Digital Transportation: The Future of Urban Mobility

The physical scale and unprecedented population growth in some cities have officials grappling with how to manage their transportation network. The Open Mobility Foundation has a bold, digitally-based vision to help cities meet their mobility goals.

PORTLAND, Oregon – What used to be a relatively quick, uneventful drive into Portland from my southwest neighborhood has turned into a traffic debacle. I knew commuter life in Portland had changed forever when, on this last visit, my GPS said, “Are we there yet?”

Portland is one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States, and like many booming cities, population growth and gridlock have swelled hand in glove. But there is reason for optimism, as Portland and 15 other cities this summer inaugurated the Open Mobility Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to modernize city planning technology and help communities meet their mobility goals.

Cities have always been responsible for managing their surface transportation network, and for the better part of the last century, they did so using analog systems like stop signs, lane markings, and curbs.

Today, however, the transportation ecosystem is surging ahead digitally, with new modes of transportation like ridesharing, scooters, and self-driving vehicles being introduced yearly.

In principle, this phenomenon should be a welcome novelty. After all, with limited budgets, cities can’t just keep adding new transit routes.

But these digital modes of transportation offer plenty of potential in their own right. More than 48% of trips in the most congested cities are under three miles, according to a recent INRIX report, which analyzed over 50 million trips. If a fraction of these trips were replaced by shared bikes and scooters, cities would experience less traffic, reduced emissions, and a boost to the local economy, according to the research group.

Of course, there is a darker side to this tech. Scooters clog narrow sidewalks, lay strewn in the middle of crosswalks, and have been known to force pedestrians into a hurdle race over these wheeled platforms. Meanwhile, ride-hailing firms like Uber and Lyft, which at their inception were hyped as traffic busters, admitted in August they are making congestion worse in some cities.

Indeed, harnessing the promise of these new forms of mobility, while mitigating the bad, has been a challenge for cities.

Which is why Portland, Los Angeles, Miami, Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, Minneapolis, and others jumped to form OMF, whose mission is to govern the new Mobility Data Specification.

MDS, which was originally unveiled by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation last year, is a set of data specifications and data sharing requirements that force mobility companies to report basic data on the location and use of their equipment.

The principle is simple: If a city is going to manage its surface transportation network effectively, it better know where ‘stuff’ is.

But MDS alone won’t solve congestion. In order to leverage MDS data to mitigate traffic, cities will need a high definition map of the city, or as the latest “Technology Action Plan” [pdf] by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation describes it, a “digital infrastructure that mirrors the current hardscape and that gives transportation assets like curbs, streets, sidewalks, airspace, and subterranean space a digital identity.”

That’s right, code is the new concrete, and a key tenet of OMF’s mission is that the city is going to own and govern its digital twin.

“Going forward, each city must manage its own Digital Twin, which will provide the ground truth on which mobility services depend,” states the OMF bylaws [pdf].

The result is that all stakeholders—both cities and the private mobility companies—will operate off the same digital map, with MDS acting as the data and communication protocol.

For the first time, cities will be in a position to digitally, and actively manage private sector service providers.  For instance, a city could digitize their scooter policies directly into the digital twin—in other words, embed into the universal map rules like where and when scooters can park. Using the MDS protocol, the city could track precisely where and when scooters are operating and parking, even fining the scooter company or user when city policies are violated.

While MDS in its current form is focused on dockless e-scooters and bicycles, the good news is that it’s extendable to other types of digitized mobility like ride-hailing companies, and even autonomous vehicles.

In addition to supporting real-time management of mobility providers, officials also plan on using the digital twin as a digital testing ground to build and simulate a transportation system that could be exponentially more efficient than the existing network.

To seize this opportunity, OMF founding members are following LA’s lead, and working to build their digital infrastructure.

Indeed, the physical scale and unprecedented concentration of human beings in many cities have officials on edge, asking important questions about disease control, food production, education, housing, employment, migration, and transportation.

One thing is for sure, byzantine analog methods for managing transportation aren’t likely to cut it any longer. City officials need new tools and technologies that allow them to fulfill their role as planners, operators, investors, regulators, and enforcers of the surface transportation network.

It has been said that “technology is best when it brings people together.”

Let’s hope—in this case—the tech keeps us apart.

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Robert Fischer is President of GTiMA, a Technology and Policy Advisor to Mandli Communications, and an Associate Editor of the SAE International Journal of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles. Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.

Now More Than Ever, Auto Safety Must Be Addressed

Two years ago, for the first time in a decade, there were more traffic fatalities than there had been the previous year. Automobile-related deaths had been on a steady decline for a decade prior to that spike.

Now we know that wasn’t just a blip on the radar — it was the beginning of a new trend.

