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A smart city is one that turns real-time data into real-world information

Image credit: DREAMSTIME

As cities across the world become more interconnected, the promise of limitless mobility relies on being able to adapt swiftly to the changing travel patterns of their inhabitants.

What makes a city ‘smart’? For a long time, we have fused technology and infrastructure, but that’s not enough. A smart city is, above all, one that is informed by the people who commute, work, shelter and socialise within it. Without this insight, even the most tech-laden city will fail to serve our shared vision of the future. In transport, as in healthcare and retail, service providers now have the means to react on-the-fly to the needs of their users. It is real-time data that makes a city wise.

Moving millions of people daily is a challenging task: the failure of any aspect causes widespread disruption, frustration and financial losses. Technology has allowed us to manage this growing complexity for many years, with mixed success. Despite ever-growing precision, tech is still limited to whatever we tell it to do. We need our infrastructure to draw wisdom from the environment. If cities make use of comprehensive real-time data on the habits of their inhabitants, we will see a rise in living standards and happiness.

The idea of mobility as a service, or MaaS, hinges on bringing together many different modes of transport into a single solution, tailored to each user. It takes co-operation to move vast numbers of people efficiently. We aren’t running out of capacity on public transport, but peak demand is not being managed. With a collaborative attitude we can distribute the load, rethinking how, when and why people travel. This does not just apply to transport providers; employers of all sorts must understand the role they can play in making our cities work for us.

There are two clear routes we can take to improve transport networks: increasing the services or managing them better. All-out infrastructure overhaul is not an option: we are limited to incremental improvements. Change occurs at a modest rate in transport, very much at odds with the furious pace of digital innovation. To make a significant impact, digital must be the focus.

MaaS is set to follow a similar course to other branches of the digital service sector – software, infrastructure and analytics. It is the product of a new breed of services for today’s complex lifestyles, and one that caters to maximum efficiency. Widespread integration would make travel seamless, and one-trip tickets a thing of the past.

A personal travel account that centralises these services will enable informed management of transport networks, boosting efficiency in planning and using push notifications to divert commuters for mutual benefit. This trend is well under way in some cities, where rail, subway and bus services are all linked through contactless technology. This is the first step in having a reactive city that pre-emptively advises its citizens on the best course of action.

In the morning frenzy of the working week, streams of buses pass crowded stops, and queues form out of subway stations. More trains and buses are not the answer – it’s too expensive, and space is at a premium. The answer is making as much information available as possible. Users need to know the next three buses won’t be stopping, and should be made aware of the bicycle hire point a three-minute walk away.

Tomorrow’s cities will depend on spreading passenger load across the day, minimising peaks, much as we do with power. Greater collaboration allows commuters freedom in their choice of travel, naturally redistributing them across the network. And as the workplace becomes more flexible, transport authorities can better influence commuters’ habits. Allowing office workers to work remotely or reshuffling the working week, for example, could greatly reduce stress on the network.

The move from ticket-based transport to contractless technology marks the transitional point where intelligent mobility becomes more than a buzzword, and as the data floodgates open we will see it harnessed in a way that brings advantages to all. 

Across the complexity of a population there is a latent flexibility that transport providers can take advantage of. Incentives could be offered to those able to delay their commutes, or alternatives could be suggested based on weather and personal preferences.

It has been shown that where multimodal options exist, use of public transport goes up.

A smart city must be a reactive city that caters to its people in real time, ever a step ahead of infrastructural problems and capable of growing in harmony with the environment. 

Andy Taylor is strategy director for Cubic Transportation Systems.

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