Urban Mobility – what does the future hold?

Cities are constantly evolving and moving – sometimes with positive affect for its residents and at other times with serious negative effects on human and environmental health, economic health and mortality rates. Unhealthy smog levels and traffic jams (including an over-reliance on fewer but larger road networks)[i], with their chorus of horns and shouts, are routine irritations of urban lives, and things could get much worse. The world’s cities are facing an urgent set of challenges when it comes to ensuring that fundamental right of urban living: mobility. Opportunities to resolve some mobility challenges will require bold, coordinated actions from the private and public sectors through:

  • Adoption and adaptation of technological advances and commercialization that makes these opportunities affordable to the greatest number of people in each community
  • Funding, intelligent policies, and business-model innovations to realise productivity improvements and creating more sustainable environments in our cities
  • Adoption of multi-modal transportation models that facilitate journeys combining walking, cars, buses, bikes, and trains—as well as shared transportation services
  • Adoption of new and updated traffic laws (in a penalty free environment), planning laws and policy and a change in attitude by consumers, community members and regulators to these “disruptive” mobility opportunities

Digitising public-transit systems, new mobility-on-demand models and implementation of Mobility as a Service (MaaS) action plans, where consumers will be able to use mobile apps to book and pay in one click for any trip by bus, train, taxi, bicycle, and/or car sharing. Frequently these ventures are evolving through public/private collaborations. In some cases, the private sector is bidding to develop a software solution that would enable VTA to build new transit on demand and subscription-based transit models.

Complementary to the public transit system disruptions, four major technological trends are converging in the private vehicle market that will have major affect in the near future on infrastructure asset owners, developers and planning authorities: in-vehicle connectivity, electrification, car sharing, autonomous driving and e-hailing. If cities can figure out how to make these elements work together, mobile-productivity solutions could be substantially improved.

In-vehicle connectivity: The broad adoption of in-vehicle connectivity, either through the mobile phone or through an embedded system and screen, through real-time analytics and data on traffic conditions can reroute drivers to avoid congestion. There are apps that offer information allowing people to shift the timing and route of travel.

Eventually, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to infrastructure communication could be used to reduce accidents and to anticipate traffic congestion, traffic-control centres could get detailed intelligence from cars to help clear bottlenecks faster by alerting drivers so that they can avoid congested areas. Such systems could deliver to drivers detailed, user-generated real-time data, enabling them to avoid bottlenecks, while cities can use information on traffic conditions to respond to emerging situations.

Conceptually these mobile opportunities are exciting, however there are regulatory issues that will require adoption to allow permit use without penalty. For example, many jurisdictions penalise drivers for viewing/ using text messages and email while driving (even in a stand still situation at traffic lights), therefore it is likely traffic oriented apps will be viewed similarly and will have limited real-time legal utility.

Electrification: McKinsey and Co reference IHS, a market-research firm, which predicts that annual sales of battery powered electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrids will increase from about 2.3 million units in 2014 to 11.5 million by 2022, or 11 percent of the global market. Electric power trains can significantly increase the energy efficiency of the car while decreasing the pollutants emitted[ii].

Increasing the range of battery systems, improving reliability and the delivery of significant infrastructure in each city and rural/ regional areas are necessary to deliver the promise of EVs in the future. Significant regulatory reform, urban planning policy development and planning law/ planning scheme revolution will also be required.

Car sharing services are growing 35 percent a year in the United States, reaching 1.6 million members in 2014. In Germany, car-sharing membership has grown 50 percent a year since 2010, reaching 1 million people in 2014. With most cars sitting idle 90 percent of the time or more, car sharing and other services could improve this figure significantly, and perhaps:

  • Reduce the number of cars on the roads at the same time, and would mean each vehicle gets used more intensively
  • Reduces the need for on-street and off-street parking in commercial centres and within multiple-residential developments
  • Lower the cost of personal mobility by 30 to 60 percent relative to private auto ownership

January 21, 2016 saw General Motors in America announce the introduction of its Maven brand of car-sharing into Michigan, New York and Chicago in the first quarter. This follows on from its $US500 million purchase of a stake in Lyft, a rival to Uber. The Maven business model differs to that of Lyft and will allow GM to ascertain which models work within different cities and demographics, thus spreading risks and opportunities.

GoGet (2100 fleet vehicles and 80,000 members), Green ShareCar and Hertz 24/7 are some of the local Australian providers, operating in specific jurisdictions, probably having to address both specific local needs and state government regulations. New location, new jurisdiction, new regulation and paperwork is to be completed, negotiating deals with cities to get permits to operate and to use public parking spaces. At least 3 developments in Melbourne by Developer Michael Yates and Sydney’s Central Park Precinct (with 60 spaces set aside for residents to use and pay for vehicles by the hour under the GoGet model) are local examples of how the car-sharing model is working.


Autonomous driving: The introduction of fully Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) is approaching. Some new car models already feature sophisticated driver-assistance systems offering a degree of autonomy. Regulation and policy will affect the ability of consumers in each jurisdiction to access and fully utilize AVs. AVs have the potential to deliver (but not limited to) the following social and infrastructure outcomes:

  • Drive the reduction in road-lane widths on highways and freeways
  • Drive the implementation of opt-out and opt-in speed management for all connected vehicles and passenger management vehicles for licence holders of different classes (e.g. restriction in the number of passengers permitted when a learner driver or newly-licenced drivers are in control of a vehicle)


E-hailing: Uber operates in more than 300 cities and 58 countries, and in some of them, it is already larger than the traditional taxi industry. In China alone, an estimated 170 million people use some form of e-hailing services. In Australia, different jurisdictions are making regulatory changes to accommodate the disruptive nature of Uber (and similar parties) to the taxi and third-party driver industry. This is occurring within an environment of hostility from the incumbent industry providers and the demands of citizens who seek more cost effective and better service delivery to meet their needs. Expansion into shared e-hailing services continues to grow at a pace by the major corporations, as regulatory hurdles are addressed.