This month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released its tally of deadly vehicle crashes in the USA in 2016. The total was 37,461 lives lost — a 5.6% increase from 2015. In total, the spike that started in 2015 represents a 14.4% surge in traffic deaths. In that same time period, pedestrian deaths have shot up an astonishing 21.9%. This all on the heels of two full decades of declining highway fatality statistics.

All this despite what NHTSA acknowledges as an era where “vehicle safety technology is better than ever,” given the adoption of new safety features and safety-related ADAS systems like automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping warnings.

It’s not the technology’s fault, however. As always, the fatalities can be chalked up to some form of human error. Speeding, failure to wear seat belts, drunk driving, and distraction — in the form of cell phones, as well as other factors — were all among the forms of human error that ended up costing lives. What’s the worst culprit? Regulators say they don’t really know, that there’s no real explanation for why the death toll is increasing.

Bloomberg has just printed an excellent piece positing one possible answer. The article, “Smartphones are Killing Americans, but Nobody’s Counting”, presents an array of data that suggest NHTSA has missed some key trends about smartphones that correlate very closely with the rising fatality numbers — from 2014 to 2016, the share of Americans who owned a smartphone went from 75% to 81%, all while the way Americans were using their phones was changing. We’ve gone from using our phones to talk, which at least allows us to keep our eyes on the road, to texting, checking and updating social media, and other activities that rely on a user actually looking at their phone.

The data presented by Bloomberg is pretty compelling, and they take NHTSA to task for not linking the possibility of mobile phone use to fatalities, only including the fewer than 500 crashes where the phone use was documented. The argument is hard to deny: by NHTSA’s own reporting, drunk driving hasn’t increased nearly enough to explain the spike in fatalities, nor has speeding. The article also includes the findings of a startup called Zendrive Inc., which analyzes smartphone data for the purpose of assessing safety risks for insurance companies. According to Bloomberg, “in a study of 3 million people, it found drivers using their mobile phone during 88 percent of trips. The true number is probably even higher because Zendrive didn’t capture instances were mounted in a fixed position.”

Zendrive’s CEO said to Bloomberg: “It’s definitely frightening. Pretty much everybody is using their phone while driving.”

Frightening indeed.

There is something to be said, of course, for trying to educate drivers via public service announcements and other related forms of outreach to try to curb this rise in distracted driving. But it’s hard to imagine how regulators would be able to keep pace. Phones are becoming more and more powerful, more addictive, more — well, distracting. And especially since a driver who caused an accident while on their phone would have to openly admit to using it to an officer, it seems like a tricky thing to police — and as NHTSA’s statistics seem to suggest, tricky to document as well.

There’s only one real answer to this problem. This trend of increased traffic fatalities is precisely why we need to continue the movement toward autonomous vehicles. We are only on the cusp of what these systems will be able to do. Right now, all safety ADAS features still rely on the driver being fully alert and paying attention. In other words, these systems can help, but they aren’t going to save someone who can’t or won’t focus on the road while they’re driving.

We have heard the numbers plenty of times now, estimates that autonomous vehicles could cut traffic fatalities by 90% or more. But, for many of us, this potential benefit outweighs many of the hypothetical scenarios and predictions that some groups are making: that AVs will increase urban sprawl as more people become comfortable living in suburbs, or that there will be a rough patch where emissions rise a bit because of additional cars on the road (as self-driving taxis come into the economy before the traditional automobile has been phased out). There are arguments against these positions (and as we’ll report soon, much of these externalities can be avoided by a smart approach to urban planning), but even assuming all of those things occur: it’s still worth it if we can save tens of thousands of lives per year.

The Bloomberg piece features the story of Jennifer Smith, whose mother was killed on her way to pick up cat food when a 20-year-old college student, distracted by his mobile phone, ran a red light and broadsided her vehicle. These fatalities aren’t just numbers on a spreadsheet. Not only was Smith’s mother killed for senseless and even trivial reasons, other lives were changed forever. Smith’s career was disrupted by the grief of the incident, and the 20-year-old college student will have a massive weight on his conscience for the rest of his life. And that’s just a few of many reverberations from one fatality out of tens of thousands.

The US Congress has made good steps forward lately — which we’ve reported — toward making autonomous vehicle testing easy to do while ensuring safety. But it will take more than just good intentions. We need to use all the resources available, including our USDOT-designated proving grounds, to do everything we can to speed the development of this life-saving technology.

Now more than ever, we need to take action to make mass traffic fatalities a thing of the past. And we can do it by working together, sharing information, learning, and paying attention. We’re ready to do our part — are you?

Heath Davis-Gardner is a professional writer and editor who currently serves as Strategic Communications Specialist at Mandli Communications.