What role can digital technology play in addressing mobility challenges?

The digital revolution, or the illusion of urban decongestion

Contrary to its promises, tech has not succeeded in reducing urban congestion. It has even helped increase traffic congestion, given the growing number of vehicles for hire in our metropolitan areas. In addition to alleviating congestion in metropolitan centers, digital players are committed to optimizing their users’ route, thus facilitating urban mobility and disrupting traditional players. This promise of optimization stems from a desire to overcome the dysfunctions of cities inherited from Fordist urban growth, based on the development of large integrated industry in the second half of the 20th century. On an urban level, Fordism has led to generalized peri-urbanization as a means to satisfy a need for a significant amount of affordable land. The corollary of this spatial redistribution was the construction of major transport infrastructure (roads, motorways, railways) to provision newly-established industries on the outskirts of the city with manpower, raw materials, and energy.

Far from disrupting this established order, aren’t digital players feeding on this disorder in order to present themselves as indispensable actors of mobility? Do they therefore really have an interest in solving urban congestion problems? This question, raised in La Fabrique de la Cité’s report “The end (of the end) of traffic congestion published in March 2019, was asked to various experts from the mobility and tech industries during a panel discussion organized by La Fabrique de la Cité on 20 June 2019.

The imbroglio of new stakeholder interactions

The emergence of new urban mobility services (Uber, Lyft, Waze…) has taken traditional transport actors by surprise. According to Antoine Courmont, Scientific Director of the Cities and Digital Chair at the Urban School of Sciences Po, nearly one in four French citizens now use Waze for their journeys; meanwhile, there were no less than 103,000 vehicles for hire on the streets of New York City in 2017. The addition of these new modes of urban transportation has created new interactions between stakeholders and favors public-private partnerships, as the rise of private digital actors does not necessarily signify the decline of public actors. Mathieu Saujot, coordinator of the Digital and Ecology initiative at the Institut du Développement Durable et des Relations Internationales (IDDRI), believes that the public actor is essential to our cities whenever there are “public goods to manage, as well as public services to build”. Uber, Waze, and other digital companies have well understood the challenges of working hand in hand with local authorities if they wish to become part of the urban mobility landscape in the long term.

Our data at the heart of this reconfiguration

The actors of the digital economy play an essential role in our service-based society. The production, sharing, and use of data have become major issues, so that local authorities have no choice but to rethink their role in this new distribution born out of the digital age. Mobility calls into question the existing approach to public-private partnerships because public and private actors need each other. Indeed, local authorities have an interest in using data harvested by private actors to guarantee accessibility and fluidity; as for digital actors, they equally need public data to continuously feed their services, make them more reliable for users, and thus perpetuate their action. Creating public-private partnerships to provide cities with exploitable user-centric data (real-time traffic, purpose of journey, etc.) is precisely what Hervé Levifve, a technical advisor at Christophe Najdovski’s cabinet at the City of Paris, aspires to. Admittedly, the constraints associated with making data available are strong for both sides. Moreover, it must be noted that, for the time being, very little data exist on the new uses of soft mobility, not to mention the lack of academic and professional expertise in this field. Time is needed before we can witness any significant improvement in transport supply, especially since this progress, mainly based on the use of user data, is hindered not only by users’ concerns but also by the reluctance of public and private actors to exchange their respective data.

Peri-urban areas are left behind by the digital revolution

Metropolitan centers are, unsurprisingly, the only real beneficiaries of new digital services and enjoy a plethora of means of transport; sparsely-populated areas, on the contrary, cannot avail themselves of any alternatives to the car. On the one hand, the public transport offer in those areas is generally low because of financial and operational inefficiency; on the other hand, the lack of a sufficient critical mass of users does not incite digital players to establish themselves in peri-urban areas. However, it is in those peripheries that mobility needs are the greatest. For the time being, Antoine Courmont remains convinced that there is no sustainable alternative to the use of cars in these “mobility deserts”, as cars remain the most efficient means of transport for users living in the periphery. How can we improve the integration of these areas into the remainder of the territory? The challenge is to put the user at the heart of the process and thus propose an intermodal offer that can facilitate the transition from one mode of transport to another. This is the promise behind MaaS (Mobility as a Service) and its unified digital interface offering users a wide choice of transport solutions in their travel area. Nevertheless, digital technology alone does not hold the answer to all problems associated with urban mobility. If we want to open up these sparsely populated areas, it is necessary to provide them with the political and technical support they require, and also to work on the link between digital technology and infrastructure in order to alter practices.

This reconfiguration of mobility players finally raises the question of new governance in the digital age. How should roles be shared between public and private actors? On this topic, Antoine Courmont does not believe in a single governance framework designed by political authorities, but rather in the emergence of distinct modes of governance depending on the specificities and density of each territory (urban cores, peri-urban areas, rural areas, etc.).

What role can digital technology play in addressing mobility challenges?

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La Fabrique de la Cité is a think tank dedicated to urban foresight, created by the VINCI group, its sponsor, in 2010. La Fabrique de la Cité acts as a forum where urban stakeholders, whether French or international, collaborate to bring forth new ways of building and rebuilding cities.

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