In this guest blog, we invite Nicole Lee and Clement Ho to consider how urban transportation worldwide is changed by the Covid-19 pandemic, what new approaches are being developed, and what it could mean for the future of transport resilience.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a wake up call, reminding us how fragile the world can be, including the urban transportation systems we have long trusted. While subway trains, buses and shuttle services were packed with people until recently, they are now considered potential hotbeds for coronavirus. What is more, the way they operate is incompatible with the call for social distancing norms. Amid the virus scare, passengers are limiting travel to essential trips and commuting differently.
The pandemic has also forced a rethink among city planners on the resilience of urban transportation. Knowing what has changed and the extent of its societal impact, transport planners and operators are obliged to provide safer, more adequate services for any situation and ensure commuting behaviour becomes more manageable. A pertinent issue to address is whether our public commuting system is robust enough to endure another catastrophe, in whatever form it might take. The answer, apparently, lies in the future.
Driven by a host of emerging technologies, such a future will feature connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) that are integrated with urban environments, alongside an urban transport system redesigned to achieve a higher level of resilience.
What does transport resilience look like?
Arup has done extensive research to identify five traits of resilience in the future transport system:
- Robustness to withstand hazard events, with historic and real-time data used to forecast and mitigate potential challenges;
- Redundancy with spare capacity to accommodate disruption and provide alternative routes;
- Flexibility to facilitate systems to change, evolve and adapt to dynamic circumstances;
- Responsiveness to support data exchange allowing commuters to make informed decisions; and
- Coordination of systems to facilitate consistent decision-making aligned to the desired outcomes.
Why CAVs are compatible to a resilient transport system?
CAVs, which are free from human operation, seem a perfect fit for transportation resilience. Even though they need to be manually charged, these vehicles will be charged wirelessly in time to come when the road infrastructure becomes ready with inductive charging lanes, and/or automated robotic charging facilities. Eliminating human input entirely from their operation not only does away with drivers’ work shifts but also shield them from exposure to public health risks and any hazardous environments.
In urban lockdowns fuelled by pandemic, CAV pods can be counted on to deliver daily necessities to households, minimising human input and contact in the process, even payment. Nobody needs to commute to the supermarket by foot anymore when social distancing becomes extreme. At hospitals, self-driving pods can be deployed to pick up and deliver medical supplies from different buildings or conduct inspections via robots. CAV pods can also be programmed to social distancing rules, which make them more predicable than driver-controlled vehicles.
CAVs are equipped with sensors, surveillance cameras and communication systems to inform them of their exact locations. While on the road, they are constantly fed with real-time data to execute safe, efficient and smooth driving manoeuvres. Deep learning and artificial intelligence (AI) will also enable them to detect, predict and react to the surrounding environment and the behaviours of other road users, including cyclists, pedestrians, vehicles, animals and other roadway events. All these make them more robust and resilient to flooding, road accidents, terrorist acts or extreme weather conditions.
Without the braking and accelerating of human-controlled cars and much longer reaction time and less predictable human behaviour, CAVs can travel safely closer together. More vehicles will fit safely into the same length of road to increase its capacity. This contributes to the flexibility and responsiveness of future transport systems, to help them cope with sudden surges in traffic volume agilely.
CAVs are signaling a move towards the ‘Mobility as a Service’ (MaaS) model – an on-demand, real-time platform where commuting methods like carpooling and bike sharing are integrated with auxiliary services from vehicle rentals to travel planning and contactless payment. People will purchase a commuting service with a range of vehicle and route options for diverse types of travel. In contrast to private vehicle ownership, shared transport and related facilities will produce more equitable, cost-efficient, sustainable and resilient outcomes.
CAVs can also help build a more inclusive society by increasing commuting options to benefit all, including senior citizens, children, pregnant women and the mobility impaired, and facilitate travel to remote destinations combined with door-to-door pickups or cargo delivery services at specific locations. In this scenario, they can summon the right type of vehicles and select the routes best suited to their purpose and budget.
