​“Smart Mobility”: is it the time to re-think urban mobility?

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As smartphones have gained in popularity, so have such concepts as smart cities and smart mobility. This is not a coincidence – smartphones are changing how we travel in cities, to such an extent that we may need to reconsider the concept of urban mobility in the transport world. 
Traditionally, urban mobility is about moving people from one location to another location within or between urban areas. Policy makers, urban and transport planners, and engineers spend huge amounts of time and money to improve urban mobility, based on two basic assumptions:
  1. People need to move in order to access housing, jobs and urban services, such as education and entertainment.
  2. People prefer motorized mobility to non-motorized mobility, because the former is economically more efficient than the latter, especially as cities grow and the society becomes more affluent.
Those assumptions have already been challenged.
The rise of e-commerce, e-business and various on-line services is telling us: you don't have to move to get services anymore, and services can be accessed remotely or even “moved” to you, regardless where you are. One may say, online services only work for the rich, not the poor. That‘s not necessarily true. Online shopping, for example, offers high quality products at cheaper prices and more variety than what conventional shops do, and a customer simply needs a smart phone to shop, which is becoming increasingly affordable for most people. 
Rising public awareness about the environmental and other costs of motorized mobility, coupled with the surging popularity of biking and walking all over the world, is also challenging those assumptions.  In fact, in the developing world – despite the fact that more and more people can afford to own private vehicles – more than half of all daily trips are still carried out on foot or using bicycles in most cities ( refer to Figure 1, below).
Figure 1: Non-motorized transport modes, such as walking and bicycling,
as percentage of total trips in 15 Chinese cities (2009)
Urban mobility is no longer just about moving people around by motorized vehicles. What people really need is the accessibility to various urban services. Numerous examples from different cities have demonstrated that better accessibility doesn’t have to be achieved by generating motorized traffic, particularly by private vehicles.
For example, the Walkable City concept (being implemented in New York and other cities), smart bike sharing systems, Leap in San Francisco (an ICT-enabled on-demand transit service), and Uber (an ICT-enabled ride-sharing service) have enabled many people to enjoy an urban lifestyle without owning a private vehicle. There has been a continuous decline in the motorized traffic volume in both the United States and Europe for the past several years, in terms of both the total vehicle miles traveled (VKT) and per capita VKT ( see Figure 2, below). 
Figure 2: Americans are driving less now
The rapid development of ICT and subsequent ICT-enabled transport services has huge potential to turn new urban mobility concepts into realities at an amazing speed and scale.  For example, Zipcar, an ICT-enabled car sharing service provider in the United States, has been able to significantly reduce motorized trips. Each Zipcar replaces 15 private cars on the road, and every Zipcar driver drives 80 percent less than if they used their own cars ( watch the TED speech by Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar). We may refer to these ICT-enabled transport solutions as smart mobility, because they can help avoid or reduce the volume of motorized traffic.
However, not all ICT-enabled transport solutions should be automatically considered as smart mobility – for example, those so-called “smart parking” systems or mobile phone apps that help car drivers to easily find cheap, available parking lots in city centers. Those apps will probably make car-driving more convenient and thus could encourage more people to drive instead of walking, biking or using public transport, and therefore contribute to more motorized traffic.
As we embrace more and more innovative technology in the transport sector, we need to develop a new framework to guide urban mobility planning. In my personal view, the new framework should be clearly focused on how to enable all people, regardless income or other social status, to better access the urban services they need, while also reducing motorized traffic.


Ke Fang

Lead Transport Specialist

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