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The evolution of travel

In the cities of the future, technology will change transport

By Janet Miller  

"'Mobility as a service' is already being implemented in Helsinki" ©Maria Golovianko/Shutterstock

Read more from Prospect’s “The Future of Cities” supplement

On the surface, large swathes of our cities have looked the same for decades. But look a little harder and you will see that they are hugely different. Their evolution continues at a rapid rate, so to keep up we need to be smart in the way we design and create environments for people to live, work and play. The influence of technology and data is driving an ever greater change in the relationship between individuals and their city, but I believe we can only shape the cities of the future if we can overcome the silo effect which is clearly evident wherever we look.

For a long time the hard-infrastructure aspects of our cities, such as education, energy, transport and healthcare have been disjointed, stifling our ability to create productive, collaborative and truly smart cities. As we move further towards a fast paced, 24-hour society, it’s ever more important our public and private services are increasingly intelligent, integrated and agile to respond to the needs of global competition and end users.

The digital revolution, along with the influence of data and technology on our infrastructure and cities, provides us with an opportunity to challenge this silo approach in some aspects of our services. Take transport networks: traditionally railways, taxis, buses, bicycles, trams and metros have tended to operate as a highly fragmented set of services, planned and delivered in a top-down structure. Transport operators each supply different levels of capacity, often with little to tie the different parts of the system together, which leads to a disparate set of transport systems. It’s this silo approach, when providing the various forms of connectivity throughout a city, that results in a failure to provide the best outcome for people and the end user.

Once a city succeeds in integrating the different transport services into a single accessible system via smartphones and other personal technology, it becomes possible for people to move around the city in a joined-up, efficient way. This approach is called “Mobility as a Service” and elements are already being trialled in cities such as Helsinki, allowing individuals to purchase the particular combination of transport they require—for example a monthly quota of 30 public transport rides, 20 hours of car hire, five taxi trips and unlimited bicycle hire—in a single payment from a single source. Many view this in the same way mobile phone companies bundle together voice, text and data services into a single package.

Why does this matter? The ease, comfort and expense of travelling around our cities for work, education or leisure are hugely important in determining how people feel about the environment in which they live. And what about transport providers? Technology and the use of data means they can make better, more informed decisions at all levels—from allocation of resources in infrastructure projects, down to information systems that update according to real-time conditions so that people can adapt their journeys and get where they need to go faster and in greater comfort. This in turn could lead to a change in the way people can use transport and the way they engage with their city.

I’m not suggesting that breaking down silos in how we manage and deliver services across our cities is the answer to all the complex challenges they face, but I do believe it is a good place to start. Only in this way will we begin to stimulate deeper integration and collaboration for the greater good. Joining up the varying aspects of city life from the timetables of metro systems, opening hours of coffee shops and booking an appointment at the dentist, will have the power to unlock cities that are better aligned to the needs of people today and in the future.

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