Digital Mobility: Systems Approaches for More Efficient, Sustainable and Accessible Transport

How Systems Thinking Supports Sustainably Viable Decision Making?

by Audrey Denis

Audrey Denis

The Challenge of Urban Mobility Has Never Been More Complex or Unpredictable.

In cities throughout the world, growing populations seek out the most affordable and efficient solutions for their mobility needs. Each city’s transportation ecosystem includes a combination of public transit options, private vehicles, and modes of active travel like biking and walking; in recent years, a growing number of private mobility service providers (MSPs) like ridesharing, bike-sharing, and electric scooters have emerged to capitalize on the growing demand for end-to-end mobility. Passenger flows are determined according to supply, demand, pricing, and service considerations. But while travellers individually seek to choose the transit option that best suits their needs and priorities, thoughtful coordination is required to maintain efficiency and shape the environmental and social impacts of the transportation network at a local, regional, national, and even global level. End users, transit coordinators, and local politicians are beginning to align on their goals to tackle the rapidly growing problems of congestion and emissions. Though it’s easy to want a transportation system with less traffic; predictable, stress-free travel; accessible mobility for all and reduced emissions, the means of achieving this are not. The world’s major transportation systems are currently disjointed, limiting the ability of authorities to make the large-scale changes needed to address congestion and emissions. Doing so will require coordinated behaviour change for users across the network – creating the need for tools that enable cities to systematically manage user behaviour and keep the network running smoothly.

Why Digital Mobility is Needed

While each local transportation network faces a unique set of challenges, a few global factors raise the need for digital mobility in every city, state, and region:

  • Congestion: The world’s cities will face a dramatic increase in traffic and congestion according to current trends. Passenger transport is expected to increase nearly three-fold between 2015 and 2050, from 44 trillion to 122 trillion passenger kilometres1. Growth in private vehicle use is expected to continue in the immediate aftermath of COVID-19, with private vehicles remaining the long-term preferred mode of personal travel worldwide. Single-occupancy vehicles are driving increases in traffic and congestion, while drivers idling for parking in city centres can contribute up to 30% of traffic. Beyond passenger travel, the steady increase in global freight will also contribute to congestion as the massive increases in e-commerce triple global freight demand between 2015 and 2050.
  • Emissions: Increased carbon emissions have direct impacts on rising sea levels, global health outcomes, and social inequality. According to the International Energy Association’s Tracking Transport 2020,2 “transportation is responsible for 24% of direct CO2 emissions from fuel combustion.” The vast majority of these emissions come from road transportation, with 45.1% of that coming from road passenger transport, and 29.4% from road freight. Though electrification is a great start for moving the needle the other way, it’s not the be-all and end-all. Without ambitious government intervention supported by a shift to digital mobility, emissions are projected to double by 2050 as a result of increased demand for cars and aviation in developing countries.
  • Urbanization: According to United Nations research, the global population is expected to soar to 9.7 billion by 2050, largely concentrated in urban centres. A report from the International Institute for Environment and Development predicts that urban populations will grow by 1.56 billion over the next two decades, and 83% is expected to take place in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Along with the growing adoption of active travel modes, this presents safety challenges for cities seeking to protect vulnerable road users at busy intersections and along congested roadways.
  • Covid-19: Traffic jams can add minutes and hours to a worker’s daily commute, and the unprecedented surge in personal car use resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic indicates that these delays will only grow. As many offices shift to hybrid working models, commute times will become less predictable3 while traffic will not see any noticeable decrease.
  • Growth and limitations: While the world’s population is expected to grow substantially, its physical resources are finite and cannot continue accommodating a massive increase in global citizens. This challenge is particularly relevant in transportation, as history has shown that road users will increase to meet new capacity. A 10% increase in road capacity yields a 6-10% increase in vehicle miles travelled over a long-term period. While autonomous vehicles and the shared economy have the potential to both disrupt and optimize our use of limited resources, cities will need to take a thoughtful and proactive approach to ensure progress.

There are many approaches to this challenge – whether MaaS (Mobility as a Service), mobile experience, demand-responsive transport (DRT) and more – but none will work in a vacuum.

“We need to break down silos and coordinate across modes for effective network management to create seamless, reliable trips and reach environmental goals, embracing digital mobility to address the impacts of urbanization and reverse climate change.”

Digital Mobility — What Does it Mean?

