By Nir Erez, Co-founder and CEO Moovit
Managing the transport infrastructure of our growing cities is going to require massive solutions that coordinate everyone’s movement smoothly and efficiently–or we’ll be stuck in endless gridlock.
Imagine a major airport with no air traffic control tower. Collisions and crashes would be commonplace. Circling aircraft would run out of fuel and drop from the sky. Planes would be stacked up on runways, stopped on tarmacs and stuck at gates. Chaos would reign. What was once regarded as reliable, if not slightly annoying, air transport would become a daily dance with death.
Thankfully, the air traffic control tower–the airport’s brain and nerve centre–prevents such catastrophes and confines air passengers’ grievances to security queues, cramped seating and dubious food.
Now imagine street traffic in any major city in the world. Gridlock, congestion, transit overcrowding and pollution contribute to an infuriating commute experience.
Why does traffic control exist for air but not for ground transport?
There’s the safety factor, obviously. Even though fatalities are much higher in cars than planes–Americans’ chances of dying in a car crash are 1 in 114 versus 1 in 9,821 on a commercial or private flight (if you only take domestic commercial flights, your odds are much lower), according to the US National Safety Council–the impact of a single air crash is much more catastrophic.
But there’s also a practical reason: limited runway space. There is far too much demand for landing slots at major airports. If airports managed runways like cities manage streets and roads, planes would show up en masse and impossible airport chaos would ensue. Instead, airports have a smart data management system that’s built around the maximum possible utilisation of runways. Also, US airports auction landing slots to the highest value users and diligently manage take off times and flight trajectories to ensure aircraft arrive in the right sequence and at the right time. Most folks regard the take-off or landing queue as an annoyance rather than efficiency. But when you think of it, a plane taking off or landing about every two minutes is just smart management of limited space and time.
Simply put, airports maximise the utilisation rights of the scarcest resource in the system, which is runways. If only cities had equivalent systems to solve traffic and transit congestion on their streets and thoroughfares. They will, and soon.
Mobility as a Service (MaaS) has arrived and the brain and nerve centre for urban mobility will be data systems that manage every aspect of a commuter’s daily travel.
Today there are more than 500 cities with more than 1 million inhabitants compared with only 83 in 1950. Megacities with more than 10 million people today number 31, compared with just three in 1975 (Mexico City, New York City and Tokyo). In 2030 the number of megacities is expected to surpass 40.
As populations surge, the demand for urban mobility grows. The 25.8 trillion kilometres logged by the world’s commuters in 2010 is expected to surge 68 percent to 43.2 trillion by 2030, and expand another 55 percent to 67.1 trillion by 2050.
With few exceptions, the transit grid in these cities is not keeping pace with swelling populations and explosive demand for mobility. The tools with which cities manage mobility today are limited to speed limits, parking places and prices, public transit subsidies, and perhaps congestion surcharge zones.
Vastly more powerful tools will be required in the not-too-distant future when urban mobility evolves. Fleets of electric autonomous vehicles will shuttle small groups of people door-to-door across short distances. New mass transit services will shift to accommodate large groups of people at high speeds over longer distances. The interface between the two modes will be pick-up and drop-off zones, replacing today’s parking lots and garages. These new technologies will boost demand by making transit cheaper and more convenient, which could exacerbate congestion–unless we build systems to better manage urban mobility.
The answer is an operating system that is the equivalent to an airport’s air traffic control tower.
- On-demand pick-up and drop-off zones will be managed to ensure vehicles arrive in sync with boarding passengers, eliminating lingering by both passengers and vehicles,
- Locations, where on-demand vehicles wait when they’re not in use, will be identified and managed for efficiency,
- Multi-passenger vehicles will be prioritised on roadways and vehicles will be re-routed to adapt to changing traffic flows,
- Dynamic pricing and other policy mechanisms will ensure the number of vehicles never exceeds the road space they traverse, reducing traffic.
When cities start managing their streets the way airports manage their runways, urban mobility will improve everywhere. For anyone sitting in gridlock or standing on a packed bus or train, it can’t happen soon enough.
An earlier version of this op-ed ran in Fast Company
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