Smart Society

Networked Cities

March 2016
A city´s transportation is a representative of its overall functioning capabilities. The interconnectivity of a city, smart or not, is undeniable. The city is one of the most complex societal systems to exist, and the more complex the system, more profound the effect of a single event. The tyre of a bus getting punctured is a rather harmless event when considered in isolation. However, what if the bus is stranded at a crowded square and the ripple effect leads to a four hour traffic jam. This could mean the loss of a vital hour for a person being rushed to a hospital.

Identifying the problem area
So how does one plan for every eventuality in a system that is so highly networked and interdependent. In most Indian cities, transport infrastructure is struggling to keep pace with the exponentially growing need for better urban mobility. Issues such as land acquisition and resettlement make it tougher to rethink and rebuild urban infrastructure.

Transportation and mobility is a result of several interconnected factors. However, in India, these elements still work in isolation. The major influencing elements in any city´s transportation and mobility system include:

  • Services: Car share, car pool, home delivery, taxi, etc.
  • Products: Cars, busses, trains, planes, skate boards, etc.
  • Technology: Traffic management, mesh networks, automation, wayfinding, etc.
  • Design or infrastructure: Urban design, real estate, roads, network design, etc.

As Colette Jeffrey, Information Designer, Wayfinding Consultant, points out, ´If a city is well-networked, it becomes smart.´ In terms of transportation and mobility, the isolated elements should be considered when formulating solutions.
In addition to this, there is also a need for lateral thinking for solutions that require minimal investment and get the most out of existing urban systems. This would be more economical than building new infrastructure from the ground up and it would play a large part in integrating technology into urban transport systems smartly. Some of the possible solutions could include:

Technology enabled intelligent systems for transport: Technologies such as area-specific traffic control systems, which can gather real-time information to automatically adjust traffic signals, bus priority signals, real-time passenger preference gathering, computer-aided bus dispatch, etc, can go a long way in improving the capacity and quality of transport systems in cities. As Susan Zielinski, Managing Director, Sustainable Mobility & Accessibility Research & Transformation, University of Michigan, points out,´Transportation is at a tipping point and the reason for it is technology helping and not taking over.´And, this is exactly the role that technology is ought to play in making cities better networked.

Open-source applications focused on transport: Cities such as Mexico, New York and Boston have already experimented with these systems that visualise public transport availability and accessibility, collect routing data from public transport networks and provide real-time information on alternative routes. These systems can conduct travel time surveys and monitor and record traffic and road safety data. Apart from the obvious convenience to citizens, these systems can also enable local municipalities and other stakeholders to access modern planning and implementation tools based on this information. More importantly, these systems will give cities access to a low-cost digital framework that will enable large scale transformation in urban mobility.

´Big data´ analytics and pattern-recognition: These technologies are already being used for several applications such as flood risk detection, determination of women´s safety requirements in transportation, traffic management and enabling behavioural changes. The approach has already been adopted by the Indian IT giant Infosys in an initiative to encourage its employees to travel to work at different times to reduce traffic congestion.

Crowd-sourcing from the bottom-up and citizen engagement: Public commissions, governance mechanisms and disaster response are a few sectors where cities have already implemented citizen engagement for problem solving to a great effect. Platforms based on citizen engagement can be used to involve citizens in identifying supply and demand patterns of transportation services, reporting traffic congestion and road accidents, monitoring road maintenance and new construction, curbing illegal occupancy, vehicle sharing and optimising the utilisation of untapped inventory. Given the scope of growing cities and urban populations, it is apparent that there is no singular answer to the issues posed by ever-complicating urban challenges. Existing cities will require a retrofitting mechanism to deal with these challenges. In addition, an integrative approach that maximises on services, products, technology and design or infrastructure is a must. This integration, however, is not possible without getting major stakeholders and citizens to collaborate. These networked cities will not only improve the standards of transportation, but also curb road fatalities, travel time, air pollution levels - hence, contributing to the overall welfare of citizens and the city on the whole.