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Why urban transport urgently needs a digital makeover

Policymakers and city planners should harness a variety of technologies to revitalise the commute and boost sustainability

Ever since the rise of Uber and Lyft in the 2000s, micro-mobility and shared mobility both have helped to improve how we get around. Beyond adding an element of convenience, scooters, ride-sharing and other alternatives to driving also improve sustainability. Indeed, transportation accounts for roughly 25% of annual greenhouse gas emissions around the world. Helping to take cars off the road is seen by investors, policymakers and employers as a compelling strategy for reducing that footprint. Unfortunately, mass transit, especially public bus services, is in urgent need of a major digital redesign, with most public sector models simply out of date or underfunded. 

Suburbanisation began in earnest in the US after WW2. Well-to-do residents started to move beyond the metropolis, with stores, restaurants, and offices following. This led to the decentralisation of economic activity, and this physical separation of the remaining city-dwellers from suburban opportunities was known as ‘spatial mismatch’. 

The US Federal government tried, by and large unsuccessfully, to address these inequalities, with the goal being to provide mass transit programmes for so-called reverse commuters. These efforts were plagued by high costs, though, with projects exposed to the challenges of applying mass transit approaches to a distributed employer base. Because this kind of transportation, by itself, couldn’t resolve a set of complex and varied social issues, most of the programmes were discontinued.  

City centres, though, began to revitalise, with a new generation of residents cherishing the vibrancy of the city as their home, while willing to travel to industrial parks or offices miles away from the city centre. This new generation tends to eschew personal cars, favouring ride-sharing and other shared mobility options, instead. Still, though, convenient, effective reverse commute options are scarce.

Can tech take cars off the road?

It almost goes without saying the dominance of the car is detrimental to our collective sustainability goals. The Urban Mobility Report shows the amount of fuel wasted in the US due to traffic congestion stood at 3.5 billion gallons in 2019, and led to 36 million tons of excess greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, according to the Brookings Institution, 7.5 million, or up to 10%, of households in US metropolitan areas are zero-vehicle households, and these residences can only reach over 40% of metro-wide jobs via transit within 90 minutes. 

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Despite the policy benefits of using public transit infrastructure for reverse commutes, public transit systems in most major US cities were designed around established commuter routes. Bus and rail transit schedules are aligned with traditional, inbound commuter demand. Stops are optimised to reach the maximum number of residences, which doesn’t necessarily align with suburban office or industrial workplace locations, typically clustered at a distance from residential concentrations.  

A 2019 study of the Boston Metro reverse commute identified significant barriers for workers living in the urban core who want to reach suburban employment locations. “The US Census Bureau’s data show that 15.4% of all commuting trips in the Boston region are reverse commutes, but relatively few of these trips are made by transit.”

Transforming the future of urban transportation is a now core priority for many employers. These organisations aren’t limited to companies like Amazon, and other retailers, whose business models depend on the ability to fulfil customer service orders from large warehouses often sited far from the neighbourhoods where their employees live. It’s often the case in agriculture, that field and processing plant workers face long commutes, which are hampered by poor public transportation and limited access to vehicles. 

Experimenting with digital transportation

Various alternatives are springing up, although most shared mobility solutions, from on-demand ride-hailing to e-scooters, require a constant level of high demand. Thus, they’ve predominantly taken hold within urban areas. Peak demand, such as during commute periods, meanwhile, leads to supply scarcity and surge pricing – far from ideal conditions. Ride-hailing is an individual mode too; it’s inherently costly and doesn’t address key issues, especially traffic congestion and environmental sustainability. Micro-mobility solutions, including e-bikes and scooters, are effective over short distances, only, and they’re sensitive to weather conditions.  

Office workers riding e-scooters on a morning into work

Google has offered some of its workers free e-scooters

Nevertheless, with access to employment feeding into our quality of life and social mobility, providing more effective and green transportation is crucial for promoting the health and wellbeing of urban communities. Employers, for what it’s worth, do seem to be taking note of these facts. When Aston Martin sought to implement a commute solution for its UK-based employees, according to BusinessLeader, congestion and sustainability played a key role in the decision.

While some firms offer subsidised bus and carpool programmes, others, like Microsoft, have chosen to blend convenience with sustainability targets. The tech giant has, for example, developed an internal mobile platform that allows people to optimise their daily travel, with integrations into other Microsoft products, like Outlook. There’s a growing list of key players focused on mobility, including some of the world’s most innovative companies, like Alphabet. Google’s parent company has spent tens of billions of dollars each year, for the past six years, on developing better options for Google Maps, Waze, Waymo, Sidewalk Labs, and even at Google X – the company’s “moonshot factory”.  

Reinventing the bus

The market is yet open to vendors meeting niche needs, although the smart bus platform Zeelo, for instance, is making inroads. The firm aims to drastically decrease carbon emissions by encouraging a “modal shift” towards shared mobility combined with mass transit vehicles. A single 46-seater standard bus, for example, takes 30 cars off the road. 

Many companies working on urban transport have made net-zero central to their goals. Zeelo is a bit different, insofar as the company is actively switching all its operating bus fleets to electric vehicles (EVs), with hopes to get there by 2030. This is what it takes to deliver net-zero journeys in the UK, and adds up to taking almost 12 million cars off the road per year. Zeelo’s co-founder and CEO, Sam Ryan, makes it clear that getting to his goal “must be a collective initiative between corporates, technologists, scientists, engineers, policymakers and governments”. He adds “dependencies – such as sufficient power charging stations in remote, peri-urban and rural areas – are paramount if we wish to switch to EV bus fleets and make this a viable mass transportation solution”.  

The firm devises routes through its artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm, shaping these based on where employees live. Bus routes are designed for drop-offs either at or near the location of the workplace, avoiding the need for multiple transfers too. Zeelo appears to be well-suited to support first and last-mile solutions, such as carpooling, micro-mobility, and public transit. It can also propose tailored alternatives where too many transfers would render a commute inconvenient.

Traffic jam on the M25

Companies like Zeelo aim to take millions of cars off the road

Active in London, Citymapper’s Project Grasshopper, meanwhile, claims to have reinvented the entire software stack for running and operating a bus, based on the notion that conventional buses haven’t evolved enough. “They still roam around cities utilising old systems of operations and inefficient technology,” the company says. “If we’re going to solve urgent problems of congestion and infrastructure, we need buses to improve, to operate smarter. In the era of smartphones, we can have responsive buses that react to real-time needs.” 

To dig into the underlying forces that drive these sweeping changes, one of the mobility world’s leading experts, Saskia Hausler, coauthored a special report some years ago. In it, Hausler and her McKinsey colleagues argued that "as shared mobility continues to gain momentum, automakers and their suppliers need to understand what’s driving its popularity”. As these shifts continue to shape the way policymakers and city planners design what the commute looks like in 2022, it’s clear we’re only partway through the journey.

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