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April 27, 2023

Paving the way to future-ready urban transportation

Our recent research reveals three approaches that can help local governments and their private sector partners create solutions for the future of transportation.

Transportation is a city’s lifeblood. But you wouldn’t know that from a quick glance at many city streets and sidewalks today.

In many urban scenes, drivers and cyclists compete for road space, narrow streets are choked with delivery vans, commuters struggle to navigate disconnected public transit routes, and cars far outnumber places to park them.

To serve the needs of businesses, citizens and the environment, future-ready cities need to design transportation systems that improve quality of life, drive economic productivity and reduce environmental harm. To do that, planners must take a holistic approach to creating adaptable plans for sustainable initiatives.

In a recent research study—conducted by ThoughtLab and co-sponsored by Cognizant— we identified seven issues that cities face when it comes to meeting their transportation needs, as well as three approaches that can help local governments and their partners in the private sector create solutions. The research included a survey of 200 local officials from cities around the world. (For the full study on future-ready cities, see our ebook.)

External factors impacting urban mobility

We’ve identified four factors emanating from the social, economic and natural environments that expose the limits of today’s urban transportation systems.

  • Urban population growth: While the pace of urban population growth varies widely across the world, the overall trend is unequivocal. Today, over 55% of the global population lives in cities, and this is slated to reach 60% by the decade’s end.

    Unsurprisingly, then, most survey respondents expect to see an increase in the number of people commuting both within (61%) or to (69%) their city in the next five years, even as 32% see an increase in people working from home.

    Population dynamics will result in a 94% increase in total motorized mobility in cities, according to the International Association of Urban Transport. This, in turn, will lead to a 26% increase in global carbon emissions from urban mobility.

  • Changing commuter behavior: For years, city dwellers and local governments have explored new mobility modes, such as ride sharing and e-bicycles and scooters, to address transportation shortcomings such as congestion and pollution. While these innovations could theoretically offer benefits, like a reduced need for car ownership, they also come with a downside, such as difficult labor relations and, according to one study, greater congestion and a decline in public transit ridership.

    As a result of the pandemic and other recent trends, city residents expect less congestion, according to 73% of city officials, and more environmentally friendly transportation options, according to 63% of respondents (see Figure 1). Forward-thinking local officials understand their cities must adapt to this new reality. Take the case of Dublin, which invested in cycling and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure during the pandemic that continues to be used today.
Higher citizens expectation post-Covid

Q: In your opinion, in which of the following areas have the pandemic and other recent trends increased citizen expectations?

Figure 1
Source: Cognizant/ThoughtLab
Base: 200 local officials

  • Extreme weather: Nearly all respondents (94%) said climate change would cause challenges for transportation infrastructure in the next five years. From northwest Europe to southeast Asia, no location is immune. Just last year, for example, high temperatures melted runway tarmacs and buckled train rails in the UK, while violent monsoons in Pakistan damaged bridges and highways.

  • Political complexity: Ensuring cities' transportation systems are prepared for the coming decades is a complex task that requires long-term planning and steadfast execution. These efforts can easily be interrupted by bureaucratic tangles, political posturing and changes in government administrations.

    More than half (56%) of respondents regard political complexity as a major obstacle to meeting their cities' future-ready objectives, including in transportation.

Internal mobility factors to address

Other mobility issues are internal, reflecting problems and difficulties inherent to the transportation system itself.

  • Congestion, pollution, road safety. Existing urban transportation systems are unfit for purpose. A top issue is traffic congestion. In London, for example, the average driver spent 156 hours in traffic last year—almost 20 working days—at an economic cost of £1,377 per driver. Similarly, Chicago drivers spent 155 hours in traffic last year, at $2,618 per driver.

    A second issue is pollution. Transportation overall accounts for some 16% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and road transport about 12%. That is an evident hurdle to be overcome if cities are to fulfil their climate obligations. Among officials surveyed, 10% said their cities have pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030 and 93% by 2050 (see Figure 2).
Net-zero ambitions

Q: Please select the year when your city plans to achieve its net-zero targets.

Figure 2
Source: Cognizant/ThoughtLab
Base: 200 local officials

Third is road safety. Globally, road traffic crashes account for 1.3 million deaths and 20 million to 50 million injuries annually. In addition to the human tragedy, these losses also have a severe economic impact on victims’ families and on city and national economies; this impact can reach 3% of GDP.

  • The unintended consequences of innovationImproving urban mobility requires innovation. But innovative solutions are often accompanied by unexpected, and unwanted, outcomes.

