Next-generation urban mobility: moving people
In the heart of many large cities, modern urbanites enjoy a world of click and deliver, touchscreen convenience. Uber and Lyft drivers are at your beck and call, weekly meal kits are delivered to your door and Amazon’s bounty can be purchased and couriered to you within a few hours’ notice. At the same time – and in spite of these technological marvels – the cities themselves are hampered by unprecedented levels of congestion, with traffic grinding to a halt, parking places at a premium and air quality deteriorating at an alarming rate.
Unfortunately, much of this congestion is a result of these innovative conveniences. It’s going to take a more considered approach than we’ve seen so far to design future mobility services that allow our cities to flourish and grow without becoming gridlocked by all the cabs, cars and vans delivering the instant gratification of “smart” mobility services. The next-generation approach to mobility will have to take into consideration an additional variable beyond personal convenience – city health – to achieve both micro- and macro-level success.
To address the consequence of convenience, we believe that mobility products, services and experiences cannot focus on only the end customer or passenger’s needs, and it’s not just about profits, it’s also about maintaining the circulatory health of the city.
Drawing on our experience of creating mobility solutions for a range of companies across the transportation sector, I’ve been exploring what next-generation mobility might look like for two aspects of city life: personal mobility (moving people on-demand) and parcel mobility (moving goods on-demand). In the first article of this two-part series, we’ll focus on the complex challenge of moving people around with ease.
Creating mobility services that are good value and convenient for the end customer, and also beneficial to the healthy flow of the cities that we serve, just makes good business sense.
The introduction of Uber and the subsequent barrage of ride-hail competitors was Step One of the digital mobility revolution. It closed the gap between supply and demand and made getting a cab in places like San Francisco delightfully easy. However, in order to minimize business costs and maximize scalability, it relied on gig-economy drivers and their personally owned vehicles, not the pre-existing taxis already on the road.
New York City, which just a decade ago got by with 13,000 yellow cabs on the streets, has seen a huge uptick in ride-hail vehicles with the addition of Uber, Lyft, and others. And the number of new vehicles on the road in the city continues to grow at an alarming rate – from 63,000 in 2015 to over 100,000 today. Trip volumes have tripled in the past year and a half and, even worse, a recent traffic study suggests many of these rides took passengers out of efficient public transportation and into street-clogging personal vehicles.
At the heart of the matter: density
The next step of the digital mobility revolution is factoring in an element of sustainable scalability to balance the comfort and convenience of ride-hail. We have to find a solution that has higher capacity, yet offers the dynamism to flex to demand.
Today we have the technology to allow that to happen – in the form of dynamic (on-demand) shuttles or buses. These vehicles take into consideration the origin and destination of every passenger and work collaboratively to spontaneously generate routes that are bespoke to the city’s needs at that moment. Routes that are well-trodden into city life and can be expected to be routine, however, others will be dynamic and can be willed into existence by resident demand.
This has long been the challenge for bus route planners who have a social contract to serve all residents regardless of income. Traditionally this public service mandate risks resulting in bus routes that run sparse routes at intermittent schedules, duly serving a few but at a considerable loss. Vehicles end up costing cities more than they are worth, both in running costs vs. revenue and in undue traffic.
As we can see with the New York case study, transport strategies that work well in average density areas cause significant problems when attempted in high density areas. This is the core issue for cities, but it is also part of the solution. Understanding density as a spectrum which goes beyond the ‘suburb vs. urban’ dualism is the first step towards more considered, nuanced solutions.
In a state of urban limbo
Moving further afield, there is a zone which potentially has an even greater impact on congestion than all those crosstown Ubers. This is the ‘urban limbo’ area between the border of the inner city and the outer suburbs – where many people own both cars and metro passes. It’s easily identified as the area where you start to see parking spots per home/building, as well as intermittent metro stations to bring people into the city.
With one foot in the urban economy and one foot in suburban lifestyle, these households usually have at least one car, with the danger of increasing to two or three with kids, making them prime culprits of urban congestion, often taking the car when public transport isn’t convenient.
The ‘first mile challenge’ – getting people to stations so that they can, in fact, get into the city more quickly and efficiently than by driving or hail-riding – could contain a design solution for improving congestion. How many people reach for their car keys because they don’t want to walk to the train station?
This is a scenario where the demand is not likely to be dense enough to require a bus or a shuttle, but a smaller-scale dynamic system could work. Local MaaS (Mobility as a Service) providers could offer custom vehicles to connect people to the most efficient arteries into the city. The challenge here is, using a service design approach, to try to facilitate a ride hailing service that siphons people into mass transit that doesn’t end up being used for end to end journeys, thus contributing to inner city congestion.
One solution could be on demand vehicles that only service your neighborhood, so these vehicles won’t take you across town, but they will take you to major public transport nodes of your borough and allow you to get into the city. Suddenly you’re thinking of this as a neighborhood friend who will give you a ride to the station, rather than a taxi that will take you all the way into town.
For urban transport design to improve everyone’s quality of life, it’s critical to be mindful of what behavior you’re replacing and also what are you encouraging – how are you designing services to ladder up to higher and higher modes of efficiency? While the future may include more flexibility around working outside city centers, one can presume that city centers will continue to be hubs of industry and connectivity, therefore the sustainable impact of these solutions must be considered.
For urban transport design to improve everyone’s quality of life, it’s critical to be mindful of what behavior you’re replacing and also what are you encouraging - how are you designing services to ladder up to higher and higher modes of efficiency?
Addressing the consequence of convenience
For people and parcels alike, the key difference in these solutions is that it still comes down to the design process – we’ve just added an extra dynamic element that we need to adjust for. How we deliver on our promised goods and services is where we must stay mindful of what we stand to gain – or lose – by not addressing the unintended consequences of our digital age.
It’s not just about the end customer/passenger’s convenience, and it’s not just about profits, it’s also about maintaining the circulatory health of the city. This isn’t starry-eyed altruism, but a demonstrably better solution. Creating mobility services that are good value and convenient for the end customer, and also beneficial to the healthy flow of the cities that we serve, just makes good business sense, as Uber, Ford and Lyft recently acknowledged. Increased efficiency, reduced capital investments, happier staff, reduced employee churn, more accurate ETAs and fewer customer complaints are just a few of the business benefits enabled by this kind of sustainable service design.
Ultimately, it is the trio of cities, citizens, and corporations which have much to gain through an approach that considers both micro and macro success. Finding solutions for passenger mobility, as well as for delivery logistics, is critical for the health of our cities for generations to come. In the end, we are serving society, ourselves and future generations when we broaden ‘convenience’ to consider the greater good.
Read part two of the series on Parcel Mobility or enjoy more inspiration on the future of mobility: