Today’s cities are awash with an influx of new technologies and reams of fresh data points that could soon help combat pollution, traffic congestion, overcrowding, and many other ills of modern urban landscapes. For all their potential, there’s a nagging feeling in some quarters that the arrival of these ballyhooed “smart cities” might benefit City Hall more than ordinary citizens.
A new study unearths some of the projected benefits for urban dwellers and, perhaps more important, finds that improvements focused on transportation will be the major reason that they come to fruition.
Analysts at Juniper Research, in a newly released study, suggest transportation and mobility innovations could play a central role in helping city residents regain as many as 125 hours every year—the equivalent of more than three full work weeks—that are currently frittered away because of inefficiency and delays.
Road congestion is one obvious contributor to those lost hours, and smarter traffic signals can accelerate traffic flow. But the researchers, who examined time savings across mobility, public safety, health care, and productivity, found that underlying improvements in transportation could produce gains not just in mobility, but in all of those categories as well. If anything, their study underscores the importance of transportation in making or breaking the way a city functions.
Delivering time savings hinges on the ability of cities to equip infrastructure, or cars operating within their borders, with connected sensors and cameras that artificial-intelligence systems can distill into useful information on traffic flow, efficient routing, and predictive patterns.
“These time savings don’t need to come from 20 different things. It’s four big buckets, and mobility is the biggest one.”
– Sameer Sharma, Intel
“When the entire city has the ability to see, hear, and sense, you are able to optimize traffic flow and have the ability to move much more at a global scale than ever before,” says Sameer Sharma, global general manager for Smart Cities Internet of Things solutions at Intel, which commissioned the report. “How many times are you sitting at a light waiting for it to turn? Simple things like that. Technology will make it simple to automate these things.”
This digital infrastructure, naturally, could be underpinned by Intel’s chips, and the potential for business growth is certainly one of the reasons Silicon Valley has taken a keen interest in the research. Cameras made by Intel subsidiary Mobileye for advanced driver-assistance systems also could play a more prominent role, providing data on parking spots, for example, to cars across a city.
But like previous Intel research into autonomous vehicles, the Juniper report goes beyond economic projections and Intel’s particular niche in smart cities. It looks broadly at the whole fledgling ecosystem and finds that time savings might be what matters most to residents.
Mobility Presents the Biggest Opportunity
“One thing is clear, and it’s that we are stretched for time, and that’s creating stress in people’s lives,” Sharma told C/D. “Going into this, we didn’t know what this number of hours would be. It’s a big surprise. The other surprise was these time savings don’t need to come from 20 different things. It’s four big buckets, and mobility is the biggest one.”
Of the 125 hours per year potentially saved, 60 of them can be attained in the mobility realm, according to the report. What’s most surprising may be that, while self-driving taxis and ride-hailing networks generate many of the headlines about upending urban transportation, they’re not the biggest factor in prospective time savings.
Real-time adjustments in signal phasing of traffic lights, as well as smarter parking options run by AI applications, make the greater differences. Minimizing red-light delays and improving traffic flow, Juniper reported, might shave travel times by 10 percent and give commuters as much as 19.4 hours back each year, while real-time information on parking vacancies both expedites parking and eliminates congestion that occurs because of backups behind drivers looking for a spot.
Open-data platforms will provide the largest benefit, with both city agencies and private entities harnessing real-time data to highlight optimal routes and suggest the most efficient transportation modes. This could account for a reduction in commute times of about 15 percent, or 31 hours per year.
Driverless Cars Play a Role
Automated vehicles eventually can contribute to time savings. A projected increase in safety means that there’s less time spent in accidents; safer roads lead to an increase in life expectancy; and vehicles traveling closer together reduce congestion. Those factors could collectively give city residents back 7.8 hours per year.
Even small improvements can make a big difference. The Juniper report said cities that shift their public-transportation payments to cashless systems could save 25 seconds per transaction. Over the course of a year, that could give passengers 1.2 hours of their time back.
Indirectly, transportation improvements also benefit public health. Smarter traffic systems can help prioritize emergency vehicles, and faster response times increase average life expectancy, potentially giving citizens back an average 4.1 hours every year. Further, more efficient traffic flow will lead to a reduction in pollution and corresponding improvement in the overall health of a city.
As a growing percentage of the world’s population shifts toward urban areas in the next two decades, cities will need to improve the way they function or face issues that could cripple quality of life.
“People come into a city and want to work hard and make a good life for themselves,” Sharma said. “With urbanization, cities are adding three million people every week. That’s a new Chicago every week. We’ve become numb to it. But it’s happening and accelerating. If you don’t get ahead of this trend and account for it, it will get tougher for people in cities.”