Data, communications, and the future of urban mobility

Traffic jams, vehicle emissions, overtaxed mass transit, aging infrastructure: around the world, cities working to move people and goods in a safe, efficient, and environmentally friendly manner face daunting obstacles. Rapid urbanization is only exacerbating these challenges. By 2030, global urban mobility demand is expected to increase by 68%. Two decades later, it will have risen another 50%.

Recent technological advances present exciting opportunities to resolve existing challenges and realize new possibilities. Arup teamed with global telecommunications company Qualcomm to study the forces shaping these developments and help governments, businesses, and ordinary citizens understand what positive outcomes could look like.

The resulting report, “Intelligent Connectivity for Seamless Urban Mobility,” is available to download from Its findings: the rise of phenomena like “usership” (versus ownership), real-time data processing, and autonomous vehicles could greatly improve our daily journeys — and, by extension, our lives. To realize this potential, however, the public and private sectors must work together to leverage technology while paying close attention to security and sustainability.

I interviewed Chris Luebkeman, Arup Fellow and Global Director of Foresight, Research and Innovation, and Kiva Allgood, Global Strategic Market Development at Qualcomm, to learn more.


Did you find yourself thinking “I wish we had this now” about any of the report’s projections in particular?

Allgood: Effortless travel and connectivity, like traveling in an autonomous vehicle, or your luggage showing up at your final destination without you having to do any work.

What I get most excited about is how the ecosystem can learn and predict your preferences. You won’t have to pre-program it; it automatically knows you like the window seat. It automatically knows you prefer side streets to the highway, or a glass of good red wine with take-off, based on past experience. That’s the future of transportation.

Think about smartphones, drones, autonomous vehicles, wireless charging. The concept of devices learning from past behavior to enable intelligent mobility is something both Qualcomm and Arup are looking forward to.

Luebkeman: I have two things I’d like to see right away. I’d like autonomous vehicles to empower our aged and infirm to make visits to the doctor, to go to a restaurant or visit the hairdresser, in a way that they simply cannot right now because they are so dependent on others to provide transportation.

The second one, which Kiva mentioned, is being able to integrate the data flow of our lives in a very holistic way. In the future we’ll have an information system that truly allows this seamlessness, which right now we just don’t have. Some parts of this world do: the Oyster card in London allows access to multiple modes of transit across the city, or the Octopus card in Hong Kong can be used in all sorts of different retail venues. But right now most citizens of the world have a very disconnected and disjointed life. I think this report begins to address that.

An integrated picture is incredibly exciting. It’s also scary because of security issues, but these are surmountable with careful forethought. We’ll be able to decide how much information we want to share.

Rush-hour metro traffic in Hong Kong

What are the technology dependencies of the future you describe in this report? What are we missing today?

Allgood: In all honesty, the technology is here. The things that stand in the way are business practices, people, and sometimes politics. The technology is present; we just have to find ways to unleash it and collaborate to make this vision come true.

It’s going to take the development of open and interoperable standards. You’ve got to be sharing with other parties even if you may not have a vested interest in selling their product. The standardization of how information gets shared, and the underlying security, will be essential.

Luebkeman: I agree with that entirely. It comes down to some regulatory and philosophical issues rather than technology. How do we share things and what does that mean? We now need an evolution of business models.

Many of the modes of transportation you discuss in the report seem very business oriented: driverless cars, apps run by private companies, delivery drones. Do you envision the urban mobility systems of the future being operated by cities or the private sector?

Allgood: I would hope that they would be citizen based. But if you look at citywide Wi-Fi systems, for example, many have failed because they haven’t had a way to make money and sustain themselves. There’s a lot of innovation for innovation’s sake, as opposed to city services that can be maintained because there’s business to be had. Three things should be present: a public need, some way to fund the service, and finally a benefit to the public. So I wouldn’t call it a focus on business as much as a commitment to solving a service need.

One of the questions that arose from reading the report was, am I making the decision or is my past behavior making it? Is there still spontaneous life in this system?

Luebkeman: This is a really great question. I do believe that as our systems become more and more intelligent, we could become lazier. But I also believe the seamlessness can help me become even more spontaneous. Rather than being stuck at a bus stop twiddling my thumbs wondering when a bus is going to pick me up, if I knew it was coming in 15 minutes I might actually be able to get a cup of coffee or talk to someone or buy a paper. It’s about giving each user more information. I don’t believe it’s going to completely remove spontaneity from our lives; rather, it’s going to reduce the chaff.

The report predicts that travelers will have more mobility options than they do today; a driverless car could come pick you up whenever you need a ride, for example. How would this increase in the number of systems operating affect sustainability?

Luebkeman: If we can conserve resources by making more efficient use of what we have, that is one of the most sustainable things we can do.

Imagine not only knowing that the bus was arriving, but that there were four open seats and a spot for your bike

Who will be mining and analyzing the data needed to make these systems work?

Allgood: I’d like to propose that edge computing would actually do some of that. The data doesn’t necessarily have to go to the cloud for some great being to process it and send it back.

Luebkeman: Edge is another term for distributed computing. Basically it’s pushing computational power to the farthest extremity. Rather than concentrating or centralizing, it’s distributing it.

Allgood: Reimaging infrastructure and transportation to be multipurpose and provide true intelligence on the edge is paramount. Imagine not only knowing that the bus was arriving, but that there were four open seats and a spot for your bike.

It takes us back to the question, does the city need to buy 20 new buses, or does it just need to reimagine the current design by integrating intelligent connectivity and leveraging crowdsourcing?

But today’s bus seats don’t have sensors that can report whether they’re occupied. How could we access this level of information with our current infrastructure?

Allgood: The phone in your pocket could do it, or a camera, or a DSP [digital signal processor]. There are a lot of connectivity solutions out there today that will allow you to do it in a multipurpose way. You can put Wi-Fi in each bus with a camera and it will tell you whether you have open seats.

The technology exists to provide you that fidelity of information. It’s just a matter of embracing it and getting it out there.

Interview edited and condensed.

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