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Close your eyes for a moment and imagine the perfect city of the future. Let us guess – was one of the first things you saw some form of transport? Maybe it flew or hovered or flashed past at super speed. Maybe it was attached to your feet, your back or even your hands? The point is, mobility is a fundamental part of how we experience cities. It’s also a key part of how they function; you only need to look at the way public-transport strikes bring capitals to their knees or the controversy over the rise in e-scooters (more on them later) to understand that.

Yet the perfect future city isn’t something out of Blade Runner, filled with gimmicks and flying cars. It’s more subtle than that. It’s a place with transport infrastructure that’s optimised for moving people around in the most efficient and thoughtful ways possible.

This city offers plenty of choice and serves all segments of the population, from those in the urban core to the outskirts and even beyond – and from every demographic and age group. A significant proportion of people travel that first and last mile using their own power – cycling or walking – while frequent and reliable trains, buses and ferries take them the rest of the way. There are seamless connections to long-distance transit by air, rail and sea. Cars are still present in some parts of the city but sit on the bottom rung of the priority ladder in terms of infrastructure and investment. The whole system is cohesive and, most of all, puts people at the centre.

OK, so this city mostly remains a dream – but there are some places that are getting close. Helsinki, for example, has an ambitious plan to transform public space by 2050 by challenging widely accepted beliefs about how cities ought to work. It has established what its mobility priorities are, in order: walking, biking, public transport, cargo and cars. “The idea is to transform the whole concept, the idea of the urban structure,” says Rikhard Manninen, director of the Urban Planning Division for the Finnish capital.

Helsinki is using that as a basis to test solutions that push people in this direction, such as a small autonomous bus for on-demand local transport or omitting any parking in its newly redeveloped industrial waterfront areas.

“It’s market-based so if someone wants to offer parking they can,” says Manninen. “But we think, because the price of the land is quite high, the space will be used for something else. And because in these areas you can really live without a car, that should mean people use public transport and walk instead of driving. That was a radical decision actually.”

Many of Helsinki’s initiatives are happening in co-operation with non-state companies, showing how crucial private enterprise is to this transformation. In fact, some of the most promising business opportunities in the field of mobility lie in figuring out how best to bring various elements together, developing both the software and hardware that will help a city or region thrive and navigating that public-private intersection in intelligent ways.

US transport technology company Via offers a glimpse at how something like this can work. The 500-person company is busy developing partnerships with transport agencies, bus operators and municipal governments. In Berlin, for example, the New York-based firm operates a van-like ride-share mass-transit service called Berlkönig. Designed to complement and feed the existing public-transport network, the people carriers run where normal buses don’t and have pushed mass transit to a segment of the population that hadn’t used it much before, increasing overall ridership. The company is also running a pilot programme in concert with LA’s metro system where Via cars complement rail and bus services to cover the entire journey seamlessly and make it more attractive to residents.

Set up in 2012, Via has since attracted more than $400m (€350m) in funding and delivered over 60 million rides to date. Now in 18 countries, it is one of the furthest along in trying to take a multi-faceted approach to streamlining urban mobility. “We’re providing more flexible options,” says Dillon Twombly, Via’s chief revenue officer. “If you think about subway, light rail and bus, those are all very efficient under the right circumstances. But then there’s the first and last-mile challenge, or under-served neighbourhoods and rural areas where it simply doesn’t make sense to run a fixed-route bus. These are important considerations for a lot of cities and it’s about economic empowerment as much as moving people around.” For Via, as in our perfect city, the ultimate goal is a holistic offering that takes the passenger from beginning to end in a straightforward way. From a city official’s point of view, these routes can be suggested based not only on what’s most efficient for the traveller but also on what’s best for the network.

“You’re looking at a fully integrated transportation experience,” says Twombly. “Cities are looking at service-planning overall: how can they use existing or new modes of transport to meet those needs and integrate them into one single experience? We partner with cities to make sure they get the data so they can look at planning in a new way and they’re not looking at just a fixed route or on-demand services. You want to see all your transport options and how you can best serve different rider subgroups.”

As well as the newer businesses shaping the future of mobility, you have the old guard – in particular, carmakers. Motor vehicles look set to remain a big part of cities, especially as autonomous and electric offerings enter the market. But even the automotive companies themselves are waking up to the fact that simply flooding the streets with them is not desirable. “We cannot just produce cars for the sake of producing cars,” says Peter Schreyer, head of design management at Hyundai. “This is not going to be a solution for the future.”

So how to proceed? One option being pursued by Hyundai – not to mention Volkswagen, Daimler and Toyota – is to transform into more of a mobility company, moving beyond its traditional remit of manufacturing cars for purchase by individuals and into a world of renting, leasing and sharing. Electric engines allow for new shapes and sizes of cars, as well as flexibility in terms of their layout – which also means they can be more compact. All of this opens up new options for the role that cars play in our cities. “Imagine if the world had no parked cars,” says Schreyer. “That would be an ideal case, if cars were used like airplanes are – by sharing – so they can be in use around the clock.”

Hyundai recognises that if a new fleet of compact autonomous vehicles could be utilised to offer green rides where public transport is unable to fill the gap, the car could become an integral part of a city’s transport network. But they can’t keep existing and operating in isolation as they mostly do now.

“The whole system needs to be looked at,” says Schreyer. “Everybody needs to work together to move things in the right direction. And I think the car industry needs to help find the solutions. But individual transport is still something that people want and need. It’s important that there is a variety of options offered so that we still have some kind of freedom, not just the one same car everywhere.”

