Shared success: the value of ecosystem thinking on the future of urban mobility

By Jarendra Reddy | November 8, 2019

Transportation is an area with one of the highest needs for investment across some of the world’s largest urban agglomerations. It connects people to opportunities for work, education, and entertainment. As cities grow, the transportation systems that serve them will need to “do more with less” within the context of finite global resources. It’ll take ecosystem thinking to satisfy our future urban mobility needs in a high-impact, lasting way.

When considering urban mobility, technology is often check-marked as the obvious, albeit Band-Aid, solution. But it isn’t a one-size-fits-all fix. Adopting an ecosystem thinking approach advocates for a more thought-out application of technology in a way that fosters sustainable value creation and urban efficiency. What is ecosystem thinking? From a transport perspective, it starts with recognizing the complex relationships between users, infrastructure, and services that must harmoniously work together to satisfy a wide range of urban travel needs while realizing benefits greater than the individual components.

The term “users” broadly includes travelers, operators, as well as owners (and regulators) of the system. A mobility ecosystem needs to work for all in order to support our growing cities in a more enduring way. Here are five recommendations to improve our urban mobility ecosystems:

  1. Go back to the basics: respect the rules of proximity 
    Bringing residential and employment opportunities closer together reduces the overall cost of travel and creates conditions for sustainable modes of travel, like cycling and walking. Accessible neighborhoods that allow people to live, work, and play in the same place improves human productivity and quality of life and reduces the financial and environmental costs of travel. To this end, land-use activities must be planned in a way that balances the provision of appropriate employment and residential opportunities with deliberate focus on reducing commuting distances.

  2. Understand how users make decisions and incentivize better behaviors 
    Travelers can make individualized travel decisions that improve overall system performance. For example, when travelers are made aware of congestion patterns, transit disruptions, or cost-effective/time-saving options via real-time advisory channels (radio, mobile apps, etc.), they can delay their departure times, which in turn improves overall network performance. Expanding real-time advisory to be incentivized for better decision making is an important urban mobility strategy. And transit operators will work toward “raising the bar” in operational excellence when they’re incentivized. For example, an operator of a road-based public transportation service can have vehicles fitted with advanced monitoring systems that can receive reduced insurance premiums, bonus payments, or fuel rewards for inter-alia, driving safely, and being on schedule, as opposed to (hypothetically) being penalized for under-performing.

  3. Make assets more productive: embrace and maximize shared capacity 
    Technologiesthat permit the sharing of services and assets allow for better utilization of those assets and increased asset productivity. For example, e-hailing and ride sharing reduce the need for vehicle ownership and parking demand, bi-directional road lanes allow for contra-peak roadway capacity, and temporal parking allows for lower parking requirements when land-use activities have differing peak parking demands throughout the day.

  4. Make room for the new: experiment, learn, and improve 
    Newways of doing things require collaboration between the public sector, private sector, and academia. Rapid prototyping followed by pilot implementation, continuous improvement, upscaling, and wide deployment can drive recognizable benefit sooner than protracted periods of planning before deployment. Do your homework, ace the exam.

  5. Partner the pace of technology with policy creation and implementation 
    Policies that guide transportation planning, design, and implementation need to keep pace with a rapidly evolving technological landscape. They need to direct, embed, and foster innovation throughout the ecosystem. Policy is difficult to formulate when the impacts are harder to imagine, or the desired outcome isn’t always clear. This further exacerbates the need to experiment, learn, and improve,which in turn can promote learning to guide policy prior to the wide scale deployment of a new technology. For example, e-hailing is a technology that enables a convenient and attractive on-demand transport service. However, a few years ago it’d be difficult to imagine the magnitude that this technology would have without first observing it at work. Now, many cities are playing catch-up in policy to try and make e-hailing services a more integral part of the mobility ecosystem.

The future of urban mobility demands ecosystem thinking that harnesses technology in a more considered and intentional way to fundamentally improve city-scale efficiency. It requires an appreciation and integration of the complex relationship between users, infrastructure, services, and policies to satisfy mobility needs in an enduring way that will bring positive change to existing and future citizens.