Tentative steps towards smart commuting
Although CAVs are not a common sight yet, they have been deployed and tested around the world. Plying between terminals in London’s Heathrow Airport are some electrically-driven ‘pods’ with design led by Arup, the Heathrow pod, a world-first personal rapid transit (PRT) system between the T5 business car park and T5 itself. The new Chengdu Tianfu International Airport is planning to follow in Heathrow’s footsteps. Under the Hong Kong Smart City Blueprint, trials of autonomous vehicles were conducted in West Kowloon Cultural District and Science Park. In Singapore, 1,000km of public roads in the western side of the island city are demarcated as a testing ground for autonomous vehicles.
A pipeline of projects is underway around the Greater China Region, introducing CAVs and intelligent transport to campuses, logistic hubs and new towns. For example, since April 2017, Arup has undertaken studies on integrated transport development and smart transport policies for the Xiong’an New District.
Putting CAVs on the roads is not as simple as it sounds. Even without a driver, a car is still a chunk of metal moving across urban space and predisposed to freak accidents when pedestrians and cyclists suddenly appear on the way. Efforts to make automated cars accident-proof are still ongoing. Cybersecurity issues must be considered too. Hackers can potentially take control of a CAV to make it incapable of starting, crash or compromise the privacy of commuters, including their personal and financial data.
Bringing the future to life
Perhaps the biggest challenge is creating a future-oriented public transport infrastructure, while figuring how CAVs can complement and be integrated into a public transport system of automated vehicles, in order to let commuters switch from conventional multiple-legs to a single-leg journey. Executing this endeavour calls for a holistic integration of digital technologies, urban planning, intelligent mobility and legal expertise. It is essential to understand and design an integrated system that will strengthen transport resilience in cities, withstand stresses and shocks and be better prepared for black swan events. Besides, we need to articulate the importance of system interdependencies, fully understand the potential for cascading failures and deploy an adequate approach to address the complexities within and between integrated systems. City leaders must work with multidisciplinary professionals to identify, understand and analyse critical infrastructure interdependencies, where transportation is only one component of a complex and integrated whole.
Before CAVs are fully implemented, significant changes in highway infrastructure design are needed to accommodate a heterogenous traffic flow comprising both autonomous and human-driven vehicles. In London, Arup is developing the ‘FlexKerbs’ concept where CAVs can co-exist with all road users, whose size can change to function as a CAV rank at rush hour become a cyclist path at lunchtime and a loading zone overnight. Streetscapes can be transformed flexibly for a more effective use of space.
Future-proofing our cities with continual long-term strategic planning and investments in a scalable but intelligent transportation infrastructure system, with CAVs at its core, is one of our best hopes of achieving urban resilience. Different industries should not just focus on developing CAVs per se but also weave their technical requirements into city planning and design seamlessly. An effective transportation system needs to adequately address its own travel demand, as mobility of people, goods and services would vary between cities. Also, people in unsimilar communities have different behaviour and attitudes towards travelling. Other than CAVs, there are alternative commuting solutions, such as walking and cycling, that form an integral part of the transportation system and complement each other.
Now that the many fallouts from the pandemic are unveiled, it is time for governments, urban planners, technology providers, operators and other stakeholders to evaluate how resilient their cities have been, particularly what aspects of them require improvements and what are possible in this regard. CAVs are but only one part to this equation, needing to further improve integration with other city-wide solutions such as energy and water systems, legislative process and society.
For example, data analytics can be deployed to better understand travel behaviour and hence, promote a more effective allocation of resources to secure the future of our transport resilience.
With thanks to Clement Ho and Nicole Lee.
Clement has over 20 years of experience in managing transport planning and consulting projects for Arup in China, Asia and the UK. He is the Digital Transport Leader and Infrastructure Resilience Champion for Transport in Arup’s East Asia Region. He is also a visiting lecturer for Transport Planning and Transit-Oriented Development, Smart Cities Transport Planning in a number of universities in Hong Kong since 2013.
Nicole is the Intelligent Mobility and Logistics Consulting Manager and Research Champion for Intelligent Mobility and Transport Skill Network in Arup’s East Asia Region. She obtained a PhD at the University of Hong Kong and is specialised in design and evaluation of automation systems in logistics and transportation industry. She is also interested in the industrial applications of AI and big data analytics.