As the world rapidly urbanises, transport needs within cities are changing. In Australia, capital cities have experienced tremendous growth, with two thirds of the population currently residing in them. It is also estimated that Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney’s populations will be the largest growing among top industrial countries by 2050, so millions of additional people will need a way to get from point A to point B in an efficient and environmentally friendly manner.
In tackling this challenge, however, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. How we design and implement new transport solutions will depend on whether they’re being created from the ground up in new cities that offer a blank slate for development, or if they’re being integrated with current infrastructure and behaviour patterns in existing cities.
New cities: taking a ground-up approach
Let’s start with new cities. Think of a master planned project like Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates, or even a new area being built from scratch like that planned for Greater Sydney. What type of transport will have the biggest impact, and how will they shape the development of the city?
In the 20th century, cities were largely built to accommodate cars — specifically, cars that run on fossil fuels. In these new cities, there is a fantastic opportunity to take a more sustainable approach to automobiles by creating an environment specifically designed for electric vehicles (EV). This ranges from designing roads with EV infrastructure such as charging stations already in place — making them as common as petrol stations are today — to more adventurous ideas, like wireless charging, which is currently being tested in the City of Adelaide.
According to noted urban design expert James Moore of Jacobs Advance Planning Group, an equally effective way to sustainably achieve a high degree of local accessibility and regional mobility right from the start is through transit-oriented development.
This process starts by laying down an extensive regional public transport network, which can either be rail-based or some form of bus rapid transit. With a fixed route and dedicated stations, this regional network will provide a framework for efficient development in the coming decades. The tallest buildings and most intense development can be placed within walking distance of the transit station, creating a dense activity centre of jobs, residences, shops, restaurants, and services. For a majority of residents, going to work or going shopping is as easy as walking a few blocks.
Further away from the stations, you can have less dense development and single-family homes. For people in these less dense areas, an array of intriguing transport modes can step in and assist. On-demand shuttle buses, like those currently being tested by the NSW Government in Sydney and on the Central Coast, can dynamically route pick-ups and drop-offs based on users, who can hail a ride via their phones or online. This system improves operational efficiency and reduces carbon emissions by eliminating unnecessary stops.
A German company called Floatility is tackling the last kilometre by developing connected electric scooters that can be accessed on demand. Since the scooters communicate in real time to a back-end server that constantly tracks location, users need only launch an app on their phone to find one nearby, rent it, and take it for a ride.
Floatility is not the only company bringing last kilometre transport to market. There are scores of electric bikes, skateboards, and hovercraft all vying to be your new mode of urban transport.
Overall, the ground-up, blank-slate approach is a long-term play: it takes a large initial investment to build out an EV charging infrastructure or lay down a regional transport network, and decades to fully develop the areas around transit stations. But for cities that undertake it, and ensure the last kilometre is easily covered, the end result is an immensely accessible city with mobility baked into its very design.
Existing cities: fine-tuning what’s already there
Implementing vast new types of infrastructure might be a best practice for new cities being built from scratch. But what transport will work best in an area that’s already densely developed, be it Sydney, Melbourne, New York, Tokyo, or even Cairo? For these cities, a better bet is to find ways to improve the efficiency of what’s already in place.
A good starting place is making more efficient use of their stretches of existing roads. Autonomous vehicles and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technologies that allow automobiles to ‘talk’ to each other provide the opportunity to improve street capacity by allowing more cars to safely be on the road at the same time. Meanwhile, financial and behavioural levers like congestion pricing tolls can limit the number of cars on the road during peak hours.
IoT sensors have a role to play as well. Smart traffic lights, for example, can vary their signal in real time to improve traffic flow when they sense that several cars are stuck waiting at a red light while no cars are using the green light. Alternately, these smart traffic lights can sense when a bus, light rail, or some other form of public transport is approaching and make sure to give it signal priority.
A best practice that existing cities implement is re-examining how much road space is dedicated to automobiles instead of pedestrians or cyclists. In cities like Portland, Oregon or Amsterdam, for example, many roads give bike lanes the same width as car lanes, while some roads are completely dedicated to cyclists.
Additional space on the roads might be set aside for other emerging forms of mobility. VeloMetro, a Canadian start-up, is designing an enclosed electric cycle that provides car-like mobility for short urban trips. Meanwhile, Catapult Design is creating a new type of pedicab that will modernise the traditional tuk-tuks or rickshaws common to Southeast Asia.
As they re-allocate road space to accommodate these alternate types of mobility, city planners will need to understand the trade-offs involved for the transit system as a whole. For example, if they put in a bike lane, they lose a lane for cars. Software from companies like Autodesk now exists to help urban designers model their systems in four dimensions – the three dimensions of space, as well as the dimension of time. As a result, planners can simulate how their proposed changes will impact street capacity and commute times before any changes are implemented.
As a final step, existing cities should look at how they can modify the usage patterns of the millions of people already living there. One small way to make a big difference is simply by properly incentivising residents to use public transport rather than driving. Financial incentives have shown to be effective in this regard. They are just one more set of tools existing cities have at their disposal to help shape transport over the coming decades.
Two paths, one destination
While they might take different approaches, new cities and older cities will likely arrive at a similar destination in the year 2050: a cityscape where transport has specifically been designed to be more efficient, more environmentally friendly, and more enjoyable.
In the case of new, blank-slate cities, this will largely be achieved through big infrastructure investments, augmented by last kilometre solutions. For older cities, it will mainly occur through a series of smaller refinements to the existing transport environment.
Regardless of approach, there is a huge opportunity for planners and designers to use the proper software and other technologies to meet these challenges and ensure that cities can continue to flourish as hubs of people and activity in the 21st century and beyond.