    Take e-scooters, loved by many but reviled by pedestrians and drivers—and fairly or not, blamed for a number of accidents. In Paris, e-scooters became so controversial that the city recently voted to ban them.

    E-commerce is another example. A recent study indicates that the annual last-mile emissions of 90 courier companies across Europe, India and North America accounted for 4.5 megatons of carbon dioxide—equal to the emissions needed to power 600,000 US homes for one year. The surge of delivery vans also adds to traffic congestion.

  • EV uncertainties. Global electric vehicle (EV) sales have risen from under a million in 2017 to more than 10 million in 2022. But while EVs will reduce emissions and pollution, an unresolved issue is how to recycle EV batteries, particularly to reuse raw materials such as lithium and cobalt, whose mining has been associated with serious environmental and human rights concerns.

    Cities also need to address how to sustainably meet greater electricity demand, such as through renewable sources, and how to establish new revenue sources to offset lower fuel tax revenuesAdditional challenges will be designing the right mix of gas pumps and charging units, and finding the skilled labor required to clean up obsolete fueling stations.

Three approaches to future-ready urban transportation

Clearly, there is no silver bullet to making urban mobility fit for the future. But our research has highlighted three approaches that can help local governments and their partners in the private sector create the solutions required.

  • Make multi-modal transportation easy to use. Multi-modal transportation systems connect a variety of transport modes to streamline urban travel. For instance, a commuter may cycle to a train or subway station, and then use a bus or e-scooter to cover the final distance to their office.

    Such systems can reduce traffic congestion by discouraging car use, while also promoting social and economic inclusion by providing easier access to employment, education and leisure opportunities for residents of less well-connected locations.

    Expanding access to transportation can dramatically improve social equity. Researchers have identified an association between shorter commute times and upward social mobility in the US.

    Multi-modal transportation systems also offer enormous health and safety benefits. In addition to reducing emissions and air pollution, there is a strong relationship between high levels of public transit ridership and low numbers of traffic fatalities.

    Cities globally are starting to embrace multi-modal systems; in Austin, Texas in the US, voters recently approved an initiative to develop connected subway, rapid bus lines and light rail lines. The city is also expanding its MetroBike sharing scheme, which currently comprises 75 bike-sharing stations around downtown Austin.

    However, only 57% of respondents said their cities will prioritize the development of multi-modal transportation systems in the next five years—indicating an excessively modest level of ambition (see Figure 3).
Transportation governance efforts

Q: Which of the following actions will your city prioritize over the next five years to improve mobility and transportation?

Figure 3
Source: Cognizant/ThoughtLab
Base: 200 local officials

To realize the vision of efficient multi-modal transportation, cities need to design systems that are convenient for citizens to use. This means not just ensuring accessible pricing and schedules that serve communities well, but also offering a seamless planning and payment experience. There are good signs here: 64% of respondents plan to adopt open-loop contactless fare payment systems for public transit in the next five years.

Helsinki Regional Transport recently introduced a facility that allows passengers to pay their fares via a QR code as they travel throughout the Finnish capital by bus, tram, train, subway and ferry.

Efficient multi-modal transportation systems rely on the savvy use of technology. With cities increasingly dotted by cameras and sensors, and commuters using a variety of apps—from ride-sharing services and smart navigation tools to journey planners—data on how people get around is instantaneously available.

By applying data analytics, city officials and transportation businesses can help expedite commutes, lower pollution levels and improve efficiency by encouraging alternative transportation options.

Some leading cities and their private-sector partners offer tech platforms that aggregate transit data to help commuters make optimal transit decisions. For instance, the city of Atlanta, Ga., in the US has created the MARTA On the Go app, which provides real-time information on train and bus schedules, including delays and changes, along with access to Google Transit Trip Planner and Uber for last-mile connectivity.

  • Think holistically. Urban transportation strategies have wide-ranging impact on businesses, citizen safety and public health. City officials are aware of this, with 65% of respondents saying their city will coordinate transportation planning with health, welfare and environmental goals.

    This is essential. Transportation and mobility projects require holistic thinking that considers the multi-dimensional and interconnected goals of sustainability, health and safety, resilience, and inclusion, and addresses the challenges of changing commuter behavior, extreme weather and political complexities.

    Consider, for example, how cities approach the often controversial topic of bike lanes. A holistic approach would distinguish between painting lines on the road vs. creating cyclist protections with physical barriers. When that is the case—according to a recent study—both cyclists and drivers gain in safety, as the infrastructure has a calming effect on motorists.

