Digital tools can transform transportation: this has long been the consensus in the transport and digital development communities. They can be leveraged to promote system efficiency in logistics, ensure access for all by mapping out travel patterns for vulnerable groups, and even reduce transport’s environmental impact via apps that alert residents about high levels of pollution. Digital solutions are a key path to achieving Sustainable Mobility for All.
Then came the coronavirus (COVID-19)—an unprecedented global crisis that abruptly upended our daily lives and mobility options. After the transport shutdowns and restrictions, a new phase has emerged that is part shut-in, part recovery, and still mostly unknown. The long term is uncharted territory for transport, likely to be impacted by volatile oil prices, financially distressed public transport operators, and a new stigma on shared mobility out of fear of contagion.
As people brace for an unknown new normal, technology is playing a crucial role in keeping our societies functional amid lockdowns and quarantines. In this blog, I look ahead to explore three complementary technology developments in transport that could be here to stay.
Placing data capture and sharing at the heart of mobility solutions
Data is all around us, and always has been—but we are now able to capture the raw information in real time, make sense of it, share it, and leverage it to make better choices. Sophisticated devices allow us to log granular data over temporal and spatial resolutions, synthesize “big data,” and facilitate large-scale data sharing. Although data use in transport has been growing significantly, COVID-19 has increased the urgency to innovate. Countries and large corporations have partnered to use open source data on people’s mobility trends and make decisions to enforce lockdowns, ensure the mobility of essential workers, monitor the spread of the virus, and put together contagion warning systems on public transit.
Data platforms are being leveraged to ensure a safe, phased reopening strategy: from effective space management in shared mobility (e.g. Metros), to enabling a staggered approach to travel. In the long term, data will be critical to ensure that Mobility as a Service (MaaS) systems are optimized to meet supply and demand in real time, both for freight and passenger travel. Simultaneously, as attitudes towards data sharing shift, it is also essential to explore technologies that deal with ethical, privacy, and security concerns while still facilitating big data analytics and adaptive data sharing across both the private and public spheres.
Innovating intelligent transport systems at scale
The world is experiencing the 4th Industrial Revolution—a fusion of advances in a wide range of technologies. As part of this process, we are seeing the emergence of smart transport systems that are connected, integrated, and data-driven. Technologies such as contactless payment systems on transit, use of smart containers and electronic documentation for logistics, and temperature checking infrared cameras on buses are being repurposed: they quickly shifted from a convenience to a necessity for crisis response. As economies reopen, it is expected that private vehicle use will surge because of sanitary concerns. In this context, technologies such as adaptive sensors in smart traffic lights will be vital to ensure safe and efficient movement of pedestrians and traffic. Likewise, smart curbside management and optimized deliveries facilitated by smart city systems would ensure efficient movement of freight. In the long term, innovations such as smart buses with high-tech enhanced pathogen filtration systems will help revive demand and establish a sense of health safety on public transport.
Embracing vehicular automation and mobile robots
In China, autonomous vehicles (AV) played a useful role during the crisis in providing access to necessary commodities for health care professionals and the general public. The vehicles delivered goods in infected areas and disinfected hospitals, minimizing person-to-person transmission and alleviating a shortage of staff. Of course, while many experts argue that long-term applications of AV technology is best suited to urban areas and dense spaces, with limited applications in rural and sparsely populated areas, others optimistically view the COVID-19 applications as first steps toward a truly autonomous future.
In conclusion, the three technology areas highlighted here are just a few of the possibilities for digital innovation and applications in a dynamic and ever-changing mobility environment. While digital technologies provide the transport sector with unprecedented instruments to get back on track toward a sustainable future, they are just a part of a larger response effort. Each country, city, and region has unique needs. Therefore, a successful recovery of the global mobility system will require understanding of the evolving macroeconomic environment, a high degree of agility, and a great level of cooperation between sectors and stakeholders.
While this blog solely expresses the views of the author, it has been informed by enriching bilateral discussions with Nancy Vandycke (World Bank), Raman Krishnan (World Bank) and Aman Chitkara (World Business Council for Sustainable Development).