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    Smart cities and the new mobility

    Moving people, automobiles, and goods around cities efficiently, safely, and sustainably is an enormous challenge in our era of expanding urbanization. So it's no surprise that cities are creating smart mobility infrastructures, enabled by the Internet of Things.

    In fact, a city's economic viability, not to mention its livability, will increasingly depend on doing just that.

    Here are some of the higher-potential smart city mobility applications.

    Safer, and fewer, roads

    We're all familiar with the danger of driving, relatively speaking. Traffic accidents exact a tremendous toll: The world sees well over 1.3 million road fatalities each year.

    But what if smart city applications could make roads safer? Interactive signage could make a difference. So could data-driven and IoT-enabled road maintenance regimes that ensure that potholes and other hazardous imperfections in highway surfaces don't develop.

    Transcending the car's primacy

    Of course, it can often be better still to move away in general from building roads, which come with lots of negative externalities.

    Enter next-generation light rail and metro systems. These let cities avoid the unpleasant consequences of roads, including pollution, new traffic problems, and increasing public reliance on automobiles.

     According to an EY analysis, investment in smart infrastructure solutions can, in cities with advanced economies, lower operating costs, extend system life, and boost transportation capacity without necessitating investment in new vehicles or rolling stock. In emerging economies, it can boost productive capacity (mobility is key to an urban economy) and have a tremendous positive effect on the environment.


    These are key points, because in an era of often straitened public budgets and climate change, it will be important to cut costs and reduce environmental impact at the same time that we improve public transportation. The point is not for a government agency to order up a new fleet of metro train cars at great cost. That's a twentieth-century solution. It will rather be to function with fewer, better, cheaper trains that move more people faster.

    Freedom for goods

    In the smart city, goods will move more fluidly than ever. It will be easier to optimize complex intermodal shipping and commerce and to better coordinate freight arrivals by sea with the trucks and trains that will take them to final destinations.

    Smart freight pallets, for example, can provide temperature, humidity, and other information about the goods they carry, thus giving logistics engineers the chance to “triage" what should come onshore first: leave this lot of fruit on board the container ship, but off-load that lot immediately.

    In addition to being outfitted with the most powerful efficiency-boosting navigation equipment, trucks could carry smart payloads and pull smart trailers. Both of these will weigh their cargos on their own and send out weight information to the parties and regulatory agencies that need it. The delay-making process of lining trucks up at weigh stations will belong to the past.

    Closer to the lives of average citizens, IoT-powered drones and robots will do much to solve the “last mile problem," getting those boxes of diapers to the doorsteps of the people who need them, without burdening the streets with extra traffic.

    Healthier ways to get around

    Then there's the project of making it easier for people to navigate urban environments in clean, healthier ways — such as on bicycles or by foot.

    As smart transportation infrastructure improves, municipal bicycle-sharing systems will see enhancement. A public transit system can easily offer bike-sharing as an alternative when service delays do crop up. Using your metro pass, you'll be able to acquire a bike at a nearby docking station and get to where you need to go.

    Planners will be using the detailed bicycle traffic data that in-road traffic sensors and cameras collect to predict demand for bikes from spot to spot and to optimize docking-station placement. Better communication between bikes and base stations will make the biking experience more predictable for users. They'll find it easier to reserve bikes, pay for bikes, and find open spaces at docking stations.

    The smart city also offers benefits to that key character in the urban drama: the pedestrian. IoT-enabled collection of data on both vehicle and pedestrian flows has long been making life safer for walkers in New York City, the United States' pedestrian city par excellence.

    Levelling the field for the disabled

    What about citizens with disabilities?

    Smart transportation infrastructure can offer them adaptive navigation services, helping them to participate in civic life on an even basis. Early innovations here include the use of grade (incline) information to establish route-mapping services and accessible paths.

    A smart transportation infrastructure that can help people with respiratory ailments avoid high particulate concentrations is a next step. So are systems that offer additional illumination to the visually impaired.

    And that's just for starters. We're just at the beginning of the “smart city" phenomenon, and can expect to see a startling expansion of transformative innovations as time goes on. These will range from efficient smart water and electrical grids; to parking systems that eliminate the time-honored urban tradition of circling the block in your car, searching for a space; to emergency signaling systems.

    In many of these solutions, incidentally, the urban street lighting system will play a big role. Where better to place tens of thousands of sensors than above the ground at streetlamp level, plugged into lamp posts that are near-ubiquitous, that offer their own electric power sources, and that are already there?

    The challenges are political

    There are, of course, challenges to the rise of the smart city.

    One is political. Pilot programs are frequently necessary to establishing the potential of smart city initiatives and to adapting them to each environment. Yet a pilot program by its nature will cover only a small area and impact a tiny fraction of the population. Until these programs scale up, they may create tensions, pitting “have nots" against tech-entitled “haves."

    Another complication is that private capital and industry often spearhead investment in smart city projects. There exists no hard and fast method of providing private investors with exits that rewards their entrepreneurship while also placing the technology in question under civil authority over the long term.

    And that's not even to mention the question of the competence of that civil authority in the first place.

    Sharing information early and often can help smooth over these divides, and fortunately smart transportation infrastructure is well-equipped to provide just that. Publicizing evidence of early-stage success, such as research demonstrating that even a small number of autonomous vehicles can have a big impact on traffic efficiency, could help warm residents to the impact of pilot projects. Miami-Dade's City of Tomorrow Challenge project also provides a template for frequent, constant citizen engagement.

    Civic leaders shouldn't be afraid to play up the opportunities smart infrastructure provides, nor to back up their claims with hard, transparent data. Early indications are that citizens are responsive to what smart infrastructure can do for them, and are even willing to change their habits to make the most of those possibilities. People are open to changing their utility consumption habits, for example, if they receive detailed digital insights about the reduction opportunities their local governments offer.

    Smart transportation infrastructure gives leaderships the chance to enhance quality of life and boost economic potential through mobility, and to bring citizens into the discussion around these issues. In this discussion, government officials and citizens will have more exciting issues to talk about than potholes, bad transit, and the other problems that have long defined conversations between urbanites and their leaders—although, in putting smart infrastructure to work, cities will better manage these ancient city problems, too.

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