    The idea of free public transportation also demonstrates the need for a 360-degree approach. Holistic thinking balances the impact on taxpayers with considerations like lower cost of living, reduced congestion and higher social inclusion by helping people reach workplaces, retail centers and other areas.

    Spain, for example, is using a windfall tax on energy companies and banks to cover the cost of offering free public transportation. Detractors of the initiative argue this could discourage investment, but its supporters highlight that the measure is not only fair but also positive for the economy as a whole.

  • Design for resilience. No one can foresee all possible changes in our complex and volatile world. This is especially true when trying to address the congestion, pollution and safety issues of established transportation systems, the unintended consequences of innovation and EV uncertainties.

    But both governments and their partners in the private sector can combine out-of-the-box anticipatory thinking and creative solutions that help cities and businesses avoid problems and generate transportation solutions. This involves acting in four different areas.

    One is engaging in strategic foresight techniques: organized and systematic ways of thinking about the future that support the development of fresh solutions to old and new problems and preempt the emergence of additional difficulties. In the words of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), “Transport projects need to be designed to tomorrow’s reality, not today’s.” Last year, ADB launched a study that explores visions for the future of transport for 2030-2050, and accompanied it with a playbook and “trend cards” that help readers “reimagine the future of transport” across the Asia-Pacific region.

    A second approach is the adoption of digital twins, which create virtual simulations of physical systems. This technology can be used to design plans for improved mobility, as well as simulate the financial and environmental impact of different transportation scenarios.

    Finally, cities and their private-sector partners should explore new and unconventional operational and business models to develop solutions to entrenched problems like congestion and high emissions. For example, consider a 2021 experiment in Seattle, Wash., in the US, where trucks take parcels to a local hub, and e-cargo bikes complete delivery to people’s homes. This led to a 30% drop in overall emissions associated with last-mile delivery and a 50% reduction in the number of miles traveled per parcel.

Aluminum-air batteries—which derive energy from the reaction of oxygen with aluminum—are much lighter than the lithium-ion batteries used in most EVs and offer a much longer range. However, because they cannot be recharged, they must be replaced on a regular basis, creating a significant logistical hurdle.

To address this problem, Israeli-based aluminum-air battery pioneer Phinergy has created a full ecosystem to develop its business in India. It has partnered with several Indian car companies, major aluminum producer Hindalco Industries Ltd and Indian Oil Corp., whose network of some 35,000 gas stations will offer battery replacements.

Recently, these efforts have led to a prototype of the Tata Tiago electric vehicle and a Mahindra Electric three-wheeler, both powered by Phinergy’s batteries.


The road ahead

It won’t be easy to change entrenched transportation systems. In addition to the practical difficulties, city officials often have little visibility into the return on investment (ROI) for these initiatives.

Overall, 56% of respondents acknowledge that lack of clarity about implementation roadmaps and ROI are major roadblocks in their efforts to make their cities future-ready. For transportation, there are at least four main reasons why any ROI projection is bound to be little more than an educated guess.

First, it’s difficult to anticipate the extent to which new behaviors spurred by the pandemic—including remote and hybrid work and increased home-based entertainment— will continue, especially with continued technology advancement. For example, might new home entertainment options encourage even more people to stay home during weekends? How would societies react to possible new health crises?

Second, the very availability of new transportation options may create new demand as, for example, more people move to previously poorly served areas. This could divert demand for other transportation options, further complicating ROI calculations of new city projects.

Moreover, the ROI of a transportation project is not limited to the sector itself. It must include not just any revenue it generates but also the benefits it offers to the wider economy and business environment. These could include better access to retail outlets, higher productivity through shorter commute times and enlarging the talent pool for companies through multi-modal transport options.

Finally, transportation improvements deliver value that can’t be measured through financial gains. These include quality of life through streamlined commutes, cleaner air, improved health and greater environmental sustainability.

Like a journey on a potholed road, improving urban mobility will be full of bumps along the way. The scale of the problems that must be overcome can be daunting.

But with the willingness to try new solutions and use emerging technology, cities can create future-ready transportation systems that result in a healthier, more prosperous and resilient place to live.

This article was written by Eduardo Plastino, Director, Cognizant Research, and Rajeshwer Chigullapalli, Associate Director, Cognizant Research.

Find out more about how Cognizant Mobility contributes to sustainable mobility by providing architectural development, testing and integration for electric vehicles, charging systems and back-end solutions at our Automotive website.

For the full study, see our ebook, “Beyond smart cities—to future-ready cities.”

Cognizant Insights Team

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