The Trouble With Urban Travel

It’s going to take more than autonomous vehicles to fix urban travel

When it comes to public transport, opinion can be hugely divided. Some people sing the praises of the buses, tubes and trams that ferry passengers from one place to another. But, at the same time, there are those who abhor public transport and avoid it all costs. In London, the majority of people appear to take the latter view. Despite the growing availability of different options, 54 per cent of London households still own (and presumably use) at least one car. Urban travel, it would seem, has yet to experience the mass disruption needed to drag people away from legacy locomotion.

The ultimate challenge for advanced mobility

Urban environments are tricky to navigate. It can be stressful for a person to find their way from once place to the next. Before alternative travel can take off, there are a lot of sticking points that need to be addressed. Ben Peters, cofounder of FiveAI, explains that urban spaces are particularly problematic due to unpredictability.

“In a highway environment, everyone’s going in the same direction, and you can model the behaviour of the actors. But when you move to an urban environment, pretty much anything could happen. The space around the actors is huge, and there are many more actors that you have to deal with.”

As such, any form of transportation run by software instead of human drivers must be equipped with an extensive suite of sensors, cameras, radars and advanced computing. The more technology you need, however, the more expensive it becomes. In some senses, the major cause of unpredictability within urban travel is us. Road users simply don’t exhibit the reliable behaviour needed to enable innovative mobility solutions to function optimally.

Safety must always be the priority, which means that systems are trained to stop before hitting an oncoming obstacle or person. The upshot of this is that there’s every chance for cyclists and pedestrians to dictate progress, affecting the travel efficiency of entire cities. It’s not just the attitudes of people outside of vehicles that needs to change either. If people living in over half of London’s households still choose to sit behind the wheel instead of jumping on a tube or bus, what’s to say they will abandon their cars in favour of more innovative alternatives?

Understanding urban environments

Despite public reluctance, there is a willingness on the part of official organisations and businesses to accelerate the adoption of new forms of connected, environmentally considerate transportation. Regulators in Oslo, Norway, are encouraging citizens to transition to electric vehicles by providing free charging and parking. If that isn’t going to have an impact on public attitudes then nothing will, but fixing urban travel doesn’t necessarily mean buying a Tesla.

Transport for London has entered discussions with companies like Citymapper to create smart services to directly meet the specific destination requirements of individual passengers. Civic analytics is already used to inform government services, welfare, employment and public security, and could bring positive disruption to transportation too. Ultimately, it all comes down to data. Forming a better understanding of any given environment is a surefire way to bring about transformative change. Internet of Things sensors can gather valuable information about congestion, pollution, demand for fuel or chargers, and even unpaid parking tickets. The first step towards solving urban travel appears to be establishing precise, real time connectivity. Thanks to advancements in IoT, this is no longer a pipe dream.

As of yet, no single company has the solution urban travel – and maybe they never will. Perhaps part of the answer is for governing bodies, regulators and businesses to pool their knowledge together and share awareness, gradually reshaping inner city travel. Prescribed routes are already becoming more flexible thanks to personalised services, and there have never been more ways to get from one side of a city to another. The initial changes to urban travel systems will be small, but these vital alterations will enable much bigger developments in the future. . . That is, at least, if we all stick to our green cross codes.

What else needs to change to make urban travel infrastructures suitable for advanced mobility? Will autonomous systems ever be good enough at predicting human actions to safely navigate cities? How far does advanced mobility rely on the cooperation of human road users? Share your thoughts.

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