How to make a city flow

Sensemaking / How to make a city flow

26 Jan 2011

Matt Kaplan and Anna Simpson discover the smart schemes to avoid chaos, congestion and overcrowding

Cities never really sleep. Even in the small hours, before commuters surge from their homes onto the roads, the things they need for the day ahead are travelling to and fro: groceries from the countryside; water down the pipes; electrons through cables; news down the wire.

In many cities, all this ebb and flow is like a relay race without proper teams: there's no real coordination, and so the baton keeps falling between the runners. The people responsible for public transport don't speak to the ones distributing the food; the energy providers don't communicate with the information experts. Delivery vans make a one-way trip and come back empty; leftovers from the canteen travel, at best, to composting sites, and at worst, to landfill – while fresh and processed food is brought in from far away.

The daily frustrations of city dwellers asides, this failure to think and plan across different sectors means we waste everything from energy, food and water, to money, time and space – all critical resources that no city with a burgeoning population has to spare. By 2040, two in every three people on the planet will be living in urban areas, and providing them all with the bare necessities – never mind a seat on the bus – will be a huge challenge.

It may seem a way off yet, but less than 30 years isn't much time in which to make major changes to infrastructure that – in some of the bigger cities – has been around for centuries. Where do we start, and whose job is it anyway? In an effort to help get things started, Forum for the Future has launched 'Megacities on the Move', a new initiative in partnership with the FIA Foundation, Vodafone and EMBARQ (the sustainable transport centre). It's set out six key priorities for action to ensure the smoothest flow of people and resources (see table below).

Top of the list is a new integrated approach to mobility: not just getting folk about, but giving them "choice, flexibility and seamless connectivity", whatever it is they're after. As Sue Zielinski, an expert in sustainable mobility at the University of Michigan, puts it: "The goal is not transport, but accessibility – more productivity, more mobility, more beauty in one day."

So what does this much-needed mix of beauty and accessibility look like? For one answer, look to the deserts of Abu Dhabi, in the UAE. If everything runs to plan, then out of the sands will rise Masdar: a carbon-neutral, car-free metropolis, due to open officially in 2018. The plaza at its centre is designed to be a pleasant place to walk, rest and meet people – as well as a beacon of clean technology. Giant 'petals' flare out during the day, offering shade from the sun and capturing its warmth in solar thermal 'stalks'. Fruit and vegetables are grown in layered hydroponic gardens; rainwater captured from the roof is stored in a vast underground tank.

The city is energy independent, generating much of its power from a vast parabolic trough-style concentrated solar power plant. This alone should produce around 100MW, and will be complemented by a mix of photovoltaics, wind and biomass. Transport links are laid out so that you're never more than a two-minute walk away from the nearest station – be it the solar-powered personalised rapid transit system, or the light railway.

If all cities were as efficient as Masdar (below), we'd be laughing. We'd be pretty damn sustainable, too.

Masdar CityWhat can major metropolises do to avoid chaos, congestion and overcrowding?

Masdar may or may not live up to expectations, of course. But even if it does, it's not the easiest example for others to follow. It has enjoyed the luxury of starting from scratch, whereas most of our major cities have grown slowly over centuries or even millennia, with very little intervention from urban planners along the way. We find ourselves in and amongst a hotchpotch of new build and old; straight and winding roads; smart avenues and sink estates. Getting around depends on haphazard transport links, each with their own timetable and payment system.

"If all cities were as efficient as Masdar, we'd be laughing"

So, leaving others to walk Masdar's narrow and uniform streets, let's head north for a reality check, across the Levant to Istanbul. With a population of nearly 13 million, the former capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires is now the world's fifth largest city. And it's growing out of control, with a mass of gecekondus (makeshift housing literally 'built overnight') sending it sprawling into the surrounding countryside.

Getting to work through the crush is increasingly tough. In an effort to ease the passage, the city authorities have installed a new underground funicular railway – to compliment one which has run continuously since 1875 – as well as a new metro, which will eventually have 32 stations across the city. And in 2009 it launched the world's only intercontinental bus rapid transit system, which crosses the Bosphorus Bridge from Europe to Asia. It carries over half a million passengers a day, saving them, on average, two hours that they might otherwise have spent on congested roads. But, even with all these new developments, travel times in the city have risen by 24% in the last decade.

Sibel Bulay, Director of EMBARQ in Turkey, is quick to acknowledge that the situation is simply untenable. If the next 30 years bring more of the same – more people, more demand for public transport, and more cars on the road – then Istanbul could become "a dismal place with severe limitations on energy use". For Istanbul, read Mumbai, or Rio, Bangkok or Lagos… Something has to change, and it will take more than just a new rapid transit network.