The definition of digital mobility includes concepts like operating systems, mobility management, and optimized networks. But what do these mean exactly, and what does the comprehensive idea of digital mobility entail? Digital mobility calls for harmonizing disparate systems across the mobility network to enable collaborative and holistic decision-making between local, regional, national and even international stakeholders. These are not just a city’s various public transit services; digital mobility includes everything from ridesharing to traffic and intersection management. With one transportation network comprising multiple modes, we must manage these systems in an integrated manner to help users tie different options throughout their journeys. By integrating every mode of transportation in a given area, digital mobility offers each service provider, stakeholder, and end user with a common operating picture across the entire transit ecosystem, enabling data-driven decision-making and efficient network management. With these tools, systems are able to react quickly: when an accident on a major roadway creates delays for a popular bus route, coordinators can efficiently clear the incident using the best routes to avoid traffic; notify travellers of the disruption; and advise bus users to instead use an alternative train route. Digital mobility also facilitates a shift from reactive to proactive thinking. If city leaders anticipate a day with poor air quality, they can proactively use dynamic pricing to nudge travellers away from parking and toward public transit options and can incentivize travellers further with discounted rates. Digital mobility’s benefits apply to both present operations and future challenges. With comprehensive digital mobility, data flows in from various sources to indicate real-time demand across the network: ticketing systems on public trains and buses; electronic toll collection systems across highways; cameras and sensors at urban intersections. This allows transit planners and operators to employ flexible incentives to mitigate congestion, emissions and rebalance traffic flows. Transit authorities can increase road charges if heavy road use is contributing to congestion, leading commuters to consider more affordable options like public transit and active travel. As cities accumulate data, they can use the aggregate datasets to inform long-term planning, ranging from tiny details to sweeping initiatives. Understanding traffic flows can allow transit operators to more effectively schedule bus routes or add additional cars to subway lines during peak hours. On a larger scale, identifying areas with outsize demand for private car use could indicate the need for a new public transit route. Digital mobility operates under the pretence that a more efficient mobility network will be beneficial to all service providers as it empowers leaders with new tools to affect direct change in their networks. However, the most important stakeholder in digital mobility will always be the end user. Digital mobility’s principles place the end user at the centre, delivering consistent service enhancements and price adjustments to make all journeys shorter and more environmentally friendly.

Tab. Leveraging Data to Make Decisions Across Harmonized Systems

STRATEGY Planning: Before Journey Historical data and predictive analytics inform investments, planning and decisions

PRE-TACTICAL Operations: Day of Journey Transit operators plan mitigations for predicted disruptions such as large events, construction, or weather. Certain modes of transit are prioritized based on typical periods of congestion.

TACTICAL Operations: During Journey Behavioural nudges shape traveller behaviour to balance demand and reduce disruption. Real-time system management includes incident response, modal coordination, etc.

While digital mobility strives towards optimization, the ideal solution will be different for each city and its residents. Digital mobility is policy-enabled: policy inputs can shape the transportation network’s operations according to the city’s preferences. This may mean increasing the cost of road use to limit carbon emissions, or a commitment to equity may lead to increased public transit investments in specific regions or neighbourhoods. Digital mobility platforms are versatile, establishing the foundation for cities to tailor specific changes to their goals.

Significance for Stakeholders

Digital mobility has a profound impact on all stakeholders in the transit ecosystem:

  • Planners/operators: Data silos often limit transportation planners’ abilities to implement proactive strategies. Digital mobility unifies transportation data in a single system of systems, enabling planners to study and understand how a change in one mode will lead to reactions across other modes. Eliminating silos provides a new set of tools and incentives for planners to more effectively chart public transit schedules, allocate investments, and implement pricing strategies to balance traveller flows.
  • Service providers: In an optimized transportation ecosystem, all service providers benefit from improved customer satisfaction, reduced congestion, and reliable supply and demand. Digital mobility prioritizes efficiency over any individual mode of transit, ensuring that all mobility providers will benefit from a stable customer base. Additionally, digital mobility gives operators useful tools to react to challenges in real-time and keep the network moving smoothly, whether it’s unpredictable (a traffic accident) or known well in advance (a major concert or sporting event).
  • End users: As planners, operators and service providers embrace data-driven decision-making, the end user benefits from consistent, incremental improvements to the transportation ecosystem. Encouraging users out of their cars will require shared modes be more than the greenest alternative, but reliable, flexible and affordable. Digital mobility is critical to delivering the efficiency and interoperability to bring that vision to life. Services are more efficient; travellers are always informed of the fastest and most affordable route to their destination; emissions are reduced; and equity is achieved through data-backed policies and initiatives.
  • City coordinators: The role of the city coordinator requires cross-departmental cooperation, and digital mobility makes it easy to implement new initiatives across public transit, traffic management, and smart intersections by eliminating silos. Digital mobility enables city coordinators to move from theory to action, employing smart solutions to encourage public transit use. The ability of these tools to respond in real-time ensures that coordinators can leverage behavioural nudges as a powerful solution for reducing congestion and emissions.

