By Morten Lund
It’s time for a paradigm shift. If infrastructure was the buzzword of the 20th century, mobility and connectivity are the keywords of the 21st. Infrastructure in its totality – whether roads, railways, bicycle paths or fibre optic cables – should serve as a means of enhancing mobility in society. Of connecting people and goods, knowledge and innovation, cities and regions.
- We need to put the concept of mobility at the top of the agenda. Mobility is required not only for developing efficient liveable cities but also for attracting top talents and investments, says Neel Strøbæk, Ramboll’s Group Market Director of Planning & Urban Design.
The last-mile barrier
There is no time like the present to invest in public infrastructure, concludes the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its World Economic Outlook for 2014. Low loan rates combined with stagnant growth in many advanced economies make investments in infrastructure – the backbone of everyday life – more relevant than ever.
- The UK government recently announced a five-year programme to invest GBP 38 billion – USD 59 billion – in railway networks, but that alone cannot create mobility and connectivity, says Alan Pauling, Ramboll’s Group Director of Transport.
He adds that the basic infrastructure across Europe is generally satisfactory. The weak point is short-distance connectivity, also known as the last-mile barrier – people’s need to get to public transport, the train station, for example, from their homes and offices and vice versa.
- In my view connectivity is more important than mobility. Because connectivity can maximise the use of all our various transport systems and cover the majority of those short-distance trips, which are the core of liveable, sustainable cities, says Alan Pauling.
When congestion stifles growth
And the challenge is democratic in the sense that both developed and developing countries are struggling with connectivity at different levels.
As one of the world’s most densely populated areas, Manila in the Philippines has 12 million people crammed into a space of just 638 km2. The ensuing congestion, heavy pollution and lack of infrastructure limit the city’s potential, thus stunting the economy of the East Asian tiger for which it is capital.
A large-scale transport plan for Manila Bay – encompassing overall infrastructure, a new airport and a seaport – could untangle this megacity’s mobility jam, better interconnecting air- and seaport facilities.
Smart mobility is the bedrock of sustainable cities
With six out of every ten people on earth expected to live in urban areas by 2030, urban mobility is key to the sustainable development of our cities.
Historically, infrastructure has defined, and limited, cities, but technologies such as sensors and wireless communication enable new smart mobility solutions that let us walk away from the urban sprawl of the previous century. Solutions like contactless payments in the London Underground, Hamburg’s single citywide Wi-Fi network or real-time monitoring of traffic flows in Dublin.
- Infrastructure is the bedrock of a smart city. Going forward, cities must ensure that the infrastructure they install or upgrade has the in-built “hooks” to be smart. For instance, it’s less expensive to build in slots for sensors and communications than to come back later and retrofit, says Jesse Berst, chairman and founder of the Smart Cities Council, an industry coalition dedicated to making cities sustainable.
- Technology is our best hope for better urban mobility. Think about a single app that plans your trip and gives you step-by-step directions to the buses, trams or metros you should take. Or think about connected cars that form a caravan to reduce congestion and travel time. Or smart parking that eliminates the need to circle the block searching for a spot.
Over the past few years, the City of Copenhagen has spent around DKK 500 million – USD 75 million – on smart technology like intelligent traffic lights and street light systems to increase the city’s efficiency.
- It’s not just about smart technologies, but arguably more about smart choices. About creating mobility solutions that improve liveability and quality of life in our urban areas by boosting the efficiency of our cities, says Neel Strøbæk.
It is also a matter of attracting the right people.
- The driving force behind any effective economic strategy is talented people. We live in a more mobile age than ever before. People, especially top creative talent, move around a lot. A community’s ability to attract and retain top talent is the defining issue of the creative age, explains Richard Florida, Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, Global Research Professor at the New York University, founder of the creative class phrase and named one of the world’s most influential thinkers by MIT Technology review.
Mersey Gateway: More than just a bridge
In many ways the upcoming Mersey Gateway captures the essence of mobility and connectivity. Not only will the bridge improve the flow of vehicles, people and goods – it will also connect the two communities on either side of the river, thus stimulating economic growth and investments in the local district of Halton.
When this new six-lane toll bridge is inaugurated in 2017, it will relieve the congested Silver Jubilee Bridge, currently providing the only means of crossing the river and handling traffic ten times heavier than originally intended. From 2017, the Mersey Gateway will reduce journey times by as much as 10 minutes in peak periods while also enabling local residents to walk or bike across an almost traffic-free Silver Jubilee Bridge.
This improved connectivity between the two towns of Runcorn and Widnes and access to safe, direct pedestrian and cycling links to the national rail network will remove the connectivity barrier. The local authorities hope to create 4,600 permanent news jobs, bringing GBP 61.9 million – USD 96.2 million – in Gross Value Added per annum by 2030.
Rein Ahas, professor and researcher at the Academy of Sciences of Estonia, predicts that the existence of intelligent urban systems will define the third generation of smart cities. These systems will be able to forecast the need for mobility, punctually dispatching transport to the required route and solving the last-mile connectivity problem at the same time.