London, 1800: The city was one of the 3 largest in the world and managed to break through the one-million-inhabitant mark. A dense network of railway lines allowed commuters from the surrounding areas to work in the centre – areas that were once rural now merged with the city. But in this centre, horse-drawn carriages, which served as the main means of transport, soon clogged the streets. By building the world's first underground railway network in 1860, the city wanted to master the challenge of subways. Just 40 years later, the capital of the British Empire, with its roughly 6.7 million inhabitants, was by far the largest city in the world.
These days, there are over 500 megacities worldwide. Some megacities boast more than 20 million inhabitants (United Nations). Half of the world's population (United Nations) uses just 2 per cent of the earth's surface (European Environment Agency). These roughly 4.2 billion people (United Nations) consume 70 per cent of the world's energy needs (IOPscience). Nowadays, a network of underground trains is not enough to counteract gridlock and decrease motors of the roads, and the noise and pollution they bring. The good news: there are promising trends and solutions for the urban mobility of tomorrow.
Visitors to vintage car festivals can quickly fall into a state of nostalgia at the sight of the polished car bodies being showcased. Although these vehicles were not exactly the most environmentally friendly way of getting around back in their day, modern internal combustion engines are now considerably less polluting. What is more, for even better air quality, the quiet, buzzing development of electromobility can make a crucial contribution (➜ Electric cars and plug-in hybrids explained).
Status quo in Europe: The "canal e-cars" as a model
Within Europe, Norway is most likely the best-known role model in matters of electromobility. However, the Netherlands, and Amsterdam in particular, are also consistently expanding in this area. Urban mobility is becoming increasingly electric, and air quality is improving as a result.
Here's an example: If you buy an electric vehicle in Amsterdam but do not have your own parking spot with an electricity connection, the city will build you a public charging station nearby for free. Starting with 300 charging stations in 2011, the number had already grown to 2,400 by mid-2018. In 2019, the charging station network is expected to swell to 4,000 electricity points. Furthermore, a subsidy of up to 5,000 euros is given for commercial cars; for lorries, this even goes as high as 40,000 euros (correct as of 05/2018). The goal is that by 2040, only electrically powered vehicles will travel between the canals.
A look to China: The empire of e-mobility
Initiatives like "Amsterdam Electric" demonstrate that electric motorisation no longer lurks on the sidelines in Europe. However, there is no doubt that the Chinese market has made immense progress when it comes to "new energy vehicles". About 60 per cent of all newly licensed and electrically powered vehicles worldwide are registered in China. There are 330,000 public charging points available in the country for around 2.6 million vehicles.
E-mobility is a key aspect of the national "Made in China 2025" initiative. According to the plan, "new energy vehicles" will account for 20 per cent of new registrations. Corporations that produce more than 50,000 cars within the nation's borders in 2019 must sell at least 10 per cent of their fleet as cars of this type. These include vehicles with an electric or fuel cell drive and plug-in hybrid vehicles.
Hydrogen, natural gas and all the rest: Into the future with alternative drive concepts
Battery-powered vehicles are already able to travel several hundred kilometres and the expansion of charging station infrastructure is progressing at an increasing speed.
In addition to ideas about relay stations where batteries are changed, some companies are also thinking about another drive technology that should help the situation: Fuel-cell vehicles can re-fuel with hydrogen in comparable times to cars that run on petrol or diesel. This development makes use of a fuel cell instead of a battery. It obtains its energy from the chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen. However, hydrogen filling stations are still impossible to find in many places.
The urban mobility of the future is said to be turning electric, which seems a no-brainer from an environmental and health point of view. However, reduced pollution does not improve the flow of traffic within congested cities and hasn't for some time now. Up to 40 per cent of total inner-city traffic is accounted for by those searching for a parking space. However, if several people share a car, this, in turn, means fewer parking spaces are required, and urban mobility improves. The corresponding concept here is car sharing, and there are two essential types:
1. Stationary car sharing providers
With stationary car sharing providers, you have to return the car to its fixed parking space after the end of the rental period.
2. Free-floating car sharing
With so-called free-floating schemes, you can park your vehicle within a larger, but clearly defined, area.
You can find out more about different car-sharing concepts in our Shared Mobility glossary (➜ The key concepts of "shared mobility").
While there were nearly 700,000 car-sharing users in Europe at the end of 2011, it is estimated that by 2020 there will be around 15 million. Germany also has some growth to look back on: at the beginning of 2019, approximately 2.46 million car-sharing customers were registered – 350,000 more than at the start of 2018.
The increasing popularity of the car-sharing mobility concept is associated with a change in consumer behaviour, especially among younger segments of the population. In the sharing economy, the focus is no longer on ownership but on service: mobility is much more important than having your own car. And this desire for mobility can also have a positive effect on the sometimes crowded streets and car parks in cities: Different studies illustrate that just one car-sharing vehicle can replace 8 to 20 private vehicles. This mobility-on-demand trend is fuelled by the possibilities of digitalisation. With online platforms, users can use apps to determine the availability and location of vehicles as well as to book these, and, usually, to open them up as well.