Walking and bicycling

Additionally, cities around the world are opening car-free zones to pedestrians and bikers in the drive to make bicycling safer, easier, and more popular. In 2015, more than 850 cities had bike-sharing programs, up from 68 in 2007. In 2015, there were more than a million bikes in bike-sharing programs globally, including multiple programs in Australian cities. Concurrent to the bike sharing programs, cities across the globe are building fit-for-purpose cycle pathways and highways, integrating these with public transport systems and end of trip facilities at major employment and recreation nodes.

Corporations are developing and promoting e-bike communities within their employee cohorts. Other corporations are developing e-scooter and e-bike bike-sharing business of similar models to Uber and Lyft. Through collaborations with local, state and national regulators, these enterprises are building eco-systems of users and SME operators that assist the mobility of residents and visitors at affordable prices, while helping to minimise pollution affects.


Urban planning implications

Globally, and at national levels, society is still in the infant stages of new mobility offerings. What can be said is that consumers are learning to make trade-offs when it comes to evaluating costs, convenience, service, and time. A significant question is whether government and regulations can keep pace with the changes. There are four obvious areas of the urban planning profession that will need to fully consider the implications of these mobility challenges:

  • Transport planning and asset management – infrastructure design, modelling and multi-modal connectivity
  • Urban planning – strategic planning for future city development, and the development of appropriate policy, planning law, and planning schemes that supports the inevitable changes to how people and products move through the urban environment, how people perceive and experience the liveability of the city or suburb, including car sharing and electric vehicle charging stations.
  • Economic development policy – developing complementary state and national policy that supports the evolution and revolution these new technologies bring to urban mobility
  • Open space and green space planning that will help reduce the impact of vehicle and point source emissions, facilitate safe and comfortable walking and biking opportunities and public accessible end of trip facilities

Jurisdictional support for limited or zero parking in medium to large-scale residential developments vary between local governments, and frequently between local governments and state / national governments. Generally speaking, planning schemes developed in car dominated cities and countries (like Australia, the United States, Canada) have allowed people to move out of cities into bigger houses in the suburbs, where zoning codes separated residential, commercial, and industrial areas, meaning that people needed to drive to work and to shop. This model makes it difficult to offer public-transit cost-effectively. In contrast, many European cities developed their urban cores before the invention of the automobile and are therefore denser, more walkable, and more likely to have mixed uses. As a result, there are lower rates of vehicle ownership and fewer miles travelled by car.

Urban planners are increasingly taking these factors into consideration in the way they design cities. Planners seek to develop the planning system to help cities and towns that promote compact, transit-oriented (TOD) urban form, and cities that seek to minimise the impact of the transit and mobility systems on the residents and the environment. Such developments have environmental benefits in the form of fewer greenhouse-gas emissions, as well as less air and noise pollution. They have less congestion and therefore fewer accidents. TOD retrofitted cities can be remarkably liveable and attractive to residents of all ages.

The challenges facing planners, engineers and city officials will vary between cities and within local centres of cities. The pace of transformation is going to differ; the forces at work will not be the same. Physical size, geology and geography, population density and the state of each city’s public-transport system (current and planned future) are common challenges and opportunities, infrastructure development and mobility. In each city, policies, technology, consumer preferences, and business-model innovations will play out in different ways.

The biggest hurdle for Mobility Disruptors to be adopted at scale may not be technological. The definition and harmonisation of regulations at a city, state, national, and even international level will ultimately be the arbitrator of success.

Trade-offs are inevitable, and difficult. While many mobility innovations make sense in theory, politics will make accommodating them exceptionally challenging. So important is the regulatory environment that major transportation firms and start-ups today have sizable public-policy departments. These firms have hired former lobbyists, regulators, lawyers, public-relations experts, and economists in the hope that doing so will enable them to continue to operate and to shape regulation that supports their business models.

The biggest winners in the mobility revolution will be consumers, who will have many more ways to get around. Transport modes could also become cheaper and faster in the future, with customised levels of service and convenience. Incumbent industries should watch for significant shifts in existing profit pools as new technologies and business models gain share.

Given rising incomes and aspirations in many countries and regions, there will be even more demand for mobility. City and regional infrastructure will be stressed further. These new technologies and the increasing pervasiveness of the sharing economy will result in yet unforeseen opportunities and consequences for infrastructure asset owners, city planners, traffic planners and enforcement authorities, insurance providers, and decision makers in the public and private realms.

Put it all together, and it is impossible not to be excited about the bright future ahead for urban mobility.

















[i] [i] Major arterial roads/ highways/ freeways that have both longer length and more lanes that urban and lesser roads with few off-ramps and traffic limits on neighbouring streets limiting the ability of those caught in traffic jams to evacuate the situation.


[ii] A sustainability assessment of electric vehicles as a personal mobility system” – Ricardo Faria;, Pedro Mouraa; Joaquim Delgadoa; Anibal T. de Almeidaa; Institute of Systems and Robotics – University of Coimbra, Dept. of Electrical and Computer Engineering, 3030-290 Coimbra, Portugal