“Let’s build more streets to accommodate more vehicles” — this strategy for bringing people and goods from A to B in conurbations, metropolitan areas, and megacities stopped working long ago. In the mid-20th century the urban planner Robert Moses still thought it was a good idea to have highways crisscrossing the Big Apple, but his successors in New York's City Hall are now known for promoting bike lanes. Their latest achievement was the launch of the first citywide bike sharing program, “Citi Bike,” in 2013.
Trends: Getting from Here to There via the Data Cloud
Urban mobility is facing radical changes all over the world — and the old solutions that worked in the 20th century are no longer useful.
Asia: Massive expansion of the subway network
In Bangkok, the global capital of round-the-clock congestion, the population is expected to grow to over ten million by 2030. As a result, the city government is planning a massive expansion of the subway network and the local trains. Meanwhile, other cities, such as Frankfurt am Main and Vienna, are thinking about reducing the stream of vehicles on their streets directly by integrating the cars into an intelligent digital network. “The need for urban mobility is growing, but the way we travel and transport goods is changing,” says the mobility expert Federico Parolotto, founder of the consulting company “Mobility in Chain” in Milan.
The changes are being shaped through the projects of urban planners, traffic experts, the auto industry, universities, specialized research institutes, and Siemens. They are driven by the insight that growing population figures, the rising demands of city dwellers, and technological progress are changing urban mobility from the ground up. Today half of the human race lives in conurbations, but by 2050 that proportion will rise to 70 percent. This means the growth of metropolitan areas, where people’s homes, workplaces, and leisure activities are generally further from one another — but that’s not all. The demand for articles of daily use, and especially for symbols of social advancement, is also increasing. For many people in newly industrialized countries and emerging economies, this means owning their own car. As a result, the number of cars in the world is expected to increase by 60 percent to 1.6 billion by 2025, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Boston Consulting company.
The car will thus remain the dominant mode of transportation for the time being. However, it’s possible to rethink cars. For example, electric vehicles produced by BMW, Tesla Motors, and other automakers have been on the road for quite some time now. But that’s not the only innovation in the world of automobiles. For one thing, Siemens has teamed up with partners from industry and research to find new ways of simplifying cars in the RACE project (Robust and Reliable Automotive Computing Environment for Future eCars). In a development similar to what is happening in aeronautics, the traditional mechanical systems for steering, braking, and turning wheels are being replaced by electronic controls. This technology will be integrated into an electric car for the first time by December 2014. Finally, sophisticated driver assistance systems such as parking assistants are paving the way the way for autonomous steering. Indeed, driverless cars would have few problems on today's highways, but it still must be demonstrated that this technology can safely manage urban traffic with its pedestrians, strollers, cats, dogs, and diversity of vehicles.
The more vehicles are on the road, the greater is the danger that congestion will become a permanent condition. This, in turn, generates considerable costs for the economy, because workers spend more time on the road and goods delivery is delayed. According to the WEF study, approximately $1.4 billion is lost annually this way — not to mention the increased CO2 emissions. In the past, cities responded to such challenges above and beyond the road traffic regulations by making modest interventions such as phased traffic lights or Park&Ride options on the city’s outskirts. However, these measures will certainly no longer be sufficient in the megacities — urban centers with more than ten million inhabitants — that are springing up all over the world.
Internet of Vehicles
This is why automakers, highway operators, and municipalities are planning the “Internet of Vehicles,” which would enable real-time sharing of traffic information. For example, a car’s sensors and GPS transmitters can tell the driver via a display how fast he must drive in order to catch the green lights in a series or warn him of a suddenly braking driver up ahead, a road construction site or an oil spill on the highway. In addition, the traffic guidance center can recommend alternate routes if necessary.
Siemens tested this kind of cooperative system together with 14 other partners in a telematics experiment along a 45-kilometer-long test track in Vienna. The equipment provided by the researchers included communications software, calculation units for the vehicles, and radio transmitters along the test track. The experiment was concluded in 2013 — and so was a similar project in Frankfurt and the surrounding area called simTD (the German acronym stands for “safe intelligent mobility, tested in Germany”). In a subsequent study starting in 2015, its conclusions will be used in a highway corridor extending from Rotterdam to Vienna via Frankfurt am Main to inform drivers about the traffic situation around road construction sites.
Urban consolidation centers: Hubs for the flow of goods
But it’s not only vehicle traffic that has to be controlled — so does the flow of goods into cities. If separate trucks are bringing clothing from Bangladesh, wooden furniture from the U.S., and washing machines produced in Germany to a city’s shopping centers and retail stores, the urban traffic is overburdened. One solution for this problem is to build hubs for the flow of goods, or urban consolidation centers. One of the places where Siemens has tested such centers is Ningbo, a city with six million inhabitants on the eastern coast of China. Here goods are collected in the central warehouses on the outskirts of the city, sorted according to districts or streets, and then delivered to the retailers.
Logistics experts are also thinking of using not only trucks but also subways and commuter trains for goods transport in cities. In addition, if an urban planner has the option of designing a new city district, in some cases it is of course possible to integrate businesses, residential areas, and leisure facilities with one another. This results in shorter distances between people’s homes and workplaces, shopping areas or sports fields, and it also makes it possible to produce some goods locally — for example, all kinds of customized products such as dental implants, furniture, and clothing.
Chronic congestion in Bangkok
However, in a megacity people will never be able to reach everything they need on foot — and the more city dwellers aspire to have their own cars, the less it will be possible to manage the sheer mass of metal, even with smart traffic guidance systems and wireless networks. That’s why local public transport systems are necessary. This can be seen very clearly in Bangkok. Seven million vehicles are registered in this metropolis, eight million people live in the city, and 11 million live in the surrounding region. The chronic congestion is partially eased by one of the city’s hallmarks, an elevated train built by Siemens called the Skytrain. According to the city’s master plan, 18 new local transport lines will serve the city by 2029. As a result, the use of public transport will grow from 40 to 60 percent by 2021, according to the Deputy Governor of Bangkok, Teerachon Manomaiphibul.
But private vehicles and local public transport are by no means incompatible. In the future, travelers will be able to plan their trips within seconds via networked mobility services providers. For example, they will only need to type a destination into a smartphone app and wait for the best combination of different means of transportation to appear on the display — for example, carsharing, a rented bicycle, the subway, a taxi or walking, of course. They can then choose the fastest or cheapest route if they wish — and pay with a click.