A new era of urban development has dawned. The calls for intelligent traffic concepts are getting louder and louder. Without these concepts, urban collapse is impending at many locations.
But which trends impact the future of urban mobility? What kind of actions and approaches can sustainably alleviate the pressure on traffic and infrastructure in our urban centers? And what role does the automobile play in this context?
The modern city, an ocean of steel and concrete, is the apex of human civilization. Here people of all generations find living quarters, educational institutions, jobs, shops and recreational activities in cramped surroundings, whereby mobility is the binding agent for social and economic activities. If urban infrastructure were a boxer, however, it would already be punch-drunk; it is now “on the ropes.” Traffic jams, run-down roads, traffic noise and overcrowded public transport are a familiar sight in many places. The delivery traffic on the last mile is just another blow bringing the traffic infrastructure to its limits in many cities. We now know, however, that over the long term urban growth will deliver the k.o. punch as more and more people migrate from rural areas to the city.
Whether we are talking about Africa, Asia or Europe: the urban population is growing worldwide. According to the UN, by 2050 about 70 percent of the global population will live in urban areas – in comparison with 55 percent today and under one-third in 1950. The challenges for politics, public administration and urban planning are immense. In Asia this dilemma is now commonplace: in cities like Peking, Manila and Kuala Lumpur, the streets look more like parking lots at rush hour – a problem already affecting large metropolitan areas in Europe. In Berlin motorists spend an average of 154 hours in traffic jams annually. A question sparking heated discussion is: how can sustainable urban development be created without limiting the mobility of city dwellers?
In Paris the city government is taking massive action against automobile traffic. The city’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, has ambitious plans for her city: by mid-2019 older diesel-fueled vehicles will be banned totally from the French capital. From 2030 on only electric automobiles will be allowed on the roads. Paris already has automobile-free days on weekends plus automobile-free zones. For example, an over 3-km-long stretch along the Seine between Place de la Concorde and City Hall has been turned into a promenade. Where over 10,000 cars once travelled daily, there are now benches and (in summer) deckchairs, cafés and children’s playgrounds. The city fathers even plan to banish motor vehicles totally from the historic town center. Cities like Barcelona and London want to follow suit. However, bans alone will not suffice; what is needed is intelligent traffic planning and innovative concepts.
One option for preventing urban collapse is to expand public transport systems. But what types of urban transport are suitable? Subways are expensive and take a long time to build. Bus rapid transit – BRT for short – is an alternative. Especially in poorer countries that have to manage without large infrastructure investments, this solution has proven its worth. In cities like Belo Horizonte, Bogota and Johannesburg, corridors have been created in which busses can simply whiz past the traffic jams. Ticket machines at the bus stops mean that passengers no longer have to buy their tickets on the bus – a still common practice that causes delays. An alternative bus transport project in China that attracted a lot of attention consisted of a viaduct-like bus track on which busses glided two meters above traffic. However, this project was plagued by numerous problems: the overhead clearance was too low for automobiles and trucks, the overall track height was too high for bridges, and negotiating curves was nearly impossible. As a result, the project was terminated.
While Daimler and Airbus work to conquer the airspace with drones and air taxis, reasonably-priced systems that can carry large numbers of passengers already exist: in La Paz the urban cable car system “Teleférico” transports over 100,000 people daily. It currently has 10 lines and is expected to cover 33 km by 2020. Moreover, cities such as Medellín, Caracas and Rio de Janeiro already operate air-supported transport systems. The Canadian inventor Charles Bombardier modified this principle for his vision of Urbania. The result is an inner-city cable car system travelling on fixed overhead rails close to the ground, but far from the roads, between high-rise buildings.
The trend to classical bicycles, e-bikes, electric scooters and cargo bikes is unabated. The market booms. At many places, however, a suitable bicycle traffic infrastructure is lacking. Discussion of this topic is especially heated in Berlin, where the construction of protected bicycle paths and bicycle lanes will be pushed forward in the next few years. Bicycle highways are also planned. Researchers at the BMW Technology Office China in Shanghai have put forth a concept for the bicycle highway of tomorrow: the “Vision E³ Way” consisting of an elevated road system for electric two-wheel vehicles connecting major traffic hubs in metropolitan areas. Use of the system is reserved exclusively for zero-emission two-wheel vehicles, e.g. e-bikes. The highway is linked to the normal road network, subway stations and major traffic nodes by ramps and locks. Users can also rent bikes at the entry points to the highway. Most of the highway is roofed over to protect cyclists against rain and sun; the air is conditioned by a cooling system using purified rainwater.
The automobile is not a problem of the city of tomorrow but part of the solution! One simple way to reduce the number of cars on the roads is to turn private cars into public transport modes via car-sharing and ride-sharing. Today finding co-passengers is easy with smartphone apps. Fully occupied cars could zoom past traffic jams in special lanes – an option already available on several expressways in Los Angeles. Intelligent traffic management systems – as well as car-2-car- and car-2-x communication – can also help disentangle traffic snarls. Advancing interconnection and automation are increasingly making cars fit for the city. After a train trip a traveler can conveniently order a car to the train station via smartphone or smartwatch. The car arrives at the station autonomously – and can find a parking spot on its own if the user has made this request by pushing a button.
We are already familiar with this principle in our daily lives: we select and link various modes of transport. If the switch is seamless, we speak of intermodal transport. Whether local public transport, automobiles or rental bicycles – the main thing is no longer what vehicle we use to arrive at our destination but how fast and efficiently we get there. Platforms are already available – such as moovel, Qixxit and others – which link various service providers and modes of transport. The packages offered are gradually becoming even more intelligent: they allow the present traffic situation, or the parking situation at the destination, to serve as inputs for trip planning via real-time data. Work is also underway to develop universal payment systems enabling customers to pay for their trip with a few convenient clicks even when using different modes of transport.
The Internet of Things – with its interconnected houses, roads, vehicles and infrastructure elements – is viewed as a boon for the cities of the future. However, political and administrative decisions must be based not just on the possibilities offered by technological progress but on the needs of the inhabitants in order to improve structures and traffic patterns that have evolved organically. Moreover, people will accept these decisions only if they can contribute their own ideas and reservations. This creates trust – a top-down approach doesn't! A broad-based dialogue with urban planners, municipalities, political decision-makers and public and private mobility service providers is needed. The IAA – the leading international platform for the transport transition – is thus the “place to be.
(Stage photo: © NASA)
The IAA MOBILITY is transforming itself from a pure car show to an international mobility platform with four pillars: the Summit, the Conference, the “Blue Lane” and the downtown Munich Open Space. Under the slogan of “What will move us next”, it stands for the digital and climate-neutral mobility of the future. From 7 to 12 September 2021, the car, bike and tech industries come together at IAA MOBILITY in Munich.