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Bicyclists in London

Data is moving us in new ways: How digitization is transforming city mobility

The speed and ease we can get around a city have a significant bearing on those who live and work there: impacting our livelihoods, wellbeing and quality of life. Mobility is vital to the successful functioning of cities.

Innovation enabled by a combination of digital technology and collaboration between city government, transport providers and mobility companies will help deliver the solutions needed, says Heiko Huettel, Microsoft EMEA’s automotive lead. Mobility is becoming a smart platform, powered by connectivity, real-time data and AI.

Cities are growing in size and importance

In many places around the world traffic has been at all-time lows since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the latest TomTom Traffic Index, with one-fifth (19%) less congestion globally​ and congestion down by average 26% during rush hour (Europe: 24%; North America: 40%; Asia 11%​). But the roads won’t stay so quiet for long. ​Ralf-Peter Schäfer, TomTom’s vice president of traffic and travel, believes it will likely rebound.

“That’s why now is the time that city planners, policy makers, employers – and drivers – must take stock of what they will do to make the roads less congested in the future,” he says.

Today, more than half (54%) of the world’s population live in urban areas, according to data from the United Nations, which is set to rise to 70% by 2030.

A major attraction of cities is economic opportunity. There is more wealth within the city limits of New York than the whole of Canada. London generates the same GDP as the Netherlands, and if Tokyo were a nation on its own, it would be the 15th largest economy in the world.

Because of the concentration of businesses, talent and other resources, cities have tended to be economically more productive. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, London, for example, has the highest productivity in the U.K., more than 50% higher than much of the country’s former industrial heartlands.

But the link between city size and productivity is weakening, with slowing mobility, alongside housing, being the major contributing factors.

Cities are facing mounting challenges as mobility hits the buffer

Research from the Open Data Institute suggests some cities are no longer experiencing the productivity gains associated with scale. The reason: pressure on public transport infrastructure. At peak travel times for example, Birmingham, the U.K.’s second largest city, behaves like a city a third of its population in terms of economic output. It is by no means an outlier.

And it’s not just growing populations that are causing a strain on mobility: E-commerce has nearly tripled in the past five years (even before factoring in the uplift during the pandemic), resulting in a surge of congestion caused by last-mile distribution.

As a consequence, there has been growing urgency for mayors and city authorities to take action to ease gridlock, reduce pollution, cut carbon emissions and support urban regeneration to safeguard their cities’ health and economy.

IAs part of Copenhagen’s plans to become carbon neutral, it is investing in a range of micro-mobility programs, committing that more than 50% of all rides will be made using this mode of transport by 2025.

Mobility needs are evolving, are cities ready?

Regulatory and policy pressures, such as the urgency to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality, responding to shifts in citizens’ needs and behaviors, growth in e-commerce deliveries, the rise of remote working, and more, are adding further complexity.

Heiko Huettel
Heiko Huettel

Lockdowns during the pandemic have acted as behavioral
“circuit breakers,” nudging many people to consider their mobility needs and choices, says Huettel.

With flexible, “hybrid” working here to stay (76% of European companies now have remote work policies), many office workers will likely be making fewer commutes or commuting at off-peak times. And this is further intensifying pre-crisis trends, such as the shift from private car ownership and fixed-schedule public transport to new mobility options, including micro-mobility, subscription- and shared-transport services, he says.

Huettel adds it will take time for the impact of these changes to be felt and for us to understand the difference between disruption caused by the pandemic and more lasting, long-term shifts in mobility. But one pre-crisis trend remains clear: the need for smarter solutions for how people and goods move around cities.

Routing mobility through the cloud

Dr. Matthias Kempf, founding partner at automobility consultancy Berylls Strategy Advisors, points out the importance to act now to meet the growing demand.

“We believe the inability of cities and current mobility systems around the world to meet growing demand will result in a travel capacity gap of 150–200-billion-person kilometers in the next 15 years,” he says. “That’s the same distance as going to the moon and back 25,000 times.”

He also adds that cities are primarily built around cars instead of people.

“Mobility must be built around people,” he says. “People hate changing ‘vessels,’ so we need a fast, comfortable and convenient integrated transit system that encourage people to use the optimum modes of transport. What’s absolutely critical here is the availability of high-quality mobility data that allows mobility systems to planned and operated as they need to be.”

But innovation is turning this around. While the car will remain a major mode of transport for the foreseeable future, it is being reimagined “as-a-service” and consumed as a bundle of kilometers or minutes by places such as Volkswagen daughter company Urban Mobility International (UMI), which has launched an electric vehicle car-sharing service called WeShare. The goal is to reduce the number of cars on city streets, and to use those that remain more effectively. Customers use their smartphone to rent a car, which they then leave anywhere within the operating area when they are finished. The company uses AI to monitor demand and parking behavior trends enabling it to optimize its service and minimize operating costs.

