Published: Sep 09, 2022

what is the future of urban transportation?

A picture containing graphical user interfaceDescription automatically generatedThe world’s urban population has been growing rapidly over the past few decades. Today cities account for more than half of the global population and the United Nations expects that this proportion will rise to 68 percent by 2050. In Asia alone, more than 2 billion people currently live in urban areas.

With urban migration showing no signs of slowing down, cities around the world are expanding fast. Moreover, suburban sprawl has ramped up during the Covid-19 pandemic as remote working has allowed workers to move away from city centres to more affordable and spacious residential areas.

Suburban sprawl brings numerous challenges to city planners, not least of which is ensuring that people can move quickly and easily from their homes to their workplaces, commercial districts, amenities, and so on. Transportation infrastructure has the potential to shape cities both geographically and socially so it’s important to get it right. When designed well, transportation infrastructure can bring people and things closer together. It can also help to promote greater levels of pedestrianisation.

For most cities transportation is one of the largest areas of spending, if not the largest. BCG notes that it is also an area of focus for innovation and entrepreneurship — in the past few years the sector has seen the rise of ride-hailing and micromobility companies, autonomous driving pilots, and mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) platforms.) platforms.

However, given the fact that new transportation projects usually involve the dispossession of land, it is important to strike a balance between efficient transportation and the overall public good. With this in mind, how do we plan urban transportation systems that give rise to the best possible outcomes for everyone involved?


Imagining cities of people: resident-centred transportation

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Building resident-centric transportation systems[UA1]  means considering the different demographics of the cities or towns these systems are intended to serve.

Over the coming decades, one demographic in particular will place increasing demands on urban transportation infrastructure: senior citizens. A quarter of Singaporeans will be aged 65 or over by 2030, according to the Ministry of Health, and other cities around the world are similarly grappling with ageing populations. To ensure that residents can flourish well into old age, when driving or walking long distances is difficult, cities need to provide easily accessible high-quality public transportation that connects key amenities like healthcare centres and shops.



By contrast, younger people tend to travel further to get to work, socialise, and access amenities. For this demographic, tech-enabled MaaS has proved to be an effective urban transportation solution. Privatisation can help to drive innovation in this space, but it may not be the right approach for transportation as a whole. As BCG notes, private and public mobility stakeholders tend to have different goals. Private operators, seeking to maximise revenues, tend to put more vehicles on the roads while public ones usually aim to reduce the number of vehicles on the roads to ease congestion and cut down pollution.


Imagining cities of things: experience-centred transportation

The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) is one of the key driving forces currently shaping the future of the transportation sector. AI is increasingly being used within the sector to enhance the user experience. It can, for example, be used to find the best routes and optimal speed of travel, taking into account data on traffic conditions, road works, and other things. It is also being used by public and private organisations for things like asset management and monitoring traffic to boost road safety.

Organisations are also using advanced data analytics to understand how transportation assets are being used and to make design improvements accordingly. For example, city planners can use advanced analytics to build infrastructure around well-worn paths, which sometimes diverge from planned ones.

An experience-centric approach to transportation has also led to the concept of freeway removal which usually involves replacing freeways with parks, amenities, or residential buildings, often with the intention of making urban areas more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly. In line with this concept, the government of Singapore has unveiled a plan to move some transportation infrastructure underground in order to “free up land for people-centric uses.”


Are AVs and UAVs the future?

Emerging technologies like autonomous vehicles (AVs) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) are expected to play a significant role in the urban mobility systems of the future.

These technologies have the potential to unlock major benefits for cities, including reduced CO2 emissions and more efficient last-mile deliveries. Using drones to carry out airborne last-mile deliveries will reduce the need for diesel trucks, thereby cutting traffic congestion and pollution while slashing waiting times for customers from days to hours. According to a McKinsey report on the future of last-mile deliveries, “automation has significant potential to increase efficiency. Autonomous delivery vehicles (ADVs) are and will be the dominant technology in this regard, and they have the power to reshuffle the entire industry.” The report also noted that technological developments in the last-mile delivery ecosystem are occurring at a faster pace than expected.

However, we have some way to go before cities can start reaping the benefits of AVs and UAVs. Despite major advances in AV technology, fully autonomous driving is still not possible in busy urban environments. Moreover, legislation has so far not kept pace with the technological developments and there is still little consensus among lawmakers on how to regulate AVs due to ongoing safety concerns, questions over who is liable in the event of an accident involving a driverless vehicle, and the need to protect workers made redundant by AV technology.


How can governments and enterprises plan?

There are a few things public and private institutions can do to plan for better urban mobility systems. As Sim says, “there needs to be a little social engineering put in place to attract people. If you build it, they will come, so to speak.”

In a technological testbed on Sentosa, Grab and NCS, with the support of Sentosa Development Corporation, have teamed up to pilot an autonomous vehicle (AV) robot food delivery service designed to serve guests on Sentosa’s beaches and F&B merchants along Siloso Beach.

Collecting anonymised data on commuter travel patterns during peak hours can also help city planners ensure that transportation infrastructure is meeting the needs and expectations of people and organisations to the greatest possible extent. This could include, for example, monitoring road traffic with satellite technology and using the collected data to plan the construction, removal, widening, or narrowing of roads to ensure that traffic can flow as smoothly as possible.

City governments can also use levy systems to incentivise or disincentivise certain modes of travel or transport routes.


What’s needed

Preparing for the future of urban transportation involves embracing new, cleaner sources of energy and modes of transport and ensuring that the right infrastructures and regulatory frameworks are in place to support new innovations in the urban mobility space, including:

  • Smart technology
  • Electrification
  • Automation

Ultimately, strong partnerships between private enterprises and governments will be key to unlocking the full potential of these innovations.

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