By Ryu-hee Kim
We live in an age where nearly everything we use is “smart.” Our devices have long had the capability to bring the data of the world to our fingertips. Still, now the smart capabilities have extended to once-mundane parts of our lifestyles like household appliances and modes of transportation. As such, it is not only our personal lifestyles that are becoming “smart,” but they are extending to affect our cities and our nations, developing into “smart cities.”
A smart city takes the idea of smart technology and expands it on a tremendous scale. The city will use technology and connectivity to provide services and solutions to address societal needs: improve social and economic welfare, reduce environmental pollution and waste, improve safety and security policies, and open these services and solutions to be inclusive to all.
Many smart city projects center around the topic of mobility and transportation. This makes sense as mobility is one area where most, if not all, people participate or need to participate in some way or form. There are many successful use cases where smart cities are implementing mobility projects, using machine learning and AI to analyze data patterns and improve life for their residents. For example, in 2012, Pittsburgh’s city implemented Surtrac, an intelligent traffic signaling system, reducing travel times and emissions by optimizing vehicles’ movement through intersections. Analysis of the project found that the average travel times reduced by 25%, and cars spent up to 40% less time idling. This affected not only citizens’ quality of life but also the environment by reducing emissions.
This is just one example of how a smart city benefits its citizens. Still, smart cities are not just about how the city’s government officials can provide the infrastructure, services, and solutions to benefit its citizens. If that were the core point, it would simply be a digital city, not necessarily smart. A smart city’s very essence depends on its people to improve its services with gathered data, making it more efficient, more inclusive, and more secure.
Simply put, if the city’s residents do not participate or have the ability to participate, then the smart city is… at the end of the day, not so smart. While many cities are well on their way to planning their smart cities, when it comes to providing smart mobility and transportation systems to all, they forget about a key demographic: those with disabilities and mobility challenges.
Research shows that by 2050, 68% of the world’s population will likely live in urban areas, and of those people, roughly 15% will be those with disabilities: around 937.5 million people. Many people can relate to the benefits of living in an urban community: faster and often easier access to basic needs like healthcare, essential household needs, and transportation. However, for those with disabilities, getting from point A to point B is not as easy as it sounds.
Think of the different modes of transportation available: walking, biking, driving a personal vehicle, taxi, fixed-route transits (think subways or buses), ridesharing, carsharing. These methods are not necessarily easy or efficient for those with disabilities to utilize. With difficulty even finding a method of transportation, it’s said that 28% of those with disabilities rarely even leave their homes.
I mentioned earlier that if a city’s residents do not or cannot participate in the smart city, they are not actually becoming “smarter” because it is not fully meeting its goal. This is exemplified perfectly when it comes to the lack of smart mobility solutions accessible to those with disabilities. To get back on track of becoming a smart city, mobility and related infrastructure need to be barrier-free. Barrier-free refers to designing infrastructure and services that are inclusive to all, including those with physical or other disabilities.
Some critics may say that barrier-free mobility is already available. After all, we call “paratransit” or DRT (Demand Responsive Transport) services available for those who may need extra assistance in many metropolitan areas. However, I would argue that this is a grey area where many may fall prone to believing that this is an easy fix. While paratransit does offer more accessibility to people with disabilities, they’re often at a high cost with limited service (availability of vehicles, operational hours, distance, etc.).
On average, door-to-door paratransit service costs between $45 and $50, increasing with longer distances and time. This is not something that many with disabilities can afford regularly. Paratransit and DRT also depend on the vehicle to arrive at a specific time, and with issues like traffic or weather conditions, there can be delays or even no-shows. While being unable to catch a cab might not seem like an issue for many, for those with disabilities, it can be the difference between making it to a crucial health appointment or their work, a line of financial stability.
Short-term: Start with Utilizing Machine Learning and AI
While there’s no panacea to solving today’s mobility issues – that’s not to say that there are no ways to begin to implement changes to make mobility more accessible, inclusive, and barrier-free. We can ensure that DRTs can become more accessible to ensure that the operations are being optimized to reduce costs, lessen wait times, and increase dispatch capabilities to ensure that passengers can find rides when they need them.
This is where the core theme of the smart city comes in. By collecting data and utilizing machine learning technology, DRT services can utilize fleet management systems to dispatch drivers to passengers, reducing idle wait times for both parties. A smart dispatch feature within the fleet management system can also consider traffic conditions and real-time driver availability and location to more accurately predict arrival times, ensuring that there are fewer mix-ups and delays for both the driver and passenger.
Utilizing a fleet management platform will allow DRT and paratransit services to continue to operate at reduced costs. As the service becomes increasingly optimized, the services can expand the operation areas to allow more vehicles and more passengers to become a part of the service. There are numerous other ways that data and machine learning can allow seamless barrier-free mobility services, but it shouldn’t end there.
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Long-Term: Expand Barrier-Free Mobility Into Other Infrastructure and Policy
When the goal is to ensure inclusion, a smart city’s solution to accessible mobility can’t just end at paratransit and DRT services. Accessibility and inclusivity need to expand to other modes of transportation, allowing for a more diverse experience and economic relief.
Thankfully, there are cities and organizations that are considering this challenge as they plan their infrastructure and services. For example, in 2020, Google Maps rolled out a new feature showing wheelchair-friendly routes, also adding on a feature where anyone can contribute accessibility information to the application.
Going further, with headlines of autonomous and connected vehicles beginning to hit the roads, we can also consider how autonomous driving technology can bring more inclusivity into mobility. Although the technology for fully autonomous vehicles is still in development, there are other developments underway. In 2016, the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research developed a self-driving wheelchair to navigate Singapore’s Changi General Hospital. And more recently, WHILL, a “personal EV” company, announced that it would be providing self-driving wheelchairs at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Japan. Perhaps one day, this can also translate into autonomous passenger vehicles geared towards aiding those with disabilities.
In the meantime, the barrier-free mindset needs to become a part of policy development. While there may be overarching regulations stating that accessibility is a must for public infrastructure, with the digital and connected infrastructure development changes, accessibility isn’t often considered when planning to change over to a smart city structure. Research labs, organizations, and companies can do their part to bring inclusivity to the forefront of these technological advances. Still, it can go even faster with policy on our side.
Having inclusive smart cities should be synonymous with providing accessible mobility to all. It’s not only essential to fulfilling the other goals of having safety and security, social and economic wellness, and contributing to a greener world; it is a basic human right to be mobile and be able to experience economic benefits and a sustainable, active standard of life. While it may take time and purposeful planning, to become a smart city and even a smart world––we have to put people first. The city will follow.