So what are the key shifts we need to make? 'Megacities on the Move' calls for "completely new ways" to produce and access goods and services. Clearly, no single form of transport or wireless gadget is going to provide this. Rather, we'll have to be on the ball with a whole range of new possibilities.

For a start, we'll need to spot the potential in alternative sources of energy and battery technology, and invest heavily to roll them out. We'll have to learn to think beyond the car, exploring other low-carbon and congestion-averse ways to get about – all the better if they help to make us healthier and happier – like cycling or even walking. Transport aside, we need to reconsider how we organise our lives and where we go to get what we need. Can social hubs like cafes and pubs double up as collection points for locally produced food or postal packages? And just how much can we do online?

All aboard

It's a huge agenda, acknowledges Forum for the Future's Ivana Gazibara, leader of the Megacities project. As she sees it, changing people's behaviour and the way they use goods and services has to be part of any solution. "The things people value and the way they behave do a lot to shape our future", she says.

But even for those who find the idea of a low-carbon lifestyle attractive, it can be hard to know what to change, and old habits die hard. Nigel Underdown, Head of Transport Advice at the UK's Energy Saving Trust, would like to see more people asking themselves if they really need to make that trip. "Tackling the need to travel has to be at the top of the list" he says. "Because, whether your priority is reducing carbon or congestion, all the other interventions are just not going to deliver fast enough."

It may not be fast enough for some, but information technology is certainly delivering change at quite a rate. Knowledge-on-the-go, thanks to Wi-Fi enabled smart phones, has enormous potential to connect people to the things they need. GPS systems offer instant updates, making it easier to avoid traffic jams and less likely that you'll waste time searching for a parking space.Reliable access to information can also make new possibilities less intimidating and more desirable. People are already using their phones to find charging points for electric vehicles, or locate the nearest shops.

"Tackling the need to travel has to be at the top of the list"

It's largely thanks to online social networks that community-based sharing schemes have taken off. A few years back, you might have asked a friendly neighbour if you could borrow a few eggs once in a blue moon, but it's unlikely you'd have accosted the next person in the queue at the post office and asked to borrow her car. Now, sites like WhipCar make it easy to rent one in your area whenever it's not in use – or to make a bit of extra money by signing your own wheels up to the scheme.

For some, this seems too whacky an idea. Underdown questions whether many car owners could be persuaded to sign up: "They tend to be rather precious – or they'd probably never have gone in for ownership in the first place". But for borrowers, there are a number of clear wins. You don't have the hassle of maintenance and a permanent parking spot; your one-off trip is fully insured; and you can choose a different vehicle each time to fit the occasion – whether you're moving house, going to see your folks for the weekend, or simply feel like a spin in the country – with the roof down and the wind in your hair.

Or, if your neighbour's car doesn't cut it, you could try New York's CityCar scheme. Its tiny two-seater electric vehicles zip about weighing less than a thousand pounds each. They're designed by MIT to be 'stackable', rather like supermarket trolleys, and can be picked up from combined parking and charging stations with the swipe of a card.

Changing minds about car ownership – perhaps the status symbol of the 20th century – is one thing. Getting people onto bikes is another. Cycling is one of the cheapest, quickest and most efficient ways to get around a city. But expensive cycle schemes like London's 'Boris bikes' could soon look passé. Try comparing its complex and expensive infrastructure to quick-fix initiatives like New York's Social Bicycle System (SoBi). It cuts out the need for plug-in stations altogether by attaching all the security and technology to the bike itself. A unit with built-in GPS and Wi-Fi simply clamps onto the frame like a lock. All you need to do is register via the website, use your mobile phone to track down the nearest bike, unlock it with a code, and you're away.

New York CityCarsCute, clean and stackable: CityCars on the streets of New York New York SoBINew York's SoBI: the wifi bike

Mobile apps can also give people the confidence to explore on foot, too, without the worry of getting lost. Take the urban route planner Just by telling you how far you'll be going and which routes would be the most scenic, or the safest, WalkIt helps to make transport-free travel a real option: "We often associate the 'walkability' of a place with major changes to the landscape, through pedestrianisation and urban redesign", says Hugh Knowles, an expert in behaviour change at Forum for the Future. "But sometimes all you need is a map." Of course, an app is more than just a map, and the bonus features it offers – like flagging up points of interest and the odd pub along the way – could help to bring walking back into vogue. Already, more people are recognising the pleasure of an urban stroll. As Mrs Dalloway put it, "I love walking in London ... it's better than walking in the country".

