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The (Likely) future of Urban Mobility: Key trends, issues and opportunities

Until recently, the last fifty years in transport saw no major revolution that has altered the whole scene – we have merely witnessed a few minor tweaks here and there. However, the past five years alone have seen more change and more disruption than the whole previous fifty combined. In fact, they have set the stage for transformation over the next ten on a scale never before seen since the mass production of the automobile. Fully one century later from that era we will be in a familiar and yet very different world. If the last five years of innovation and disruption alone are any indication of what lies ahead, we’re in for a wild and bumpy ride leading to an upheaval of the status quo of transport services and choices.

On the basis of my interactions with dozens of cities, transport organizations (at every level of government), research institutions and mobility focused companies around the world, I have come to the conclusion that there are a few key trends that will shape the future of our transport in a way that will be exciting for many – and challenging for some. In this post, I will attempt to synthesize a multitude of occurrences and forces that have been observed already, and those that are most likely to be seen in the future. Of course, events could take a different turn from the predictions I make here, but going by what I have witnessed, and drawing conclusions from talking to those with whom I interact, the writing is on the wall – so to speak – and the trends pretty compelling. It’s less of a matter of ‘if’ and more of a matter of ‘when’.

Moreover, some of the key disruptions have already started to shake the idea of what it means to travel, even touching our very own identity. We have a great opportunity in this next decade of transition to finally get it right and shift the transport industry to a point where we would like to be – to move toward a more sustainable and more resilient society and civilization.

Firstly, the seven major trends that over the past five to ten years have set the stage for the ten years to come can be categorized as follows:

• Demographic changes, with Baby Boomers and Millennials in large numbers

• Preferences for urban living and more flexible lifestyles

• Wi-Fi, GPS, APIs, sensors and smartphones

• Anywhere everywhere connectivity

• Car driving/ownership preference changes

• Travel as part of life experiences

• Redefining transport through new street designs, service providers and systems

Looking at the trends that I have just outlined, one can see that the last five years have been truly transformative for the transport system as a whole, and can go on to predict that the next ten will see change on a scale that we can only just begin to imagine… and yet some things will stay exactly as they are – or, worse, deteriorate. I will now attempt to highlight what I believe to be the major anticipated trends in transport. As I said, events could go in a different direction, but it is up to us to make sure that the direction we want is sustainable and accessible, and to avoid making things worse.

The next big trends are going to be major game-changers, and they are going to be led, supported and managed in cities, as opposed to by regional or national governments. The world is becoming more urban, over 50% of the world's population lives in cities today and the shift to cities is happening faster than previously though. In the next few decades that number is expected to rise to 75%. These trends will be felt first and foremost in the cities that have experienced most of the seven previous trends already in place, and will be quickly followed by the rest, however there will be those mired in bureaucracy and the old way of planning for streets and buildings which will end up losing out on many of the benefits. Cities are more connected with each other than ever before, and the one thing I have noticed is that they are fiercely independent and competitive. The key reason for this is that in order to keep that economic competitive edge that attracts and retains the best talent and services, they need to be ‘on their game’ all the time, as the requisite shifts can happen quickly. Those that prepare now, innovate with new experiments and partnerships will be able to guide these shifts. The ones that are knee-jerk and reactionary will finds themselves in an infinite loop of red tape that send them backwards economically.

Cities that have been working hard to create these livable, mixed-use communities, with a healthy supply of housing with inviting complete-street designs ( think protected bicycle/micro-mobility, carpool and public transport lanes, highly visible crosswalks, speed managed streets, public plazas and spaces ) are on the verge of hosting the greatest innovations yet to be seen in the realm of transport. If they can adjust their policies from being reactive and knee-jerk to being more open and collaborative, operating under a fair governance principle, we will see these innovations happen all the sooner, and in greater numbers globally.

