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Why mobility in urban environments is crucial to the evolution of cities

COAST Autonomous’ President, Adrian Sussmann, makes the case for autonomous shared mobility.


Globally, more people than ever are choosing to live in cities. Over 55 per cent of the global population (around 4 billion people) already lives in an urban environment, and this is set to rise to 60 per cent by the year 2030. Over one in five people – around 23 per cent of the global population – live in a city with at least 1 million inhabitants. This is forecast to grow to 28 per cent by 2030.


Such rapid urbanisation is presenting growing cities with a series of new challenges – one of which is how to improve urban mobility. This urban migration is a significant factor impacting population density in our cities.


Improving urban mobility is crucial to the evolution of every city but it is arguably even more fundamental for the future of evolving megacities.


According to the United Nations’ The World’s Cities in 2018, the number of megacities – cities which are home to over 10 million inhabitants - will rise rapidly over the next decade. By 2030, the total number of megacities globally is on course to increase from 33 to 43, and the majority of these will be located in developing regions.


While improving urban mobility is crucial to the evolution of every city, it is arguably even more fundamental for the future of evolving megacities like Chennai, Bogota and Chicago.


Reducing congestion, pollution and accidents

The conclusion might seem obvious. In order to improve mobility, reduce congestion and improve air pollution levels, cities need to create solutions that encourage inhabitants to use smart, electric, shared-occupancy vehicles rather than traditional cars with a single driver.


But how, and where, do you introduce these kinds of technologies? And how do you encourage inhabitants to use them?


Even in densely populated city centres where traffic is often gridlocked, some inhabitants would rather sit in a private vehicle than fight their way through crowded public transport options during peak hours. However, with rising awareness of pollution and climate change, more and more people are becoming open to new methods of transportation if it helps to improve air quality and congestion on their streets.


In the past year alone, investors and venture capitalists have committed a staggering $4.2 billion develop autonomous vehicles. While single-occupancy autonomous vehicles will undoubtedly help to reduce the number of traffic incidents in densely populated areas like city centres, the reality is they will do little to reduce traffic.


If cities want to make tangible impacts on traffic, they should instead be looking to shared autonomous vehicles such as self-driving shuttles.


Pedestrianisation of city centres


The topic of pedestrianisation raises a fundamental question about who cities are designed for – should they be designed for cars or for people? It’s a subject that city leaders and urban planners have been discussing for decades, but in the era of megacities, it has arguably never been more relevant.


While pedestrianising entire areas of city centres might seem like a drastic move it’s one that many cities across the globe are exploring. In 2009, following an increase in the number of traffic accidents in the area, New York’s Department of transport decided to close of five blocks of Broadway in the Times Square area. Meanwhile, growing megacity Bogota, closes 76 miles of road to traffic every Sunday, with approximately 1.7 million people making use of the pedestrianised streets every week.


Growing megacity Bogota closes 76 miles of road to traffic every Sunday.


However, giving the streets back to pedestrians doesn’t have to mean eliminating vehicles entirely. For those less able to walk, low-speed, self-driving shuttles or pods can operate safely and effectively along planned routes within pedestrian areas.


The slower speeds, additional levels of redundancy, and reduced reliance on GPS mean that low-speed AVs can function effectively in highly populated city centre environments with tall buildings and trees.


This can offer inhabitants another transport option that is efficient and environmentally conscious.


Autonomous delivery platforms can also work in alignment with pedestrianised zones, with small autonomous vehicles transporting goods into and around city centres from distribution hubs at the edges of the car-free areas.



New transport solutions


In addition to the adoption of low-speed AVs in pedestrianised areas, autonomous vehicles also present an exciting opportunity for cities in the form of Autonomous Rapid Transport (ART). Light Rail (LRT) is a popular transport solution that runs on a dedicated right of way. However, it is an expensive option that can take many years to complete – meaning that by the time the rail is operational, the routes are no longer in the right locations as the city has evolved.


Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) is an alternative that is faster to implement, where buses operate in a protected lane. However, drivers are still a major cost and are also responsible for a number of road traffic accidents.


In addition to the adoption of low-speed AVs in pedestrianised areas, autonomous vehicles also present an exciting opportunity for cities in the form of Autonomous Rapid Transport (ART).


Autonomous Rapid Transport is a natural evolution of the LRT and BRT solutions, with the integration of driverless technology. ART is a rapid transport solution that operates on BRT lanes, but with smaller, self-driving shuttles that run more frequently than BRT. On dedicated lanes, self-driving shuttles can run at higher speeds and can offer more flexibility than BRTs.


During peak hours more vehicles can be added to provide greater capacity, without increasing congestion or labour costs. During off-peak hours, the vehicles can be removed from the virtual ‘line’ and operate an on-demand service, similar to an Uber, dropping passengers at their destinations.


As cities across the globe become more populous, urban mobility is becoming an increasingly important consideration for city leaders.


For megacities, the challenges but also the opportunities are perhaps the greatest. These cities have a fantastic opportunity to help define the future of transport by introducing ART systems from the suburbs, expanding car-free zones within city centres and promoting mobility solutions that are autonomous, electric and shared.


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