Intelligent infrastructure

Encouraging people to get smart about their options is smarter, too: the US Department of Transportation (DOT) has launched IntelliDrive to give cars the ability to self-navigate. The smart software uses Wi-Fi to pick up signals from other vehicles and the surrounding infrastructure – from traffic lights and road signs to mobile phones – and turns the data into instant decisions about speed and direction. DOT claims it could make collisions a near impossibility.

Similarly, Nissan is piloting a robot car with 'anti-collision' capacities inspired by – unlikely as it may sound – the behaviour of fish. Just as schools of fish instinctively form a narrow line where the passage is tight, or divide into two separate lines to circumvent an obstacle, the EPORO uses lasers and wireless communications technology so that individual pods can travel safely in a much larger group.

Nissan EPORORound, round get around...

As important as road safety is, the really exciting potential here is the power of well-managed traffic systems to ease – or even put an end to – congestion. As things stand, you might hear about a tailback on the radio, or get an alert from your GPS – but by that stage of your daily commute you're probably already in the thick of it. Something as simple as synchronised traffic lights could make a huge difference. "When it comes to smart driving," explains Underdown, "there's only one imperative: don't stop!"

"Something as simple as synchronised traffic lights could make a huge difference"

In many city centres, that's simply impossible. Crawling down congested roads can feel a bit like playing a broken record, and each stop-start wastes time, energy and money. Already, taxi firms like Addison Lee – currently in the running for an Energy Saving Trust (EST) Fleet Hero Award – are making massive fuel savings thanks congestion-tracking and route-planning software. Devices to encourage smooth driving techniques can be effective, too. One award-winning example is the app which simulates a glass of water sitting on your dashboard, threatening to spill over your lap if you brake too abruptly.

The future is...light?

Roads and cars have their part to play in short-term efficiency gains, but it's possible they won't feature much in the future. Instead, expect personal rapid transit systems – like ULTra. Developed in association with the University of Bristol, this is currently being piloted between the car parks and terminals of Heathrow Airport.

Small, computer-driven electric pods nip about at ground level or on elevated tracks to stay clear of pedestrians. Their energy consumption is exceedingly low: just 0.15kwh per pod travelling at 25mph. They run on easy-build 'guideways' – nothing more intricate than a 25cm curb, which the vehicles detect using lasers. You can summon one from a waiting bay with a quick swipe of your smartphone. Once it's picked you up, it will use Wi-Fi and sensors to communicate with the other pods on the line, avoiding congestion.

It's all beginning to sound rather friendly. Take a pick of these urban mobility solutions, and you'll find communication at the heart of almost all of them. You have pods sensing each other's speed and distance, traffic lights working in tandem, EPOROs gadding about like schools of fish, and communities sharing cars. Could planning for the smoothest flow of people and resources in a city be as simple as making conversation?

Matt Kaplan is a regular writer for The Economist. Anna Simpson is Deputy Editor of Green Futures.

How to make a city flow

Megacities on the Move has identified six essential priorities for action. They should be relevant for everyone involved in rethinking cities, whether you're a government official, urban planner, transport provider, corporate hot dog or the Mayor.

1. Integrate
How we get about, how we shift our supplies, and how we access the things we need can no longer be considered in isolation. A new, holistic approach is needed - as well as much more talking and decision making across sectors.

2. Prioritise the poor
Everyone has to be able to access services, food, social hubs, jobs and information - whatever their income. Good transport can go a long way to help people make money, but it has to be affordable.

3. Think people, not just cars
There are already one billion cars in the world, projected to grow to two billion within decades - but cities are already struggling with impossible levels of congestion. Designing our cities around people could help lure us out of our cars and onto our foot (or our pedals).

4. Get online
Mobile apps and web-based services have enormous potential to reduce the need for travel altogether - but they can also help coordinate the journeys we do make, with massive efficiency wins.

5. 'Re-fuel' our vehicles
We need significant investment in alternative fuels, electric vehicles and battery technology - as well as smart infrastructure to encourage super-efficient driving.

6. Change values and behaviour
Pushing low-carbon, healthier urban lifestyles into vogue could take a huge weight off our roads and transport systems - and off our thighs, too...

Mapping urban energy

Gordon Feller, Director of Urban Innovations at Cisco Systems, has come up with a real-time visual representation of movement and energy use in a city, which he believes could play a major part in changing perceptions of resource use and personal impact.

He and his team have collaborated with San Francisco's Department of the Environment to develop the Urban EcoMap: an online tool that taps into a whole range of publicly available information about a particular city, including data from smart phones, a network of street-based sensors and GPS. You can see just how much energy is being used in congested transport systems or by commercial and domestic buildings, at any time.

Image credits: SV Luma / Shutterstock; CityCar; Epicstock / Shutterstock

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