One Fare Card to Rule Them All: The Future of Urban Transportation

September 30, 2015 • Blog Post • By Atlantic Re:think


  • Cities around the world are experimenting with ways to reduce traffic using peer-to-peer transportation programs
  • Shifting cities to a more efficient transportation system may seem easy, but the question of data security between companies and the safety of consumers makes the switch slower than anticipated

How startups and local governments are reinventing how we get around cities

The dream of every city planner and urban dweller is to see congestion-free roadways. Life without the constant bumper-to-bumper of city travel means a faster commute, safer driving conditions, cleaner air and a healthier planet.

Large metropolitan areas around the world are experimenting with ways to reduce urban vehicle traffic, from Jakarta's car-free days and Madrid's car-free zones, to New York City's bike paths and pedestrian-only streets and walkways. But as city populations continue to grow over the next few years and decades, so will the problems of urban car transport. The solution, experts say, lies not in simple traffic-reducing measures, but rather in rethinking the way people navigate cities.

The process of reinventing urban transportation begins as cities approve programs that facilitate alternative modes of travel, such as the successful Vélib' bike rental system in Paris and the growing Citi Bike program in New York - or services like Uber and Lyft, which have recently introduced ridesharing to cities.

Although the personal automobile has been taking people to and from work every day for nearly a century, commuters are increasingly willing to weave various kinds of transportation into their lives instead of depending entirely on a single vehicle. In short, new programs in cities around the world are addressing a demand for a transportation system that is multimodal, a future for transportation that involves making not a single choice to get to our destination but rather being able to move seamlessly from steering wheel to handlebar.

The Berlin Experiment

One of the most sophisticated experiments in urban transportation is Berlin's BeMobility program. Originally a research project aimed at integrating various transportation options into a single system, BeMobility has become a functional program that brings public transport, bike rentals and an extensive electronic car-sharing system into a single multiplatform network.

Frank Wolter, BeMobility's project coordinator, says the program was intended to offer commuters access to "long-distance trains, public transport, two car-sharing systems and a bike-sharing system on one mobility card". In Berlin, BeMobility offers a mobility card that is used to rent and start vehicles, unlock bikes from stations and carry public transportation tickets and tariffs.

At first it may seem like a simple task for any city with existing transportation options - including bike-rental and car-sharing programs - to merge these programs into a single umbrella operation. But Wolter says that even addressing smaller challenges, such as developing an effective mobile app, has been extremely difficult. "The problem right now is that you have different contracts", he says. "It's a question of data security between companies. Right now the main application can tell you where a car is available, but then has to take you to the car-sharing app in order to reserve it". Even Berlin's advanced, multimodal system relies heavily on third-party vendors.

The Way Into Washington

Trying to integrate transportation options with smartphones presents other issues as well, including safety. Catherine McGhee, associate director for safety, operations and traffic engineering for Virginia's Department of Transportation - which runs one of the most developed intelligent-transportation systems in the United States - says that one of the biggest problems is communicating necessary information to drivers in a way that does not impair concentration.

Virginia's commuter parking lots, known as Park and Ride lots, have existed for years and allow commuters to drop off their vehicles and get on public transit that leaves directly from the lot. Today, these lots display the number and location of available parking spots in a particular lot as well as arrival times for the next buses and trains. "Right now we tend to focus on the overhead display method you see on highways", McGhee says. "But apps are currently being developed. We want to create a multimodal transportation system that allows people to know where they need to go and how to get there."

In theory, a fully functional app in Virginia would operate like BeMobility's. Commuters would have access to extensive transportation information on their phones, allowing them to choose an appropriate mode of travel to suit their needs at any given moment.

