Transportation’s Digital Transformation

Smart multimodality promises to make urban and suburban travel a whole lot easier — and more sustainable — before long.

Imagine leaving your house or apartment, making a few taps on your smartphone, and instantly finding the fastest, multimodal route to your 9 a.m. appointment. On your screen, a map shows you where and how far you need to walk, precisely where you can pick up a shared bike or car, and where and what time a bus or train will be available to take you that last mile.

Sound utopian? The “smart multimodality” movement is already on the move. And for good, practical reasons. The United Nations forecasts that 66 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050 — up from 54 percent today. In an increasingly urbanized world, bigger cities mean more cars and more congestion. With that in mind, municipalities and private developers are building and using digital tools, particularly smart-device apps, with the goal of helping guide people from place to place via a mix of ridesharing, public transit, bicycling and walking. And if driverless cars and trucks don’t end up becoming a jetpack-like fantasy, they too could add new layers of transit efficiency.

Smart multimodality is part of the larger “smart cities” movement. As industry observer Greg Lindsay noted in an earlier edition of Access, its promoters foresee a world where digital technology makes not only transportation but also energy and water usage and other services more useful, efficient and sustainable.

As far as getting around goes, here’s where we are now — and where we are going.

Hot New Options for Colder Climates

Several cities, mostly in Europe, are leading the way with systems that weave together transit modes. Helsinki, for example, has set up what it terms a “mobility on demand” system that integrates all forms of shared and public transport into a single payment network. The idea is to make urban car ownership “pointless” by 2025.

Though Norway’s economy is driven largely by oil exploration, its capital city, Oslo, has a goal that’s arguably as ambitious as Helsinki’s: Ban all cars from the city center by 2019. Oslo’s newly elected city council also has introduced plans to boost public transportation spending and build at least 60 kilometers of new bicycle lanes.

Closer to Home

While multimodality is hot in Europe (particularly the Nordic nations), many U.S. cities are also flirting with the idea — flirtations that could blossom into romance. A constantly evolving mix of mobile apps and interfaces are helping city-dwellers locate an approaching bus, hail a taxi, or hire a vehicle via services such as Uber, Lyft and Car2Go. Apps such as CityMapper and RideScout are using public transit data feeds to provide informational views of U.S. transit systems, with a goal of providing complete multimodal guidance. There certainly seems to be demand for those services, particularly among the millennial generation. An August 2015 U.S. Census Bureau study found that auto commuting is on the decline among millennials, while bus and subway trips are on the rise. In a similar vein, the American Public Transportation Association reports that nearly 70 percent of millennials use multiple travel options several times per week.

Technology can also help us get more out of existing infrastructure systems. Los Angeles, long a capital of car culture, has coordinated its 44,000 traffic lights, helping drivers reduce travel times and cut emissions. Then there’s Indianapolis, home of the Indy 500. Five years ago, city leaders listened to what residents wanted in transportation improvements. It wasn’t more cars. Indianapolis responded by building more bike trails and introducing Blue Indy, an all-electric car-share service that could be the largest of its kind in the U.S.

Beyond the City Limits

The goals of smart multimodality extend beyond city limits. Urban employers know that many of their existing or potential employees live in suburban areas. For someone who doesn’t own a car, simply getting into the city for a job can be a struggle. Smart systems can help guide those workers to work more efficiently.

Multimodality still has a long road ahead. Winter in Helsinki or Oslo can foil all but the hardiest bicyclists. And few attorneys or bankers want to show up to work drenched in bike-induced sweat, however healthy it may be. Light rail and subway systems can cost hundreds of millions to build. And driverless or semi-autonomous vehicles in themselves won’t reduce the clogging of urban arteries.

But the journey to a digitally based transit system has already begun — and the road is paved with opportunities. People want or need to live in cities, where there are more economic and entertainment opportunities. Smart multimodality could help them reach those opportunities much more quickly.

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