By Ian Grayson

Of all the potential benefits offered by smart cities, one of the most enticing is greatly improved transportation networks.

As Australia’s major urban areas grapple with the challenges of rising traffic congestion and overcrowded public transportation links, finding ways to make systems more efficient is vital.

Smart city strategies could hold the key.

According to research conducted by KPMG and social enterprise organisation Public Sector Network, smart mobility is one of the top priorities for centres undertaking smart city projects.

Of the cities surveyed, more than half (51 per cent) nominated mobility-as-a-service and congestion management as the key objectives for their programs.Advertisement

Managing director of online automotive marketplace Carsales Australia, Ajay Bhatia, says workplace changes ushered in by the COVID-19 virus are further hastening the need for a smart-city approach to transportation.

Bhatia says research conducted by his firm has found people’s preference for using their own car has increased in the past two months because of infection fears around using public transport.

“Our research found that, of those people who don’t own a car, more than half are now considering buying one,” he says.

As more people return to their workplaces in coming weeks, a new fondness for cars could lead to an increase in traffic congestion and extended commute times.

Traffic congestion management

This could occur despite previous campaigns mounted by authorities to encourage people to consider public transport alternatives.

“Now, more than ever, we need to manage traffic congestion and in a smart city you can do that,” says Bhatia.

“We can use sensor networks and internet of things (IoT) devices to understand when and where peaks occur, where accidents occur, and where people tend to speed.

“When you understand these factors, you can manage traffic flows much better.”

City of Melbourne chief digital officer, Michelle Fitzgerald, says creating an efficient transportation infrastructure within a smart city requires the connection of a range of elements from vehicles and traffic lights, to trams, buses, cyclists, and pedestrians. This, in turn, allows all road users to connect with each other, thereby making the overall system more efficient.

“The City of Melbourne’s Transport Strategy 2030 commits to trial and support new technologies and service models to manage demand for road space to move more people in less space,” she says.

Innovations within the strategy include smarter traffic signals, dynamic lighting solutions, and improved safety for pedestrians.

Sensors in footpaths

Fitzgerald says the city has already installed thousands of sensors in footpaths across the central business district.

This generates a data feed of pedestrian volumes that can be compared with similar time periods in previous weeks or months.

“We can see the impact of various factors such as major events or extreme weather conditions on pedestrian activity and compare the flow to short and long-term averages,” she says.

Melbourne city has also deployed more than 4300 in-ground sensors under street-based car parking bays. These detect vehicle movements in and out of the bays and the length of time each is occupied.

Data is used by parking officers to ensure compliance with restrictions and is also made publicly available to promote creativity.

“There are now a range of free apps available which track Melbourne’s on-street carparks, making it easier than ever to find a carpark,” says Fitzgerald.

Melbourne’s smart-city approach to transportation is similar to that being taken by other cities around the world.

Helsinki example

Many are using data collected via sensor networks to ensure different types of transportation run more efficiently by enabling tighter integration of services.

One example is the Finnish capital of Helsinki. The city has invested heavily on building an integrated transportation network that has reduced traffic congestion and improved the quality of life for residents.

Helsinki-based transport planner Ian Sacs says creating multi-modal transportation infrastructures is an important step towards creating a truly smart city.

“A smart city is one that offers the community a menu of transportation choices,” he says. “The broader that menu, the more options people have. The more options they have, the more trips are distributed across different transportation types. It then ends up being a more robust and resilient city which adds up to being smart.”

Sacs says Helsinki has succeeded in keeping walking and bicycling as a significant part of its transportation mix. These activities currently represent about a third of all trips in the city.

Different vehicle types

Helsinki has built a street network that was designed specifically to cater for a mix of different vehicle types.

There is also an established network of bike paths which mean many trips can be completed without having to ride on a roadway at all.

“Another third of trips in the city are by public transport. [The city has] maintained its love of the tram system and because it is combined with rail, busses and ferries, there is a great mix of transportation modes.”

“Finland and Helsinki have also been good at using technology to support this type of transportation mix,” says Sacs.

“The country has been a pioneer of a concept known as ‘mobility-as-a-service’. This allows different transportation providers to offer their services on a common platform which makes it much easier for residents to choose between different modes.”

Sacs says he is encouraged by the rising number of smart city transportation projects being undertaken around the world.

“You’ve got to get the basics right first,” he says. “If you design the basic infrastructure correctly, it should be easy for cities to accommodate new technologies as they come along in the future.”

A big part of the transport story is ensuring we slowly decarbonise our cities and this will increasingly rely on decentralising energy storage and distribution.

Electric vehicles

According to AGL’s general manager future business Ayala Domani, decentralisation involves home owners, businesses or small communities operating electricity generation such as solar panels or storage assets like batteries for their own use.

“Essentially energy is generated where it is needed,” Ayala says.

“These ‘distributed assets’ help increase the resilience of the grid, better manage supply and demand, and decarbonise the energy sector which includes transport.

“As we decarbonise AGL anticipates the uptake of electric vehicles will be much stronger than what we’ve seen with the uptake of home batteries.

“There will be a broader range of EV models, concerns over how far you can drive will be far less prevalent due to fast charging infrastructure, and prices will fall to the same as an internal combustion engine,” Ayala says.

“In this scenario, by 2030 more than half of all new sales will be electric vehicles, which is 2.6 million vehicles and 15 per cent of the customer passenger fleet,” she concludes.