A journey to the heart of smart mobility

Can mobility be smart? Yes, when it integrates transport, infrastructure and digital solutions. The objective is to make travel safer, cleaner and more efficient. This approach is winning over numerous cities around the world, to make urban life more… human?

Smart cities : the future is now

San Francisco, Dubai, Helsinki, Barcelona... These cities are fantastic examples of smart mobility. Through the bold use of data, they manage to optimize travel, waste management and their energy consumption.

Did you know that cities are becoming smarter. These smart cities have understood that they can harness new technologies to improve the quality of services provided to their inhabitants and reduce their carbon footprint as well as their costs. From energy networks to waste management, school occupancy and mobility – everything is tracked, measured and analyzed.

Mobility, in particular, is a major headache for cities around the world, gridlocked with traffic jams which slow down inhabitants’ lives and pollute their lungs. San Francisco, in the United States, is no exception. Several years ago, the Californian city began to tackle the problem via its Municipal Transportation Agency. These initiatives aim to reduce urban congestion, particularly by adopting measures placing the megalopolis among the select group of “smart cities”.

The municipal authorities have established a solution providing inhabitants with real-time information on the availability of parking spaces, while dynamic pricing encourages drivers to prioritize their use. A smart traffic light system also attempts to reduce congestion.

Data at the heart of smart cities

In 2009, the city launched an “open data” initiative to increase the transparency of municipal data. Any company is free to analyze this data before potentially developing an app to optimize transport time from one point in the city to another.

In Barcelona, the same open data approach has led to the release of numerous apps. App&Town, for example, calculates the best possible routes between two points, while Bicing provides information about the availability of self-service bikes.

This data has enabled the city of Barcelona to create a smart waste management system, which uses sensors fitted to skips to detect when they are full. The results speak for themselves, with a sharp reduction in journeys carried out by waste collection trucks. The Catalan capital has also created an underground system, involving 40km of tubes to transport waste to collection centers. The more tubes, the fewer trucks!

For modern cities, being smart is an investment which gives back space to its residents and users. According to a study published by Juniper Networks, these smart urban mobility projects have the capacity to free up almost 60 hours of inhabitants’ time. Open data is among the top ways of meeting this target, at 31 hours, followed by smart traffic management systems (19.4 hours) and systems enabling coordination of different means of transports (7.8 hours).

From the hyperloop to flying taxis

In 2013, the smart and futuristic city of Dubai launched its Dubai Smart City project. The ambition is quite simply to be exemplary in terms of smart cities and transport innovation. In some parts of the city, it has launched an on-demand bus service available to passengers who download a dedicated mobile app, reserve the bus and pay online, as with a taxi or private-hire car service.

Dubai is also investing in autonomous transport. At the start of 2020, the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) signed a contract with the UK firm BeemCar to develop a network of “sky pods”. Suspended on rails more than 7m off the ground, these can transport up to four passengers between different parts of the city at 50km/h.

Other futuristic projects are also on the cards, including the construction of a Hyperloop linking Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, in just 12 minutes. Hyperloop is a project to create an ultra-fast train capable of reaching 1200km/h by travelling through low-pressure tubes on a cushion of air.

Driverless taxis and floating pods

In 2017, the city of Dubai also tested Volocopter's drone-taxis. These entirely autonomous vehicles, resembling miniature helicopters, can carry two people for flights of around 30 minutes at a speed of 50km/h. Volocopter successfully completed another test in Germany at the end of 2019, paving the way for new forms of mobility in Europe. According to McKinsey & Company, autonomous taxis and shuttles will account for up to 35% of urban traffic globally by 2030.

The craziest projects are still to come however, including floating pods called Hover Cars, which have come straight from the imagination of researchers at the University of Chengdu, in China, in collaboration with Volkswagen. In the near future, these magnetic-levitation (maglev) vehicles could travel through our city streets a few centimeters off the ground.

Unless the limelight is stolen from them by the ultra-fast transportation project being developed by Arrivo, a Colorado company that plans to launch vehicles in 2021 capable of travelling at over 300km/h, also using maglev technology.

Smart cities and urban planning

There are infinite example of cities that have gone over to the light side in relation to urban mobility. For researcher Carlos Moreno, author of Droit de Cité, de la Ville-Monde à la Ville du Quart d’Heure (Editions de l’Observatoire), however, the ideal smart city is one in which you can reach everything you need within 15 minutes. “Today, we should stop thinking about the technological solutions to be adopted for urban mobility. Instead, we should understand why we travel,” says the researcher, scientific director and co-founder of the Chaire eTI think tank at Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University/IAE Sorbonne Business School. “If I bring a certain number of services closer to where inhabitants live, if I manage to strike a new rebalance between business, residential and shopping districts, then I free up public space and transport. The main challenge is to transform the urban space, which is still very mono-functional, into a poly-centric city, in order to offer quality of life within short distances. The aim is to bring together the six key urban social functions: living, working, shopping, healthcare, learning and self-fulfillment,” adds Professor Moreno.

Nowadays, of course, having all the services we need within 15 minutes of home is far from being a reality for everyone. Travel is, and will continue to be, a human need as well as a major aspiration. But at the heart of smart cities, smart mobility will be increasingly comfortable, safe and, above all, sustainable.


Photos credits: metamorworks/Shutterstock