While transportation optimization is the core benefit of digital mobility, the comprehensive strategy also manifests across a variety of use cases:

Tab. Uses for Digital Mobility

Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS)/Mobility On Demand (MOD) MaaS/MOD is a holistic vision for the future of mobility, through which travellers can move seamlessly across public, private, and shared modes of transportation. Digital mobility provides the essential technology systems these concepts require, connecting previously siloed infrastructures and delivering the data-backed insights necessary to support multi-modal transportation. This holistic approach also applies to journey pricing, allowing users to understand the cost of a trip from door to door, including road usage, parking, micro mobility, and transit.

Freight Management According to the International Transport Forum, global trade-related freight transport is responsible for approximately 30% of transport-related CO2 emissions. Digital mobility reduces congestion on roadways by incentivizing passengers to leave their private vehicles, making it easier for freight vehicles to reach their destination and limiting traffic jam emissions. Freight management efforts are integrated directly into broader active management systems, ensuring that deliveries are organized at times that are most efficient and least disruptive to other modes of transit within a city.

Smart Intersection Management To manage traffic flows, transit planners and operators must make adjustments on a route-by-route and intersection-by-intersection basis. Digital mobility enables smart intersection management to both rebalance traffic flows and prioritize active travel modes, which is a vital solution for public safety, as sensors and cameras can be used to ensure safe passage for pedestrians as they enter and exit the intersection. Signal priority can also facilitate faster journeys for buses and even delivery vehicles during pre-arranged windows.

Holistic Congestion Management In today’s siloed transportation environments, congestion is addressed on a mode-by-mode basis. With digital mobility, planners and operators can take a comprehensive approach, identifying capacity in other systems and incentivizing travellers to choose less-congested routes and modes. By zooming out on the transportation ecosystem, authorities are able to influence traffic flows and prevent congestion before it occurs. Not limited to individual cities, the same tools can be used by stakeholders to manage congestion throughout a larger region. Traffic doesn’t end neatly along city limits — it requires oversight across larger areas.

Next Steps

How do cities willing to pursue digital mobility move forward? The path is feasible but requires a combination of technical, political and social initiatives to reach its full potential.

  • Technical: Digital mobility is attainable today. The technologies and innovations needed can all be achieved through a combination of infrastructure upgrades and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions. A unified, account-based system for payments and ticketing can deliver the back-end technology to ensure interoperability among transit systems. While leading digital mobility and MaaS solutions are backwards-compatible with most legacy equipment, piecemeal upgrades may be required on specific modes to ensure that data can be collected and that new strategies can be rolled out instantly using cloud-based software. A targeted approach instead of wholesale systems replacement makes digital mobility more affordable and accessible for budget-minded cities. These interoperable multi-purpose technologies also make it possible for multiple agencies within a region to share solutions, rather than requiring substantial investments from each individual organization.
  • Political: Transit providers can facilitate digital mobility’s technical upgrades, but a concerted effort is required on the part of local policymakers to encourage coordinated mobility management. Cross network and public-private cooperation will not take place in a vacuum; government influence and intervention are needed to place all transportation providers on a level playing field and promote holistic management. Politicians must advocate on behalf of a new transportation strategy to their constituents. By investing publicly in the success of digital mobility, policymakers will reap the rewards as the system’s efficiency benefits the end user.
  • Social: Many innovations taking place in transport today centre around contactless payments via mobile devices. However, these technology upgrades must be matched with parallel solutions for the unbanked and the tech averse. Digital mobility must provide equitable service and access to those in low-income neighbourhoods and those with disabilities. Another key social component of digital mobility is data protection: with planning and operations cantered on user data, transit leaders must ensure the security and anonymity of personally identifiable information.

Cities around the world face an increasingly complex challenge in providing residents with efficient, accessible mobility, while also meeting new commitments to reduce emissions. Through improved operations and reduced costs, digital mobility greatly impacts cities, transportation agencies, and end users. In the long term, an efficient, interoperable transit system helps to improve outcomes and drive key policy objectives for the city. Achieving green targets will require reducing vehicle miles travelled and making the movement of goods and people more efficient. Digital mobility is up to the challenge.

1 International Transport Forum & OECD, 2019, Transport demand set to triple, but sector faces potential disruptions. 2 Teter, J. et al., 2020, Tracking Transport 2020. 3 Baron, E., 2021, COVID: New ‘hybrid’ working models could mean worse Bay Area traffic.