Smart cities: where does public transport come in?

Smart traveler (Photo: © Lightpoet /

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Our grandparents never could have imagined that one day we would be able to use tiny hand-held devices to shop for clothes while on the metro, measure how much pollution our journey produces, or find a parking space in a crowded city centre.

Technology has the ability to connect the different parts of our everyday lives, and that, as simple as it sounds, is the entire premise of smart cities. A relatively recent term, smart cities has come under fire for being too hype, too vague or too commercial, or all of the above. But that’s because it’s early days yet.

Public transport can help make cities smart simply because there are very few areas of city life that don’t ‘generate mobility needs’. Departments that might seem unrelated, like transport, health, education, water and energy, for example, can work together to make life better for everyone. In the city of Rennes in France, the metro cars were always overcrowded in the morning. Thanks to coordination between the education and transport departments it was agreed that the start of classes would be delayed by 15 minutes, thus freeing up space on the metro network. Smart, isn’t it?

Now, we can use technology to make more and better connections. All we need is raw data. And if data is the oil of the 21st century, as the metaphor goes, then public transport is a veritable tycoon.

Getting our house in order

As smart as it sounds to integrate with other city departments, perhaps a more pressing need is for the sector to integrate within its ranks. Public transport is taking steps to integrate all the different mobility modes, including traditional transport and newcomers like bike-sharing car-sharing and ride-sharing providers, as well as cycling and walking.

This requires public transport operators and authorities to embark on bold, overarching plans, called Integrated Mobility Plans (IMPs), to get all these service under one roof. Integration makes public transport much better placed to sit around the table with the other city sectors and figure the goals that we have in common, the goals that we have in conflict, and how we can work together for everyone’s common interest.

But IMPs are nothing new. There have been countless workshops hosted and guidelines published on the subject. The real challenge is transforming them from abstract to concrete, getting them from the drawing board and into our city streets (see UITP’s January 2015 Seminar on implementing IMPs). Mobility planners need to look at financing and regulation. They need to find a way to ensure political commitment so that a change in administration doesn’t mean a change in direction. They need to find out what the customer wants, and what level of integration they want or need.

There is a danger that if public transport doesn’t take the opportunity to integrate all the different mobility options out there, outside business actors that do not necessarily understand the challenges and needs of livable and attractive cities will take that leader’s role.

Mobility is not the goal in itself; the goal is to get to the doctor or to work, to get the child to school, to get you to the market or to a friend’s house on the other side of the city. It is simply a means to an end. This is why coordination with other sectors is so important, because there are very few aspects of city life that aren’t linked to mobility in some way or another.

When all of these things are linked to each other, using technology and ICT tools, a smart city can finally emerge.


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