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How Smart City Startups Seek to Disrupt Urban Transportation

It was an idea that seemed to have all the right ingredients for the tech-saturated world of urban mobility of the century. In 2015, a Helsinki start-up unveiled a plan for something it called “mobility as a service,” or MaaS, based on ideas that had been developed in a 2014 master’s thesis in a Finnish university. The company, Global MaaS, had created an app that gives city dwellers a digital one-stop-shop for all sorts of travel options — public transit, taxis, ride-sharing, bike sharing, and more.

Using Google’s online mapping feature, commuters can plot the best way to get from A to B, then, through the app, source or book the modes of transportation that match the route and preferences. users. Global MaaS sells monthly subscriptions, much like mobile phone plans, which offer various combinations – up to a given number of transit rides, a certain number of carpool rides, etc. ; reservations are made via smart phones and a single transaction covers all stages of a trip. The “unified” payment is supposed to encourage multimodal travel, as a Portuguese study from 2021 pointed out. The company’s mission is to provide a “real” alternative to owning a private vehicle. “MaaS,” according to the company’s website, “could be the most powerful tool to decarbonize transportation for future generations.”

The idea quickly caught on with other mobility entrepreneurs, as well as venture capitalists and transportation giants like Siemens. “We need to make end-to-end trip planning easier,” says deputy managing director Roland Busch.

At the end of 2019, Global MaaS had nearly 54 million euros raised ($84 million) from investors such as BP and Mitsubishi. Its app, known as Whim, was available in Helsinki, Vienna, Antwerp and a few other cities. Other versions of MaaS had appeared in Stockholm, as well as trials in North America, India and Australia. There is even a MaaS industry association.

Yet despite all the hype and seeming promise, the concept didn’t take off. Transportation experts know that people’s travel habits are hard to change. Some analysts have listed the long list of stakeholders — private, public, and others — that need to be on the same page to ensure MaaS companies deliver an advantage. Others have raised questions about the role municipalities should play in monitoring and regulating these types of businesses.

It has also become clear that in some jurisdictions, municipal transit agencies have not welcomed this innovation – most are unwilling to forgo pricing and the distribution of fares to third parties – and consumers have been slow to take notice. register there. According to a recent report by Bloomberg/CityLab, some MaaS companies are also facing financial difficulties because the business model is not particularly profitable yet. “If you want to disrupt automotive, one of the biggest industries in the world, it will take some time,” said Global MaaS founder Sampo Hietanen.

The uncertainty surrounding the MaaS sector speaks volumes about the promises, risks and perils of digital urban mobility, which is arguably the most sought-after prize in the sprawling smart city industry. Smart mobility encompasses a wide range of digital technologies and applications, among those already widely used (car and bike sharing services, carpooling, public transport smart cards, parking applications, electric vehicles and the range in constant expansion of micro-mobility products on the market) to those that are in full development (autonomous cars, buses and trucks, “intelligent” traffic lights, sidewalk mapping, delivery drones, or even streets where luminous paving stones are automatically adjust based on traffic levels detected by sensors, an idea floated by Sidewalk Labs for its now canceled Quayside project).

Many of these technologies will rely heavily on artificial intelligence algorithms and multi-layered digital mapping applications, such as Google Maps, Tom Tom and Waze, as well as proprietary systems developed by car manufacturers. They combine GPS, satellite imagery and cellphone signals with a rapidly expanding collection of other data streams, from dynamic bike sharing or transit maps to parking addresses and eventually, perhaps, the location of unfilled potholes. Some of the granular information that powers these services will come from the cellphones of people moving through cities, while other slices will be harvested from the open data portals of city agencies.

In some areas, there are huge opportunities offered by technologies that fall within the general framework of smart mobility: more responsive planning of traffic and public transport; improving accessibility for groups facing barriers to getting around in cities (residents with disabilities, the elderly, children); and better low-carbon alternatives to private fossil fuel vehicles.

