A radically new approach to urban mobility and transport systems was a key topic at the recent Smart City Startups event in Miami, where speakers highlighted the need to focus first on smaller cities in order to work out the best way forward for the ‘Smart City’.

Smart City: Urban mobility efforts should focus on smaller cities first

‟Today over half the world’s population live in cities, and in thirty years 70% will be living in urban areas,” pointed out Shaun Abrahamson, the organiser of the Smart City Startups event in Miami which took place this year on 24-25 April. This was the second annual conference organised by Abrahamson’s company Urban.us, an investment fund which backs startups that have the potential to transform cities for the better. Around a hundred ‘urban tech’ startups came together to present their work to the attendees.

One of the key topics this year was urban mobility and transport systems. A panel of speakers discussed the topic during a session entitled ‘Disrupting Location: How Mobility Startups Reshape Our Cities’. Many of them underlined how useful it is to look first at medium-sized cities in the United States in order to get a better picture of just what is involved when it comes to deploying information and communication technologies to improve public transportation.

Public-private partnerships to streamline urban mobility

Sabrina Sussman, vice-president of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA ), pointed to the success enjoyed by innovative providers such as Uber and highlighted the potential for fruitful innovation potential in medium-sized cities such as Seattle, Detroit and Indianapolis. ‟The biggest problems arise in smaller cities rather than in our great metropolises, especially when it comes to transport. So we need to go there to see what’s happening,” she told the conference. Public transportation in the United States is run on state funding, which has not increased for several decades, and this is the main reason why the whole system is out of date and inflexible. This situation is most acute in smaller US cities.

On the basis of these observations, all the panel speakers agreed that the future of city transportation lies in forging partnerships between state and private players rather than in free competition. Diversification, plus an ingenious combination of modes of transport will enable cities to adapt to change. Initiatives such as the solution provided by startup TransitMix are likely to play a key role, speakers predicted.

Using data analysis to optimise transport networks

Transit Planner is a data analysis software programme for transport network planners. This service from San Francisco-based TransitMix allows planners to visualise transport routes and efficiently estimate how much it would cost to improve a city’s transport network. What is special about the service is that it focuses mainly on smaller US cities. ‟Transport network planners in smaller urban areas are very enthusiastic about our software. Some of them were still working things out on paper, or on a spreadsheet. Our software has made their work a lot easier,” claimed TransitMix co-founder Tiffany Chu. The young startup followed a programme at the iconic incubator YC Combinator and has now embarked on a development phase that has seen the system being used in over 3,000 cities, both in the United States and abroad. Since the service was launched last year it has enabled the creation of around 50,000 transit maps.

The audience at the Smart City Startups event chose Transitmix as the ‘fan favourite’ following a competition to come up with a Smart City solution for the city of Miami. The company’s prospects are now looking bright and it is planning on working with the local authorities of a number of cities with a view to improving citizen mobility in the urban environment. The lines between public and private provision seem to be steadily eroding, leading to the emergence of smart, effective initiatives designed to transform our cities.

By Eliane HONG