Philipp Reth
Philipp Reth

“Our concept of how we use and experience transport is transforming,” says Philipp Reth, CEO of UMI, who says the current generation dubbed “Generation Share” is choosing to rent on demand and pay as you go.

“It’s cost effective, convenient and environmentally savvy,” Reth says. “It means car ownership is becoming less and less relevant for urban mobility – it’s increasingly more about a multi-modal mix of options that are interlinked in a meaningful and intelligent way.”

As cities invest in fast wireless connectivity and the cloud to create new digital highways, “digital vehicles” – vehicles that are as much made of software as they are of metal and rubber and able to intelligently interact with and navigate the outside world – will be key to realizing the potential of smart mobility, says Christoph Hartung, CEO of Bosch’s software subsidiary, ETAS.

“Cars are quickly becoming connected devices in a connected mobility system,” he says.

Bosch recently announced to team up with Microsoft to develop a software platform to seamlessly connect cars to the cloud. The goal of this collaboration is to simplify and accelerate the development and deployment of vehicle software throughout a car’s lifetime in accordance with automotive quality standards. The new platform, which will be based on Microsoft Azure and incorporate software modules from Bosch, will enable software to be developed and downloaded to the control units and vehicle computers. A further focus of the collaboration will be on the development of tools that increase efficiency in the software development process.

Christoph Hartung
Christoph Hartung

“As vehicles get smarter, they offer infinitely more possibilities for innovation,” says Hartung. “Access to open, standardized platforms will lower the ‘barrier to entry’ and shorten time to market for new mobility services and operators. This will benefit consumers through more choices and help us get smarter about how goods move around cities in connected vans and lorries.”

Hartung says it is important the ecosystems vehicles are connected to are open and standardized, otherwise solutions will be fragmented, and adoption stymied.

“People are moving not only within London, or Berlin, or Paris, they are moving from Paris to Berlin, and they want to have a seamless experience,” he says.

Encouraging positive consumer behaviors and choices through experiences is something Shashi Verma, Chief Technology Officer at Transport for London (TfL), thinks about a lot.

“We want to direct people to use the most efficient modes of transport, usually public transport or active modes like walking and cycling,” he says. “But if you arrive at a new city, figuring out how the public transport system works can be a challenge, so many just go and join the taxi queue.

“We don’t want that to happen. We’re focused on making life easier for customers in London with things like open payments, making the experience of paying for transport uniform with the way you would buy coffee or any anything else. We’ve seen huge results from bringing the right kind of convenience to the right kind of product, people do use it.”

Shashi Verma

Verma describes TfL’s job as not just about running London’s transport system but supporting the productivity of the city. This requires a constant focus on balancing capacity and demand to keep the city moving. TfL uses a range of Microsoft products and services to support its day-to-day operations. Examples of this include using Microsoft Teams to carry out remote inspections and design reviews of engineering to allow for new infrastructure to still be assured and brought into service during lockdowns without the need for on-site attendance. TfL is also using Microsoft’s secure cloud hosting environment (Azure) to host a range of applications and data and uses Power BI to help make data on latest passenger journeys and road collisions more accessible to the public.

“The most important use for technology is to make sure that the capacity is being used effectively, and that we as operators can get the most out of that available capacity,” says Varma. “For example, digital signaling has enhanced the capacity of the Victoria line by nearly 40%. It’s very difficult and expensive to build a new rail line but if you can do the same by enhancing the technology inside these existing rail lines, that is a huge advantage to any city.”

For Verma, smarter mobility boils down to the “better use of data to direct people to making the right choices, and the better use of technology to drive those choices and enhance infrastructure.”

Many stakeholders see public-private collaboration on open data and data sharing as critical to developing new mobility solutions.

London First, Arup, Microsoft and the Oliver Wyman Forum are partnering through the London Data Commission to demonstrate the value of combining private sector data with public sector data to address challenges cities are facing today. In one pilot project, data on electric vehicle (EV) charging demand, infrastructure, power capacity and land availability were combined in a dashboard to help optimize the placement of EV charging stations, with the goal of helping accelerate EV ownership to reduce emissions and improve air quality.

“Pilots like this help us learn what things work, what don’t when combining rich sets of public and private data,” says Jennifer Yokoyama, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel, IP Group at Microsoft. “The beauty of this is once you’ve collected the data, put the infrastructure in place and have the tools to make it work, you can then replicate it and scale it in a way that can benefit cities across every continent.”

Looking toward the future, Kempf of Berylls Strategy Advisors sees the combination of autonomous driving and shared mobility as the most exciting innovation.

“The car will truly be machine that changes the world for a second time, creating the opportunity for cities to develop completely new mobility systems that are holistically thought through,” he says. “That will benefit both cities and citizens and has the potential to build a better world for our children.”