Not only would such apps offer greater convenience for a single commuter, they would also be able to communicate information that could accelerate the overall speed of travel for everyone. One of the earliest components of Virginia's intelligent-transportation system was signage announcing lane closures farther down the road. "The earlier that drivers can be alerted to upcoming lane closures", she says, "the less weaving they will do at the point of closure, thus reducing congestion and eliminating excessive maneuvers. If you slow everyone down and keep them moving at a constant speed, people move quicker than if you move quickly then hit the brakes."

Virginia's Park and Ride lots have developed an independent carpool culture that encourages drivers to pick up at least two other commuters in order to access the carpool lanes on freeways. The carpool culture in Virginia is such that some commuters will have traveled in three different cars during their commute to and from work. And because many of these lots serve commuters traveling to and from Washington, D.C., the result is fewer cars on city roads.

The success of park-and-ride lots also suggests that commuters are willing to patronize multiple services and perform multiple activities during their trips if doing so means arriving at their destinations faster and more efficiently. Virginia's attempts at streamlining travel, whether directly linking parking lots to public transit or facilitating carpooling, reduces urban congestion and increases energy efficiency among commuter vehicles.

The Battery- and Car-Powered Solution

BeMobility goes even further by actively integrating energy efficiency into its mode of operation, both by linking bike rentals to the program in order to reduce vehicle emissions, and by changing the way electric cars connect with charging stations. Wolter explains that most of Berlins public transport is already electric, which has laid the foundation for BeMobility's energy-efficient approach.

BeMobility uses power storage buffers in order to store excess solar and wind energy that can be used at times when such energy is not available. The vehicles themselves do not begin charging immediately, nor do they charge fully every time they are connected. Rather, BeMobility has developed an algorithm that analyzes the amount of energy needed to fill a car's battery alongside the car's reservation schedule in order to predict exactly how much energy the car will require on a given day.

"The big vision is to make transport and batteries part of the electric grid. You could give 20 to 25 percent of battery to the storage buffer", Wolter says, describing the way the cars can allocate part of their charge to the grid that powers the rest of the city. Wolter also says that the program would use a detailed profile of energy use - such as what time office building lights and computers go on in the morning - and analyze the weather to predict how much energy will be consumed over the course of a particular day.

BeMobility's success lies in the fact that the program does not wish to eliminate car use entirely, aiming instead to integrate electric cars into routine transportation. "The point of the project was make transport multimodal", Wolter explains, "to switch easily from one mode of transport to the other, to make customers put away their combustion-engine private car".

Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in British Columbia notes that successful multimodal transportation programs will likely take a similar approach.

"The question is, 'What do people want?'" he says. "What my research indicates is that overall automobile demands are peaking. Increasingly, people want to use alternatives to driving."

Millennials Go Multimodal

Like BeMobility's Wolter, Litman does not believe cars are a soon-to-be-outmoded form of transportation. "That's not to say that young people don't want a car, but the value is much less intense", he says. "Younger people tend to be multimodal. They recognize the value of public transit as well as walking and cycling."

This penchant for multimodal transportation, and the willingness to walk or use bicycles, can play a significant role in changing the energy consumed by daily urban transportation. Paired with an approach similar to BeMobility's energy buffer storage model, energy consumption can be dramatically reduced, even if cars remain part of the mix.

If urban transportation does become increasingly multimodal, things like BeMobility's mobility card and app will be necessary to make bike sharing and public transport as convenient as driving to work.

As Litman points out, a simple function of Google Maps already takes multimodal transport into account, offering estimated travel times by travel type and taking peak and off-peak traffic into account. Wolter says that the mobility card can be likened to a much more complex version of London's Oyster card - a simple swipe card that commuters use for public transit including the Tube. Paris, one of the early adopters of bike-rental systems, is also home to one of the most extensive car-sharing programs with more than 2,500 electric cars.

These innovations of urban transportation, though not as holistic as BeMobility is designed to be, are all responses to population growth and other changes we know are coming to the worlds cities. Various pieces of the multimodal transport puzzle already exist and the technology and infrastructure are very nearly ready. They're just waiting to be woven together.