While car sharing is becoming increasingly big, there is another concept that is proving a popular means of city mobility, especially in the US: Ride hailing. Here, you can find and book a private ride-share using an app. In the autumn of 2018, 36 per cent of American adults said they had used a ride-hailing service before (Pew Research Center).
As a car-sharing user, you still have to make your own way to the car. But in the not-too-distant future, your vehicle could already be able to drive to you, as if steered by a ghost. What sounds like science fiction is no longer a creepy vision of the future, but the clear target in many research and development centres (➜ The road to autonomous driving). The road to autonomous driving leads through 5 levels, with levels 1 and 2 being presently available in most vehicles (➜ The 5 steps to autonomous driving).
The next stage of development is now about achieving level 3, not only with test vehicles in current operation, but making highly-automated driving in traffic suitable for everyday use, thus improving urban mobility.
Autonomous driving leads to a new infrastructure
The future planning and development of autonomous driving brings with it a change to the existing infrastructure, which in turn influences urban mobility. There is a lot of potential down this route, but there are still some questions to answer:
- Fewer parking spaces and more green space for cities: Cars will drive independently from person to person and pick them up in order to bring them to their respective destinations. Not only could this scenario require fewer cars, but it could also reduce the number of parking spaces needed. So, at the very least, a widespread idea that provides hope for more green space and improved air quality in cities. But how will areas for car parking spaces and garages need to be structured in such a vision? What are the consequences for urban planning?
- Congestion could soon be a thing of the past: car-to-X communication promises efficient networking of cars, road signs and traffic lights. With this technology, road users could be steered so efficiently that less time is spent waiting in traffic. But there are still many technical issues to be resolved, such as: Will road markings need to be equipped with special sensors that signal to the vehicles that a gap, or similar, is free?
- A safe and gradual transition: The shift towards autonomous driving is unlikely to happen suddenly. This raises the question as to how autonomous and driver-controlled vehicles could coexist in traffic . Will two lanes be needed for the transitional period between partly and entirely autonomous vehicles, in order to avoid misunderstandings between the different stages of development while driving?
Closely interwoven with autonomous driving is car-to-x communication. Connected cars can connect in real time both with each other (car-to-car) and with objects in their environment (for example, with mobile devices or mobile networks: car-to-mobile) and can communicate with each other. While driving autonomously, the vehicles join together to form a convoy and act like a single vehicle. Simultaneous deceleration and acceleration optimises the flow of traffic. Already today, certain models can interact with other vehicles or objects from their environment. They warn other road users of upcoming obstacles such as traffic jams or black ice, so that they can react early. The more cars that are equipped with this technology, the more accidents can be avoided – at least, that's the idea behind this mobility concept. It is obvious that this scenario holds huge potential for dense city traffic.
Intelligent traffic in Wuxi
Anyone who wants to experience what car-to-x communication can do for urban mobility should travel to Wuxi, China. Around 1.76 million vehicles make their way around the metropolis, with cars, buses, traffic lights and signs all communicating with each other. Drivers receive a notification as soon as they travel too fast, and an early warning system will inform them of any upcoming obstacles. A sophisticated traffic light system continuously analyses and optimises the flow of traffic and also lets the driver know how long the lights will be green for. Sudden deceleration – another potential cause of congestion – is thus, in theory, a thing of the past.
London already realised it in the 19th century: Public transport plays a key role in city mobility when it comes to relieving the burden on the roads. Meanwhile, underground trains and buses in the metropolises of the world are reaching their limits. That is why a classic of urban mobility is currently celebrating an unexpected renaissance: The bicycle. Bike sharing is conquering the streets of all major cities and allows one to travel fast within the narrowest of spaces. Something similar should be true for e-scooters in the future, which also offer simplified mobility in the urban environment (➜ Electric scooters and other e mobility trends). How then could public transport be better structured in the future?
Autonomous e-shuttle buses
Urban mobility: In addition to the sharing trend, concepts of electromobility and autonomous driving are, of course, also incorporated into the local transport solutions. In Europe alone, there are now 10 public test lanes for autonomously driven e-shuttle buses. For example, at the Charité Campus in Berlin, a supervisory attendant admittedly still sits on the bus, who drives round obstacles and gives the go-ahead to drive again after stopping. However, it is foreseeable that these systems will become more and more intelligent, safer, and therefore also more independent. Moreover, the routes are currently still relatively short and don't involve any major hurdles. However, the pilot projects, running at a comfortable 15 km/h, show where the journey is heading.
Drone taxis take over public transport
The future of urban mobility is in the air: is this a bold hypothesis or a realistic view of the future? In light of the congested city centres, the conquest of airspace seems a logical consequence. As early as 2020, drone taxis will begin trial operations in Dubai, Los Angeles, Dallas and Singapore. Commercial use is scheduled from 2023. At the beginning, pilots are still responsible for the steering, but the race for the future oldest city in the world with autonomously flying drone taxis has already begun.
With new concepts for better urban mobility
London demonstrated it in the 19th century, and current developments and forecasts also make it clear that cities are growing. The living space of each individual and the possibilities of mobility within this urban environment must therefore be made more effective. This circumstance paves the way for comprehensive concepts for alternative vehicle drives, autonomous driving and car sharing.