Reimagining urban mobility

Cities seek innovative ways to allocate space to pedestrians, vehicles and bicycles

Jacqui Griffiths
30 October 2019

7 min read

Urban congestion is a growing challenge, so local authorities and private companies are all in search of more sustainable and efficient mobility networks for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. Smart solutions, from automated vehicles to apps for seamless journey planning, are helping pave the way for safer, cleaner and more reliable urban mobility.

In cities around the world, getting around is an increasingly challenging business. Traffic congestion causes delays and frustration, making some routes no-go areas during peak times and undermining the convenience and freedom of movement that made car ownership so popular.

As drivers fume in traffic, those using buses, trams or trains must negotiate the same streets, often facing long waits at their pick-up points or stations. Between different modes of transport, they join the cyclists and pedestrians, who in some areas wear protective masks to navigate crowded streets amid clouds of exhaust fumes.

With little or no coordinated planning in most cities for peaceful coexistence among different types of transportation, travel could seem doomed to being ever-more frustrating and dangerous – but innovators and entrepreneurs are joining city officials in developing solutions.

In Helsinki, for instance, travelers are using the Whim app to pre-plan their journeys by selecting favored modes of transport, from buses and bike shares to trains, trams or taxis – all paid for through the app. If plans change, travelers can adjust their routes and modes of transport in real time to maximize convenience and minimize delays. This is Mobility as a Service (MaaS) in action, illustrating how technology can enable the holistic management of urban mobility issues on an individualized basis.

“The technical elements, such as cloud services, APIs and integration between systems, now exist to combine all the modes of transport in a convenient and seamless way that can compete with the freedom gained from owning a car,” said Sampo Hietanen, founder and CEO of Finland-based MaaS Global, the company behind Whim.


Whim’s success in Helsinki – and its deployment in cities in Belgium and the UK – shows how the technologies that are increasingly available on mobile devices can enable urban transportation that offers the freedom and choice long available only from car ownership.

“We will see the evolution of personal subscriptions for urban mobility, similar to mobile phone contracts,” Hietanen said. “For over a decade, young urban people have been getting their driving licenses later; in some cities, car ownership is falling. Millennials are no longer dreaming of car ownership; they want to experience MaaS and, so far, they’re completely underserved in that.”

Meanwhile, in the West Midlands, a metropolitan county in England, a vision is emerging of a more responsive, convenient transport network that uses data sharing to connect people to key destinations that include work, housing and education. “Data sharing between vehicles could help the transport network respond quickly to disruptions and changing demand,” said Laura Shoaf, managing director of Transport for West Midlands (TfWM), the public body responsible for coordinating transport services in the county. “Technologies such as connected and autonomous vehicles build on this potential, as vehicles will be able to share data with each other to optimize the routes they take on the network.”

MaaS ultimately promises urban travelers a seamless experience that combines multiple transport modes to take them from door to door without the hassle of finding parking spots, waiting in line or getting to and from terminals. In fact, MaaS can open a world of travel opportunities for around 616 euros (US$689) per month, equal to the average monthly cost of owning a car in Europe, as reported by LeasePlan in its annual car cost index for 2018. The cost is similar in the US, with an average cost of US$706 (628 euros) per month, based on the American Automobile Association’s figures for 2017.

“For the average cost of car ownership it would be possible to provide unlimited mobility on trains, buses, trams, taxis, bike shares and a choice of cars whenever you need to drive – not only across a single country but in cities around the world,” MaaS Global’s Hietanen said.


Public transport isn’t the only focus area for improving urban mobility, however. Many people love their cars, if not the experience of driving them in the city. In the high-tech, autonomous driving era, multiple integrated technologies will transform cars into “productive data centers and, ultimately, components of a larger mobility network,” consulting firm McKinsey predicted in a 2019 article titled “Mobility’s second great inflection point.”

The emergence of electric vehicles, combined with automation, is the great enabler.

“The availability of electric vehicles has coincided with the development of autonomous cars and intelligent road networks,” said Heikki Laine, vice president, Product & Marketing, at Cognata, an Israeli company that uses artificial intelligence to provide virtual testing environments for autonomous vehicles. “A big driver of that is tech giants entering the space and working with startups and vehicle manufacturers to change the way goods and services are delivered to people.”