Yet the disruptive arrival of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft — which pre-pandemic fueled congestion and eroded public transit use — serves as a warning that future market-driven mobility innovations will require a careful consideration, careful policy planning and clear- in-depth assessments of costs and benefits.

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Since the dawn of the railway age, transportation technologies have done more to physically shape and reshape cities than any other innovation, with the possible exception of digital networks. From trains to streetcars, trams, cars, trucks, planes, towering container ships, elevators and high-speed trains, the sprawling narrative of urbanization follows the powerful trajectory of transportation technology and its ability to reduce distance, to accelerating trade and changing the global environment.

The digitalization, automation and electrification of transport herald the next chapter in this story, and there is good reason to assume that these braided forms of innovation will have far-reaching consequences.

Electrification – not just cars, but everything from planes to e-bikes – offers the potential to wean 21st-century society from its reliance on gasoline, but the environmental benefits only materialize if the power grids that support all of these new electric vehicles can be both scaled up and decarbonized.

Automation promises to eliminate driver error in driving trucks and cars and give rise to new forms of urban transportation. But AV vehicles won’t be widely used until navigation technologies have been fully debugged and cities have developed rules and standards governing the operation of these vehicles in the spaces they share with pedestrians, cyclists and other people. other non-automated vehicles.

The digitalization of urban transport, which is closely linked to both automation and electrification, encompasses an ever-expanding set of technologies that transform vehicles into Wi-Fi-enabled mobile computers. Thus equipped, they are linked to complex webs of mapping software, GPS navigation systems, sharing apps and digitally enhanced infrastructure platforms that govern the operation of streets, roads and highways based on continuous readings of the flow of traffic.

Many of these applications already exist, but they are generally not integrated in a way that allows cities to take full advantage of digital network technology to deal with congestion. More problematically, the prospect of fully digitized mobility also raises crucial questions about privacy, surveillance and security.

In recent years, so-called “black hats” (i.e. programmers hired to find bugs) have figured out how to remotely hack Teslas and commandeer infotainment systems, operate doors, and modify controls. steering and acceleration modes, but not taking control of the vehicle, safety week Magazine reported in May 2021. Stories of hacking AVs and other electric vehicles have also circulated, sparking fears about the weaponization potential of self-driving cars. Some researchers, in turn, have documented potential security vulnerabilities and cyberattacks against Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), highly integrated digital/sensor networks that monitor and control traffic.

COVID-19 has further revealed how politics and abrupt shifts in public opinion can affect the evolution of emerging mobility technologies as much as advances in engineering. Because the pandemic has coincided with a series of severe weather crises and served as invigorating lessons about the experience of global disasters, many governments have stepped up plans to cut carbon emissions and set dates for the phase-out of combustion engine vehicles – something that never happened before 2020.

These measures, in turn, have fueled demand for battery electric vehicles, whose performance and range have steadily improved, and prompted governments to increase investment in charging infrastructure and network capacity. A growing number of major automakers, in turn, have pledged to go all-electric in the coming years – a development that could happen sooner than expected. According to BloombergNEF, in fact, global electric vehicle sales jumped 80% in 2021 and accounted for 7.2% of all vehicle sales in the first half of 2021.

Likewise, the market for “micro-mobility” devices, many of which are battery-powered, has seen its own pandemic rebound. With car traffic and public transport use declining, many cities have dramatically expanded their bike lane networks to accommodate the growing use of e-scooters and e-bikes, as well as e-scooters based on applications of conventional bikes and municipal bike sharing. services.

Market research has predicted rapid growth in this segment, and some assessments have revealed that people who rely on micro-mobility devices travel longer distances. “According to a U.S. micro-mobility company that rents electric scooters,” noted a 2020 McKinsey Partners study, “average trip distances have increased 26% since the start of the pandemic, trips in some cities, such as Detroit, increasing by up to 60 percent.”

These developments remind us that the future of digital mobility will be radically different from the familiar, traffic-congested world of big cities.

Reproduced with permission from Dream States: Smart Cities, Technology and the Pursuit of Urban Utopias (Coach House Books, 2022).