The city of the future is going to be bigger than today, both in population and area, and will need to rely on well-organised data collection in order to enable residents to move around fast, efficiently and in an environmentally-friendly manner.

Urban Mobility: the Rise of Data Collection Initiatives

How will we travel around in the city of the future? We cannot count on science fiction being totally realistic – remember the 1980s films where the hero launched himself out of his flying car into a standard telephone box? – but it can still be a source of inspiration. Some of the great films of this genre – Total Recall, Minority Report and I, Robot – did manage to predict the advent of the autonomous vehicle, which is nowadays becoming reality with Google Cars. The 21st century car is not yet able to fly, but no-one doubts that road vehicles will soon be driving themselves and taking decisions on behalf of the human driver.

However, future mobility in cities will not just be all about futurist vehicles. A key challenge will be to manage and integrate traffic flows more efficiently as this is the only way people’s lives can be made liveable in an urban metropolis which continues to grow both in size and population, as L’Atelier’s Etienne Roché recently reported. Meanwhile, the recent launch of Google’s Sidewalk Labs could foster further innovations in this field, although it is still unclear how the new venture will actually work. “Sidewalk will focus on improving city life for everyone by developing and incubating urban technologies to address issues like cost of living, efficient transportation and energy usage,” announced Chief Executive Larry Page in a post on the Google+ social network. As yet we do not know what concrete innovations Sidewalk Labs is likely to come up with, but the most promising avenue clearly lies in gathering and processing urban data. A number of companies have already positioned themselves in this market.

The future of city mobility will depend on managing traffic flows more efficiently

Data collection towards smart traffic flows

One of these firms is Placemeter. The New York City-based startup has developed ‘an urban intelligence platform’ which can draw on any kind of video in order to analyse pedestrian and vehicular movements in cities. Pedestrians, cyclists and all types of vehicles can be counted and classified using video footage taken by cameras installed throughout the city. In addition to being able to calculate the traffic at a precise point, the platform software can also assess the speed and direction of pedestrians, cyclists, and cars, and classify vehicles by size and use category. This looks like a powerful tool for developing smart mobility. ‟We work a lot with cities and transport companies to streamline traffic flows, improve the location of pedestrian crossings, assess danger levels at certain intersections and so on,” explained Placemeter founder Alex Winter. The use of cameras might arouse privacy concerns, but Winter assures us that the company does not store any data; the data is extracted from the videos on an automated basis and the videos are then wiped clean.

Meanwhile Cityzenith has built a platform which allows users to visualise data on a city in 3D – including analysing traffic in real time. During the City Innovate Summit 2015, held in San Francisco on 17-18 June, Ryan Chin, a Research Scientist at the MIT Media Lab who is Managing Director of the City Science Initiative, painted an ideal scenario where vehicles circulated entirely in autonomous, smart mode on the basis of gathered data, which enabled them to perform such tasks as navigating through intersections and finding a parking spot quickly and easily. This may seem a utopian scenario, but the trend appears nevertheless to be leading in this direction. Just 300,000 shared autonomous vehicles would, according to Chin, suffice to allow the 5.4 million inhabitants of Singapore to move around the city with a maximum waiting time of 20 minutes in the rush hour.

At the same event, Arvind Satyam cited the example of the port of Hamburg in Germany, which is on a mission to increase its capacity so as to become the largest port in Europe. This would mean an increase in goods being unloaded from ships and loaded into trucks at a moment when the city’s roads are already operating at maximum capacity. ‟Could sensors be placed on trucks to streamline traffic flows and on bridges, so that they can tell when a ship is coming and raise themselves accordingly,” he wondered aloud.

Data analysis can also help cities speed up their transition to environmentally-friendly practices

Smart mobility and sustainable development

The expansion of the Internet of Things is also leading to promising experiments combining data collection for improving city mobility with the extension of digital coverage. This is the model that Veniam, a startup based in Mountain View, California and the Portuguese city of Porto, is putting forward. Veniam has plans to turn vehicles into mobile WiFi hubs. The firm has designed powerful routers to be installed on buses, taxis, garbage trucks and even police cars, so as to provide high -performance standardised public WiFi throughout the city. These specially designed routers are also capable of collecting data and transmitting it using high quality WiFi – thus supplying key information on e.g. traffic flows, peak traffic times and the busiest roads. The long term goal is to encourage environmentally responsible behaviour, by motivating citizens to avoid – as far as possible – driving in the rush hour and/or on the busiest roads.

In the same vein, Susan Shaheen, Co-Director at the Transportation Sustainability Research Center and Adjunct Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, writing in the columns of Greenbiz, a web platform which highlights opportunities at the intersection of business, technology and sustainability, sees huge potential for transport aggregators, which can analyse data in real time and offer car drivers an alternative journey using car-pooling, public transport, a bicycle or taking to the streets on foot. Data collection, smart mobility and urban development are thus all closely linked and constitute a major challenge for city authorities. These aspects are also the key to building a future which more closely resembles the utopian shimmering uncluttered cities of science fiction than the rows of ramshackle high-rise apartment buildings to be found today in dystopian Brazil. In short, either the city of the future will be environmentally friendly or there will be no city of the future at all.

By Guillaume Renouard