manipulating traffic signals for clear passage and prompting motorists to yield—ahead of the audible and visual cues traditionally relied upon.

Parallel to these advancements, mobile phone networks are advancing towards a capability that could revolutionize access to shared transport. “Vehicle sharing is showing a lot of promise, but a place where it falls is having people know where cars are,” says Guy Summers, head of Innovation at Vodafone. The integration of Internet and GPS technologies into mobile phones has the potential to identify available transport options in real-time, Summers elucidates.

As innovative as CityCar technology and wireless communication networks might prove, it is conceivable that roads might fade into obsolescence in the urban transport systems of the future.

Case in point: ULTra, an acronym that encapsulates the essence of Urban Light Transport, operates small, pod-like, computer-driven, electric vehicles on elevated trackways, offering a stark departure from traditional rail systems.

Unlike the fixed schedules and predetermined routes of trams and metros, ULTra operates on a decentralized, on-demand basis. Passengers summon pods to desired destinations within the ULTra network, bypassing the inefficiency of large regional stations.

Crucially, these pods communicate with each other, recalibrating routes and velocities to preempt congestion—a harmony of movement that could redefine urban transit.

ULTra is not mere speculation; it is already in operation at Heathrow Airport, shuttling staff between parking areas and Terminal 5. The vision is expansive: to eventually link parking facilities, terminal buildings, hotels, and major transit hubs—underground, train, and bus connections—into a seamless, integrated transport network. As it stands, thousands of surface vehicle movements at Heathrow are poised to become more efficient and less polluting, thanks to ULTra. While its current application is confined to the airport, the potential for urban integration looms large, hinting at a transformative impact on city landscapes.

“We see ourselves as fixing the last mile problem in cities,” explains Martin Lowson, president of ULTra. This perennial challenge—the distance between public transport stops and one’s final destination—often deters people from utilizing mass transit options. ULTra’s system proposes a direct response, offering doorstep pickups and drop-offs, thereby obviating the need for personal vehicles on congested city streets. “ULTra removes this problem by picking you up at your home and dropping you off at your final destination, eliminating the need for a car on the road,” says Lowson.

This vision of the future, where roads become less relevant, is underscored by the experiences already gathered from ULTra’s operations. The evidence suggests that our reliance on traditional roadways is both unsustainable and unnecessary, a perspective increasingly adopted by urban planners worldwide.

Mayors and city planners are also turning to smart technology to enhance their understanding and management of urban resources. A novel web technology, employing sensors dispersed throughout a city, provides real-time data on various parameters: energy consumption, carbon emissions, public transport usage, and more. This system enables city leaders to observe the immediate impacts of their policies and adjust them in real-time, fostering a dynamic approach to urban management.

This technology was piloted in cities like San Francisco and Amsterdam, and on a smaller scale within a cluster of skyscrapers in Charlotte, North Carolina. The insights gained from these trials demonstrate the potential of such technologies to transform how cities are run, making them more responsive to the needs of their inhabitants and the environment.

The nexus between physical and virtual mobility is also rapidly evolving. Guy Summers explains how augmented reality and GPS capabilities are merging, allowing smartphones to identify and provide information about real-world objects with a simple point-and-click interface. This blurring of lines between the digital and physical realms is streamlining how we interact with our surroundings, reducing the need for physical travel.

“The real world and the virtual world are growing ever closer together,” says Summers. “We are quickly moving to a point where people are going to be able to converse and negotiate very comfortably in the virtual world and not need to use transport in the real world.”

Virtual environments, too, are playing a larger role in our lives. Platforms like Second Life are becoming more sophisticated, enabling users to engage in a variety of activities without leaving their homes. As these virtual spaces become more ingrained in our daily routines, the need for physical travel diminishes, pointing to a future where our presence in virtual worlds may supplant many of our current travel needs.

Moreover, the social implications of these technologies extend beyond mere convenience. As individuals become more adept at using these platforms, they also begin to reshape social norms around technology and environmental consciousness. For instance, if individuals can monitor and compare energy usage across different settings directly from their smartphones, this could inspire a new form of eco-friendly competition, enhancing social accountability and encouraging sustainable behaviors.

The culmination of these technological and social innovations presents a compelling vision for the future of urban mobility. Cities are poised to transform into landscapes where transport networks are not only less polluting but also more adept at fulfilling the desires for quick, efficient, and environmentally conscious travel.

This article was originally posted in Tomorrow’s Affairs.

While advocating for systemic change over 4 decades, Gordon Feller has been called upon to help leaders running some of the world’s major organizations: World Bank, UN, World Economic Forum, Lockheed, Apple, IBM, Ford, the national governments of Germany, Canada, US – to name a few. With 40 years in Silicon Valley, Feller’s 300+ published articles cover the full spectrum of energy/environment/technology issues, reporting from more than 40 countries. Obama/Biden appointee to Federal comm. on innovation; Global Fellow at The Smithsonian; Winner: Prime Minister Abe Fellowship, Japan.