Cognata uses artificial intelligence to create virtual testing environments for autonomous vehicles. (Image © Cognata)

Although it may be a while before autonomous vehicles (AVs) are a common sight on city streets, progress is being made.

“AVs are being tested in several US states, while China is pushing hard for autonomous innovation,” Laine said. “Crucially, regulators are also getting up to speed. In Singapore, for example, we’re seeing regulations around the use of AVs.”

And while smart cities, highways and connected vehicles are already established concepts, Laine said the final piece of the puzzle – the human factor – is falling into place. “It’s not just about putting sensors on things and connecting them; it’s about turning that into real, measurable improvements for the experience of the person in the city,” Laine said.


That urban travel experience needs to be safer, cleaner and more reliable for everyone, whether on foot, on two wheels or in a vehicle.

“I like owning and driving a car, but I love the idea of automation making my life safer, easier and reducing my footprint on the world through efficiency,” Laine said. “Those are things we’ll see huge improvements on during my lifetime and I’m very excited about it.”

While connected vehicles may actually increase the amount of traffic on the roads, they also stand to help optimize existing transport infrastructure because they enable cars to safely drive faster and closer together, reported in a January 2019 article titled “5 Predictions of Tech Disruptions in the Next Decade.”

“That means doubling or tripling the effective road capacity without the need to continually widen freeways,” the article said. “Lane widths, traffic signals, long merge-ways, and a host of other features will become useable driving space when the vehicles are all working together.”

With transportation accounting for almost a quarter of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions and the main cause of air pollution in cities, a European Commission study on climate change reports, the opportunity to make an environmental impact is significant.

“Automated mobility pairs efficiency with electricity [to power automobiles], so it can make a real, measurable impact on carbon emissions,” Laine said. “We’re already seeing cities in Europe, for instance, limiting the amount of car traffic, especially in terms of vehicles that are not using clean energy. Moving to electrification, where the end-point emissions are eliminated, reduces emissions at the urban level. Even at the macro level, that pairing of energy efficiency with cleaner energy production through renewables ripples out from the city to impact the wider environment.”

As the technologies on travelers’ phones and in public and private vehicles enable more holistic management of urban mobility issues, barriers to seamless multimodal transport are falling thick and fast. But some gaps remain.


“To create a sustainable urban mobility model, MaaS needs to happen before AVs hit the roads in great numbers,” Hietanen said. “We need to find models that give people the individual choice that makes them comfortable. That’s going to be one of the biggest issues for cities. They need to start planning now, in a way that enables the seamless use of multiple transport options and allows all the innovations that come with it.”

And while Laine foresees a gradual adoption of AVs in cities, the groundwork is already being laid.

“University and corporate campuses are the natural first adopters of AVs because they can build out the infrastructure much faster,” Laine said. “The changes we’re seeing there – such as making interchanges more friendly to robo-taxis and specifying pick-up and drop-off locations – are small-scale versions of what we will eventually see across the cities themselves. On a larger scale, the city of Los Angeles is looking at how to connect the port and rail yard to accommodate autonomous trucking; do they need a separate lane, for instance, or can the AVs interact with regular traffic?”

In France, an electric autonomous shuttle service has been launched at the University of Lille. And in the US, real-estate operating company Brookfield Properties is providing autonomous vehicles to transport tenants of the Halley Rise office park development in Reston, Virginia, between their office buildings and parking lots.

Successful models will need to strike a delicate balance between the interests of travelers and those of stakeholders such as transport providers, who traditionally have resisted cooperation, seeing it as a killer of competitive advantage. 

“There are many who want the concept of mobility as a service to happen, but there are also many who want to control how it happens and to own the end-user relationship,” Hietanen said. “But end users want to get all their services from a one-stop shop and to choose where they get that access from. Nobody is big enough to do this on their own. It needs a lot of coordinated cooperation. It needs an ecosystem.” 

As that ecosystem develops, both urban travelers and transportation providers stand to benefit, TfWM’s Shoaf said. 

“Connected and autonomous vehicles will transmit and receive data about congestion and pollution,” she said. “Sharing this data between vehicle owners, manufacturers and public sector authorities could allow optimization of routes to improve air quality and reduce journey times. In addition, better sharing of data about travel demand and usage, with a strong focus on the end user, will help public authorities and transport providers to plan new schemes better so that investment in the transport system is directed to services which meet users’ needs.”◆

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