The urban transport trends over the next five to ten years can be categorized as follows:

• Synchronizing and connecting every data feed and network

• Governance platforms and performance-based partnerships becoming the norm rather than the exception

• Diversification and consolidation of transport manufacturers and mobility providers

• Mobility as a subscription service, with routing, booking, payment, unlocking, gamification and trading

• Shared e-mobility (mono-wheel, bicycle, kick-scooter, moped, cargo-bike, car, van, bus, train, truck, ferry, aviation) systems to scale in urban areas

• Diversified commercial delivery fleets and the phased introduction of ground robots and aerial drones

• Automated vehicle technology applied to various motorized transport (including urban aviation)

The future of mobility is being pushed forward by rapidly shifting demographics arising from Gen Z entering adulthood, Millennials rising into key positions in the workplace, Gen X holding top level positions as founding innovators and Baby Boomer active retirees. These forces are creating a wholesale change in the way we view ourselves, our lifestyles, workplaces, spaces and travel needs. Ubiquitous connectivity allows us to connect, learn, play and work from anywhere and everywhere, all the time. Our journey will shift to be valued as an experience to connect with our family, friends and surroundings, rather than a means to get from A to B. Mobility will become the background enabling tool that helps connect us to the moments in our lives.

The transitional digital technologies such as social media, predictive AI, enhanced productivity and emerging wellness tools are bringing together the many disparate elements of our lifestyles, and we are entering a new phase of deep algorithmic interconnectedness.

Government also will need to realign its focus on being the governance platform referee/coach to set the guardrails, manage data, mobility providers and services and allocate and manage the right of way to ensure outcomes that are equitable, sustainable and accessible to everyone. Unless we gather new revenue sources, most urban markets will focus the majority of their public expenditure on maintenance and demand management, abandoning public-only-financed capacity expansion. This means that government will need to make some hard decision about what it will be in control of, what it will let go off and what it will manage. We have entered the era of mass diversification of service providers, a Cambrian explosion, of over 150 shared, electric or automated mobility companies ranging from small electric devices (scooters, bicycles and mopeds) to larger fleets of cars, vans and buses. While this explosion will last for a few more years it will be closely followed by a series of consolidation among cross-platform systems and sectors through emergent new companies that may or may not be focused solely on mobility.

We are going to see a phased government shifting from static and restrictive regulator to more permissive and performance based platform governance. This means shifting to performance outcomes rather than prescriptive practices as they will no longer be in the knowledge seat of this innovation and partnerships with the technology companies will be essential. The technology is evolving so fast and so far out of government employees wheelhouse that the focus will need to be more on what they want the technology to solve for and how it should perform rather than what it should look like. One key area of this governance platform will be on data management through key initiatives such as data sharing, reporting specifications and standards, and the physical manifestation of this platform through digitized curb-space management of pick-up-drop off (PUDO) zones of all vehicle users of the streets. This will include the gradual introduction of pricing the use of the street, curb and the sky above for the timed use of the allotted spaces. We will see more customer amenities in public spaces/stations like pick-up/drop-off product lockers, the introduction of service delivery drones, connected and self-driving automated vehicles (in various geofenced applications) that move people, things and do things (think street sweeping for example) and urban aviation services on select corridors.

There is significant pressure for original equipment manufacturers to realize that this new platform is going to be necessary for survival. Transport will evolve to become a lifestyle subscription service, with highly customized menus catering to users’ individual preferences and tastes linked to their lifestyles, brands associations and destinations than to the means of transport itself. People will purchase mobility access for local, regional and global options. Brand identity will shift away from the mobility label and more to the lifestyle services offered.

The seven trends that have characterized these last ten years have informed the seven major trends that will emerge over the next ten, and this will completely transform our concept of urban and regional travel. I cannot emphasize too strongly that this convergence involves a complex system of parts, and will require unprecedented cooperation and collaboration on the part of both public, private, community and research actors. If we get it right, we will see a more sustainable, affordable and connected transport system that will exceed our expectations and meet our multiple needs for the next generations.

We are at a crossroads, entering un-chartered territory and the choice is ours to make: do we want a transport system that is safer, more resilient and accessible to all? Or are we going to slowly watch the decline of our systems, all the while adding more polarizing technology to the problem?

Let’s work together to ensure your government, business, or organization is set up for success.

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