Other companies working towards expanding this choice: BMW Motorcycles, whose DC Roadster is a zero-emission motorcycle aimed at city and long-distance riders alike; Sweden’s Scania, which is working on a bus-like multi-purpose vehicle called NXT that can move people during commuting hours, deliver cargo at off-peak times and even collect rubbish at night; and Citroën, which recently released its urban Ami One Concept.

“It’s managed completely by your smartphone,” says CEO Linda Jackson of the bright orange all-electric two-seater, which was unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show. “But also the way you interact with the car means that you could share it, rent it, buy it, lease it – you could even have home delivery. And it’s the easiest car to park.”

The fact that there’s a virtual army of businesses working on a radical rethink of how we move around presents many opportunities. Entrepreneurs in particular should be an essential part of the mix in tackling our mobility challenges because they can see things that our sometimes slow-moving governments cannot. They can also respond quicker to perceived needs, especially where new technology is involved. Take the upcoming airline – working name “Moxy” – from serial aviation entrepreneur David Neeleman. One of the most important aspects of the operation will be the ability to bundle services from platforms such as Airbnb and Uber together with the flight, to streamline the booking process as well as the actual journey. For example, your taxi pick-up times would be automatically adjusted for a delayed flight.

Similarly, Japan’s largest airline, All Nippon Airways, recently announced that it is partnering with Yokohama National University and others on a “universal mobility as a service” project, which would link up ground transport, flights and more. If successful, these sorts of endeavours could mean greater convenience for passengers and better data for companies.

Yet this also presents a challenge. With everybody transforming into a “mobility company” and offering integrated solutions across all imaginable aspects of transport and logistics, there is a risk of ending up with myriad private solutions that don’t work well with one another. Without a comprehensive vision for how all the pieces can fit together, leaving it to businesses alone is unlikely to take us far. You only have to look at the mess caused by numerous companies peppering our streets with electric scooters and bikes for evidence that a market-led approach without co-ordination can become a serious problem.

That’s where governments and planners come in. It seems that the “if you build it, they will come” approach has an effectiveness that can’t be understated, as Copenhagen has figured out. “If you do everything to invite people to use public spaces, to walk and to cycle – while also being reluctant to invite them to drive more – we know that what you invite, you get,” said Danish urbanist Jan Gehl at monocle’s recent Quality of Life Conference in Madrid.

As we rush towards a brave new world in our cities, it’s important to remember that many of the mobility solutions being touted will take time and money to implement – creating the necessary infrastructure may, in some cases, mean a wholesale urban redesign of our streets. In the short term however, as a number of urban planners are realising, the quickest and cheapest fixes we can make include improving cycle lanes and encouraging walking. The potential benefits of this simple mobility fix are enormous.

“It gives us livelier, more liveable and friendlier cities where we meet our neighbours, where we move among people,” said Gehl. “It’s about making a city where you’re tempted to get out of your private sphere, your private flat and come out into the public space, out onto the streets, to meet each other face to face. That’s good for health, it’s good for the climate, it’s good for social inclusion. It makes a safer city, a more liveable city and it’s good for democracy.”


Mohamed Mezghani

Secretary-general, International Association of Public Transport

Tunisian-born Mezghani has worked at the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) for 20 years and been secretary-general for almost two. With more than 1,700 members in 100 countries, the Brussels-based group works to advance sustainable urban mobility.

Monocle: What are the challenges facing urban mobility now?
Mohamed Mezghani: It is a rapidly changing context. It’s no longer from home to work and back. Now we have more complex mobility behaviours: during weekends, at night or in low-density areas, where it is not easy to catch a bus or metro. So we need to develop different services. There are already some that are on-demand: ride hailing, car sharing, bike sharing and scooter sharing. The challenge we have is to combine mass public transport with the new mobility services in a way that the traveller can use the mode they want, when they want, at the price they are prepared to pay. We are moving from a ready-made network to a more tailor-made network. But, of course, mass public transport will remain the backbone in cities.

M: How do you ensure incorporating ride-hailing services into transport networks isn’t a disincentive for government investment?
MM: That’s the risk. If people think we can answer the mobility demand with these flexible services, they are wrong. We need such services but as a complement to mass public transport. It’s about using them for the first and last mile, or when there is a lower supply of public transport.

M: Which cities are getting it right?
MM: Those with a local authority that’s co-ordinating all the different modes of transport, such as Singapore, Moscow, London and Seoul. There are others where the co-ordination doesn’t cover all modes but they have very integrated approaches, such as Vienna, Barcelona, Madrid and Paris. This integration makes the service easier to use. Also, China has built 100 new metro lines in 10 years. It’s amazing. This is what we need to do.

Comment

Keep your options open

by Venetia Rainey

Although inspiring and exciting, many of the ideas discussed around mobility often feel futuristic and unmoored from the reality of the current day-to-day practicalities of getting around. Before we get to autonomous cars, for example, wouldn’t it be great if trains could run on time and not have to shut down in hot weather? Similarly, a better integrated public-transport system sounds brilliant – but don’t we have to make sure that the necessary infrastructure is in place first?

At Monocle we take a simple approach to mobility: walk where possible, otherwise use whatever form of transport is quickest or most convenient. Sometimes that’s a bus or the Tube but sometimes it’s a plain old taxi or car. Four-wheelers still have a place in the way we get around and we’re not ashamed of that. You won’t find us preaching the merits of cities without cars, although we’re all for innovations that make them cleaner. The key to making transport work is options. That said, one thing you’ll never see us on is an electric scooter. (OK, fine, but we were just trying it out, promise.)

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