Can smart mobility solve the commuting problem?

Why is innovation in the mobility space pretty much limited to city centres? We need a more systematic approach.

We’ve already seen some innovation in the mobility space, but the problem no. 1 of urban mobility isn’t even addressed so far: commuting. The reason: It’s very hard to solve.

Electric cars, shared mobility, autonomous vehicles, electric scooters, bike sharing, smart mobility – there’s a lot going on. But if we take a closer look, most of the new mobility products and services are limited to urban city centres. Even suburban areas and outskirts don’t see these innovations arriving, let alone the rural surroundings of metropolitan areas.

If you happen to live outside of a city like Hamburg, progress in the mobility space is slow and limited. Take a bus to the train station and hop on a train, or stick with your car. That’s it. Both trains and streets are operating near capacity limits, so this is the choice between scylla and charybdis. And it’s almost impossible to upgrade the infrastructure, since the bottlenecks are near the centre.

How did we end up with this mess in the first place? Thanks to the car, the 20th century saw the separation of work and living. While jobs were concentrated in urban centres, living spreaded to suburban areas and the countryside. Today, it would be impossible to find enough housing for everyone who has a job in a city like Hamburg. The result: Almost every third employee is commuting into the city, the vast majority by car. For a variety of reasons, commuting distances tend to increase over time, thus only aggravating the problem.

Electric cars won’t do much for commuters

Of all the current mobility innovation trends, which are at least pulling into the right direction, electric cars won’t do much for commuters, since they still need road capacity. Sharing would certainly help, at least in theory. But in practice there are almost no sharing services for commuters so far.

What about autonomous vehicles? If and when they arrive, they will be a relief for commuters, giving them back two extra hours of their day. In the long term, this probably will further increase the distances people travel to work. For comparison, after the fast train connection between Cologne and Frankfurt was established, people started to commute between the two regions, despite the 200 kilometres distance. It takes the fastest trains only slightly more than 60 minutes from one city to the other.

While autonomous vehicles will probably make the commuting problem even worse, scooters are almost completely useless for commuters. Perhaps for the last half mile to the office, like bike sharing. But nothing for greater distances.

So all our hopes rest with smart mobility. Now this is a very broad concept, encompassing everything from data and connectivity to analytics, information and green mobility. Basically, it is about the digital transformation of the mobility industries. This isn’t anything like a single solution to a complex problem.

The experience-led transformation of mobility

Lukas Neckermann defines smart mobility (and smart cities) as follows:

We propose that a smart city is one that combines its data, its resources, its infrastructure and its people to continually focus on improving liveability. A smart city is an aggregation of power and creativity, but also a body of data and live analysis. It has a soul; it sets goals and shares its passion. And if a smart city can so be equated with a human, smart mobility is a city’s circulatory system. A smart city, in combination with smart mobility, offers residents, visitors and stakeholders a quality of life and an ease of experience that pre-emptively addresses their needs, desires and transport requirements.

Again a very broad definition, but in line with the trend towards mobility as a service. On the user side of mobility, this translates into the experience-led transformation of mobility made possible through digital technology. Think for example Uber or Lyft. On the business and network side, there is still a lot of potential in the digitalisation of infrastructure and rolling stock. For example, Deutsche Bahn has plans to increase track capacities by 30 per cent, in part through digitalisation.

A Picnic for smart mobility

Perhaps what’s needed in the mobility space is a company like Picnic that doesn’t start operations in city centres of metropolitain areas, but instead chooses smaller cities for its first steps. Picnic completely rethought and rebuilt the grocery shopping process, coming up with a far better experience than its competitors, both stationary and online. So far, this model proved to scale very well.

Commuting is, like grocery shopping, both a pain point for commuters and a huge problem for cities that’s worth solving. Smart mobility concepts, if applied well, could lead to a breakthrough. Not as a single solution, but as a multi-faceted approach.

Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash