Written by tech journalist and broadcaster, David McClelland

The global pandemic has created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for cities to re-evaluate and re-engineer how people and goods move efficiently, healthily and sustainably through our urban centres.

H+K London recently hosted a virtual round table featuring leaders and innovators from across the international urban mobility space to better understand the opportunity — and the challenges.

One of the keys to unlocking the future of mobility is data. In tandem with smart sensors, ubiquitous connectivity and rich analytics, a technology stack now exists that enables authorities and start-ups alike to innovate and create new sustainable mobility products and services to meet the demands of cities and citizens.

Measured Recovery

Vivacity Labs uses roadside sensors to anonymously analyse how road spaces are used. Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Peter Mildon explained how Vivacity’s technology identified striking road-use trends early on in the pandemic: “It enabled us to track very quickly what was happening, not just in terms of the volume of vehicles going down the road, but what the impact was on cycle and pedestrian demand.” Peter’s team was also able to identify how warm weather impacted social distancing and created a spike in cycling that exceeded even pre-pandemic levels.

As London slowly begins to re-open, Vivacity’s latest data suggests that while road traffic has already returned to pre-pandemic levels, there is a reticence for people to get back onto public transport. Transport for London (TfL) data appears to concur, with the Underground network still operating at only 40 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, according to Head of Commercial Innovation, Rikesh Shah.

This may be a “car-based recovery” for now but by 2041 TfL’s strategic goal is for 80 per cent of journeys to be completed by walking, cycling or by public transport. Continued focus on mobility innovation will be crucial in making this happen, with Rikesh highlighting recent investment in the city’s cycle and walking routes, e-scooter trials and accelerated last-mile delivery initiatives:

“Whether it’s AI, 5G, or immersive technologies, our philosophy is to engage with innovators as early as possible, to think about our problem statements as a city, and run trials to better understand the technologies — because we don’t have the answers to everything.”

Delivering the Last-Mile

While some areas of mobility slowed during the pandemic, e-commerce-driven consumer doorstep deliveries rose by 25 per cent. With demand expected to persist into the future, traditional modes of delivery will place increasingly unsustainable pressure on urban road networks, particularly on the final leg of the journey. The “last-mile delivery” problem is being tackled by two innovators present at the virtual round table.

“When you get down to that ultra-urban, hyper-localised delivery, a van is a very inefficient way of delivering to that final mile,” explained Adam Barmby, Founder and CEO at EAV which has been pioneering sustainable cargo bicycles. “What we’re trying to do it create a vehicle that can do that local last mile as efficiently as possible. Currently we’re seeing an increase of 30–40 per cent efficiency by using a cargo bike versus a van.”

Tortoise takes a different tack with its delivery service, using low-speed, light-mass electric vehicles remotely operated by humans. “When you’re operating on sidewalks,” said Co-founder and President Dmitry Shevelenko, “there are these funny little creatures called humans that you’re dealing with. We can’t write software that can perfectly predict what a human is going to do. The only way to fight fire with fire is to have other humans on the other end.”

Last-mile deliveries aren’t the only problem that Tortoise is attempting to outpace. Sustainable shared micro-mobility services such as e-scooters are sometimes let down by the infrastructure that supports them. “What’s very powerful is that now instead of sending somebody out in a gas guzzling van to move a poorly-parked scooter,” continued Dmitry, “you can just ping our system and in real time have somebody remote into it and drive it to a parking hub nearby.”

Data Driven

You can’t manage what you can’t measure, as the saying goes. But, in cities that are undergoing rapid change, it is important to have access to the latest, most relevant data in order to make effective urban policy and investment decisions.

StreetLight Data harnesses smartphone sensors to, as VP Marketing Martin Morzynski put it, “make sense of everything that moves”. And that movement has changed significantly during the last year: “American cities have been decimated in the urban core, particularly the cities that have been reliant on the office population during the daytime.”

With landmark federal investment in transportation infrastructure across the US, the need for accurate urban mobility data has never been more important. “The old patterns are no longer reliable from a planning and resource deployment perspective,” said Martin. “Assumptions in cities around ‘where do I replace and build the next new bus stop’ or ‘where do I add a lane or a turning signal’, may be based on based on assumptions that were measured 5 or 10 years ago, and they are really no longer relevant.”

Legacy systems for street addressing are another challenge, according to Charlie Wilson, Automotive Account Manager at What3Words. There are 14 roads named “Church Road” in London, he points out, with an ageing addressing system creating frustrations for consumers and inefficiencies for businesses where an inaccurate location can have a knock-on effect in terms of cost, congestion and emissions.

“The problem with traditional addresses,” said Charlie, “is only exacerbated as we move into these areas of future mobility.” Dividing the entire world in an easily addressable 3-metre-square grid, What3Words makes accurate location as easy as combining three dictionary words. Beyond making today’s doorstep deliveries more reliable and efficient, Charlie indicated that What3Words could facilitate drone deliveries to our gardens or ensure autonomous vehicles drop us off exactly where we want.

However, with mobility data sources it’s certainly not a case of “build it and they will come”, as AppyWay Founder Dan Hubert pointed out. “80 per cent of my life is about education,” said Dan, whose company provides a comprehensive “digital twin” of the UK kerbside. Yet, the business cases for data can quickly build. “From a government side, we are speeding up the whole regulatory process by 83%; for cities, we can help them to optimise their kerbside – help transition a parking bay into an electric vehicle charge point bay significantly quicker.” With only a fraction of the required number of electric vehicle charging bays being installed at present, said Dan, the only enabler to speed up the process will be through digital infrastructure.

Scaling Success

The challenge acknowledged by the panellists is how to turn pockets of innovation into scalable, deliverable, city-wide solutions. “There are plenty of cities, particularly in the UK, that are keen to be a testbed for new technology”, said Vivacity’s Peter Mildon. “The challenge is to see those testbeds become real-world operational systems that are there for the long haul.”

Among the solutions proposed were collaboration, a focus on central funding models, and innovation driven by real-world requirements – where data can play a key role. “We are trying to get smarter as to how we use new data points to dynamically change the infrastructure that we’re bringing in,” said TfL’s Rikesh Shah.

“There are investments that are made all over the world that are multi-billion into infrastructure, that lack fundamental goal-setting and measurement,” concluded StreetLight Data’s Martyn Morzynski. “That is critical to making all these solutions come to life, be possible, and ultimately work together in the future.”

Many thanks to our contributors for sharing their insights and to David McClelland, who moderated the session. To hear the full discussion, listen to the podcast below.