Want to change a city? Improve mobility

Roads and railway lines are a city’s arteries, which makes access to efficient transport the lifeblood of a bustling, productive urban center.

Mobility is undeniably essential to our livelihoods – how else would we pick up groceries, attend school, or visit the office? – and yet for many people across the globe, getting around towns or between cities is a constant challenge.

That mobility challenge is what the Australian Institute for Family Studies calls “transport disadvantage”, where members of society experience exclusion due to limited or non-existent transport access. According to the organization’s research, the people most impacted are overwhelmingly those who are already dealing with tough circumstances. That group includes groups most in need: low-income earners, minorities, single parents and young mothers, and those affected by disabilities.

This exclusion can manifest in many forms, but perhaps the most visible is employment. A New York University study found that New York City neighborhoods with relatively low median household incomes and high rates of unemployment tend to be those that are car-reliant due to a lack of public transport. In other words, people who need low-cost mobility are being forced to instead spend money on vehicles, maintenance, parking, gas, and insurance.

Poor transport access signals economic hardship

Because of poor planning or investment, public transport is often least accessible to the people who need it most. A recent analysis by Swiss Re noted that while women are the largest users of buses and are more likely than men to be concerned for their safety while commuting, bus stops tend to be isolated and poorly lit. The institute also found that high travel costs and limited transport access cause people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to make fewer journeys than others – be it for work, study, or leisure – and that has consequences for both productivity and life satisfaction.

What we can we graft from these studies? Movement is key to prosperity, so mobility needs to be a primary consideration in the expansion of urban and eco-urban areas. And this means developing public transport infrastructure instead of just more lanes or highways. 

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Americans spent on average 97 hours stuck in traffic in 2018, costing $87 billion, and London drivers spent an astounding 227 hours, costing them almost £1,700 in annual income.

Research shows that investing in this space provides enormous benefits to society: in 2014, the American Public Transportation Association found that every $1 billion USD invested into transit leads to 50,000 jobs, and 46 percent of these jobs aren’t funded by the investment but rather the increased productivity and household savings driven by convenient travel, delivering in a return of $4 for every $1 spent.

And the yield can be significant even with smaller budgets. A study by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy found that the implementation of a Bus Rapid Transit service in Cleveland costing $50 million resulted in $5.8 billion in development along the travel routes.

Using mobility to rejuvenate communities

If you look at cities with advanced transport systems, such as London and Berlin, you'll find a window into what it looks like when mobility is treated as a priority. The London School of Economics and Political Science found that both capitals have seen reductions in car dependency as residents have looked to other (and newer) mobility options, from subways to car-sharing to bike-sharing.

While the move to other modes of transport is often dictated by common reasons such as cost and convenience, researchers found that emerging tech is also a major factor. The smartphones we carry have become a gateway to mobility, connecting commuters with trains, cabs, scooters, and more, and the location intelligence behind these services is making transport more accessible and efficient.

We know that cities are growing and expanding – in 10 years, there will be 43 megacities globally, and by 2050, 70 percent of people will live in urban areas. Simply put, that’s a recipe for a lot of traffic jams, not to mention a lot of people whose quality of life will be diminished because they can’t get around cheaply and efficiently. But by developing robust mobility solutions, we can ensure that people are well-connected to work and other essentials, making life not just easier but better.

This form of mobility extends beyond access; and touches on congestion, pollution, and the commuter experience. 

We believe that the success of future Smart Cities has its core in thoughtful, human-centric planning. You can read more about how we're helping to bring inclusive cities to life here: Harmonizing Urban Mobility.

Topics: Editor's Picks, Smart Cities, Mobility

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