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The Future of Urban Transportation Will be Holistic

Cities need to evolve towards a mobility plan that interconnects walking with biking, public transit, and ride-sharing. To do that will require tech, partnerships and collaboration, say experts.

It will take more than technology, more efficient cars, or even autonomous vehicles to improve how we move through our communities. In fact, cars are not going to be the ideal answer to transportation woes, or better cities.

The next breakthrough movement in transportation is “pedestrian-focused walkable communities,” said Spencer Reeder, director of government affairs for Audi America. “I think that is the most radical transformation that is going to occur in this country.” Reeder was speaking at the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo in Denver, where he and other transportation experts shared their views on the future of urban transportation.

“In Europe they already have that,” he said. “I really do believe that that is a huge opportunity for communities, in terms of … how does it impact people? What is the effect on people? I think that really advances quality of life.”

Cities across the United States are revitalizing downtown cores, deploying streetcars, widening sidewalks and putting down stripes for bike lanes. These shifts are making “micro-mobility” — rentable electric scooters and bikes — no longer a fun novelty, but a realistic solution for first-mile, last-mile transportation gaps.

When cities start to think holistically about the urban landscape and the various ways to move through it, they can spark partnerships and collaboration, which can lead to increased comfort and convenience for residents, say transportation experts.

First and foremost, there's convenience, according to Michael Carroll, chief innovation officer for the Central Ohio Transportation Authority (COTA). To improve ease of use, the public transit agency is working to connect with other forms of mobility like scooters, bikes and cars — transportation sources not generally thought of as public transit.

“We have the scooters. They arrived unannounced,” said Carroll, speaking on the panel “Transportation in the Digital City.”

“But we’re trying to incorporate them into our mobility hubs,” he added. “So that you could take a car to a park-and-ride, jump on a bus and then on the other end, get onto an on-demand service like a scooter or a bike.

"That changing people’s perception; I really feel we’re on the edge of a revolution in transit,” said Carroll.

The last mile solution is important in terms of enabling new transportation modes, according to Noam Maital, CEO of Waycare, a traffic software company specializing in its use of artificial intelligence. “From the transportation agency side, you start looking at all of these pieces available and try to make decisions that are holistic in nature,” said Maital. “So, if you’re a transit agency, you’re not just looking at the transit alone. You’re looking at the cars on the road, and pedestrians.”

Too often, the holistic view is missing, according to Maital, who believes not enough has been done yet to make cities more walkable. If cities want to evolve into transit-friendly, walkable places, technology has to be part of the equation. It can be used to manage traffic signals to ensure transit vehicles have priority, according to Carroll.

Cloud computing can open up a number opportunities for cities to partner with other transportation providers, said Maital. Cloud computing also makes it easier for agencies to scale up, and communicating back out to the private sector is also much easier.

“I think it’s [cloud computing] a very attainable goal in innovation that will not seem that radical, but actually really is going to have a big impact in the next few years,” said Maital. “When you go to a transportation agency and you see data rooms… you understand that there’s a big change that’s happening.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.