Smart Cities: Critical Opportunities for Transit Agencies

Posted on September 28, 2017 by Katharina McLaughlin and Rachel Zack

As technology continues to evolve and influence societal trends, cities are exploring what it means to be a “smart city.” The core of this initiative is the desire to deploy and utilize advances in communication and information technologies to better understand and address challenges that face cities.

Improvements in these technologies are especially valuable to public transportation agencies, which are frequently charged with optimizing a complex system with competing needs, including customer mobility, congestion reduction, asset management, customer safety, fleet management and system prioritization. Adding to that complexity is the recent introduction of on-demand, privately operated mobility services and the rapid push toward an automated vehicle future. While both private and public leadership have declared that the future is shared, automated and electric, it will take a true “smart transportation agency” to realize this vision.

Electric autonomous vehicles, like the one pictured here during a demonstration at the 2017 UITP Summit in Montreal, are seen as a key mode in a smart city plan. Photo by METRO Magazine/J. Starcic
Electric autonomous vehicles, like the one pictured here during a demonstration at the 2017 UITP Summit in Montreal, are seen as a key mode in a smart city plan. Photo by METRO Magazine/J. Starcic

Connected/Automated Tech
In 2016, over 40,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. Connected and automated vehicles have the potential to significantly reduce that figure, as our transportation network begins to operate more as a connected system of constantly communicating vehicles, passengers, cyclists and pedestrians.

In 2015, New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) piloted crash-avoidance technologies that alerted drivers to hard braking, hard accelerating, hard turning, and abrupt lane changes by other vehicles. This data was collected to enable the TLC to determine if the crash-avoidance technologies helped reduce crashes across different types of taxi services. The preliminary results showed that for vehicles participating in the pilot, crashes decreased by almost 24%, compared to the industry-wide decrease of 1.38% during the same quarter.

Electric Vehicles
Planners, private mobility providers, state agencies, and transportation operators have made varying levels of commitment to an electric vehicle future. Fleet electrification brings upfront costs, such as the capital costs of purchasing fleet vehicles, and infrastructure investments, such as overnight charging facilities. But the long-term benefits of an electrified fleet on fuel consumption and emissions are clear. Making such infrastructure investments offers an opportunity to build or enhance a transportation agency’s communications network. That in turn will help to optimize the benefits of electric vehicles while also providing future capacity to support connected and automated vehicles.

Specific to the electric vehicle ecosystem, for example, a robust communication network will enable electric vehicles to pull energy from the grid during off-peak loading, and will enable drivers to locate charging stations that are supported by renewable energy instead of conventional power plants. Strong communication networks can also enable more data-driven service planning and system optimization, leveraging more connectivity with vehicles.

Shared Mobility
When discussing automated vehicles, professionals often talk about two extreme scenarios. In one scenario, privately owned automated vehicles are running around picking up kids and dropping off dry cleaning while the owners are working, creating increases in congestion, and emissions. The second scenario is one in which fleets or co-leased vehicles provide shared trips along high-demand routes and as first/last mile solutions to and from high-frequency transit, particularly services operating on dedicated rights-of-way in areas with significant congestion. Addressing these challenges will require regional policy solutions spanning infrastructure investment, pricing, and land use. The confluence of technology advancements, travel behavior changes, and increased electrification is likely to drive a need to reconsider funding models for the broader transportation system.

“While both private and public leadership have declared that the future is shared, automated and electric, it will take a true ‘smart transportation agency’ to realize this vision.”

For example, in January of 2016, Sao Paulo proposed creating a credit system for vehicle miles traveled. Private providers could purchase credits for a month of service and were charged a fee if the credits were exceeded. Credits were cheaper in underserved neighborhoods to make them more appealing to private providers. Hence, the ability to track and communicate vehicle miles traveled opens up an array of opportunities around pricing and incentives that could lead to more shared and equitable service.

The mobility environment is rapidly changing and agencies will need to leverage communications technology to understand impacts of these changes, create informed policy, and adapt. The examples cited here offer a glimpse into the possible technology-enabled leadership roles that transportation agencies could take to achieve a shared, autonomous, electric future. As we move to a future of technology-enabled mobility, it’s important for transit agencies to think beyond the bus and the train, and about the technology solutions that will help them identify energy and sizing efficiencies, and make mobility shared and accessible. Communications technology will play a central role.

Katharina McLaughlin and Rachel Zack are associate consultants with WSP USA.

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