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Digital innovations in urban transport: shaping the future of smart mobility

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Innovations in the transport sector continue to introduce new opportunities to enhance travel experiences in our cities. The 2020s are predicted to be a decade of transformation for urban mobility. This is facilitated by business models that offer a range of new mobility services (ride hailing, car sharing, bike sharing and Netflix-like vehicle-subscription models) that provide flexible options to meet our travel needs.

At least six forces are expected to further disrupt the urban mobility landscape. From self-driving vehicles and the sharing economy, to vehicle electrification, mobile computing, the Internet of Things and Blockchain technologies, each of these trends is quite significant on its own.

But it’s the coming together of these forces that will create real value and provide innovations. Once they converge, they will enhance the travel experience for millions of people and businesses every day.

Central to their success is rigorous research that meets 21st century global challenges such as rapid urban population growth and climate change. To deliver substantial reductions in emissions, major policy, behavioural and technological changes would also be required.

As the list of ‘next big things’ grows longer with the fast pace of technological breakthroughs and scientific advances, policymaking must provide a guiding vision to ensure that all interventions are well applied and focused on user needs.

Look beyond the hype

The sweeping changes anticipated by disruptive mobility have inspired visions of a different future, as well as a great deal of hype. To distinguish between hype and reality, research must go beyond the immediate obvious impacts. For example, while autonomous vehicles are likely to reduce traffic fatalities, we do not know how they will affect congestion, parking and vehicle travel per capita.

Our research suggests that for urban areas, the current vehicle fleet could be reduced by up to 90 per cent when a shared network of driverless vehicles is introduced. It is not clear, though, what the demand will be and if mass deployment will induce new demands as people feel that travel time is no longer unproductive.

Develop rigorous but flexible evaluation frameworks

Given that some of these mobility solutions have not yet been deployed, their impacts are best evaluated using test beds and simulation. The key advantage of using test beds is the ability to evaluate how consumers engage with and react to the technology. Simulations, properly calibrated and validated, also provide a cost-effective solution to complement the test-bed trials.

Develop agile, outcome-focused regulations

Regulation will play a key role in the development of disruptive mobility solutions. Effective regulatory responses require early dialogue between regulators, developers and the public, where regulators would create legal frameworks that are flexible but robust. For example, with autonomous vehicles, an important role for regulators will be developing comprehensive tests that an autonomous vehicle must pass before being allowed on public roads.

Facilitate and encourage active transport and public transport innovations

Some of the current mobility disruptions are already affecting incumbents, and there is some concern that they may impact bus services in the long run. Adopting innovative solutions for bus services will help bridge the gaps for first-and-last kilometre travel.

There are novel transport initiatives, such as on-demand public transport, which address this problem. Bike sharing has also become ‘trendy’ rather than simply ‘sustainable’. Technologies that support and increase their appeal would contribute to more sustainable mobility in our cities.

The future

The transport sector is facing a series of changes underpinned by digital disruptions.

In an unpredictable fast-paced ecosystem, outdated mobility solutions are rapidly being challenged. Empowered citizens are increasingly expecting higher levels of service from our transport systems. This requires fresh thinking and new approaches to meet people’s demands for travel with ease and seamless integration.

This is too important to be left only to market conditions and commercial interests. The time is now to think about the kind of future we want to have in a highly automated world, and ramp up the research work to shape the future direction of urban mobility.

Written by Associate Professor Hussein Dia, Deputy Director and Program Leader (Future Urban Mobility), Smart Cities Research Institute at Swinburne University of Technology. This article was first published in the Victorian Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence magazine.

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