Transatlantic perspectives on smart (enough) mobility


Our second Grow the Future cohort traveled to Toronto, Pittsburgh and Washington, DC in June 2022, to discuss strategies for smart and sustainable transportation. We found that data and digital technologies can help build efficient systems, but sometimes low-tech solutions can have a bigger impact on sustainability and inclusion.

Grow the Future 2022 participants on a bike tour in toronot
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Grow the Future 2022 cohort on a bike tour through Toronto

Our exploration of digital mobility trends in North America started with an old-fashioned bike ride through Toronto. Lanrick Bennett is the city’s “Bike Mayor” – his position is part of a global network created by BYCS, an Amsterdam-based NGO supporting community-led urban change through cycling. Bennett guided us through Toronto’s downtown via bike lanes that were not always easy to navigate in dense traffic. Biking is a healthy and sustainable alternative to driving, but Bennett, who is also locally known as a member of the Black Lives Matter movement, explained why it’s not always easily accessible to minorities  and underserved communities. People don’t know how to bike, they don’t live near bike lane infrastructure, or they fear for their safety. The tour with Bennett grounded us before we moved on to expert discussions: “smart mobility” in Toronto starts with addressing this inclusion gap.

This exploration of digital mobility trends took place as part of our Grow the Future format, which resumed after a two year-long pandemic gap. The first cohort in 2020 had explored climate and migration as an intersectional topic. This time we took a group of 11 early- and mid-career Green-minded mobility professionals and activists from different parts of Germany  to Canada and the United States for a transatlantic exchange on smart and sustainable urban mobility. In Toronto, Pittsburgh and Washington, DC we spoke with federal and local officials, researchers, activists and entrepreneurs about plans and best practices for using data and technology towards greener and more inclusive mobility solutions.

Here is a summary of our transatlantic takeaways:

  1. Low-tech solutions can be more impactful than fancy digital tools in solving urban mobility issues. Modeling by researchers at Carnegie Mellon’s Mobility 21 Institute found that the most effective way to reduce Covid-19 infections in the public transit system would not be deploying AVs (autonomous vehicles), but makingbuses longer. Mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) apps can help agile population groups switch seamlessly between modes of transportation, but elderly and disabled people or economically disadvantaged communities may not need access to e-scooters, but rather better sidewalks and more regular and affordable public transit options. After the failed attempt to have Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs build a “smart city” at Toronto’s waterfront with no clear data governance concept, the new approach for the Quayside redevelopment emphasizes sustainability and social impact over tech (although we left with questions on who will be able to afford living there when the new neighborhood is finished). We enjoyed learning about the smart multimodal transportation planning system (TransitScreen) developed by the DC start-up Actionfigure based on public transit data. But our group was equally impressed by the protected bike lane infrastructure in downtown Washington, DC – and what ended up trending on Twitter in Germany were the pictures of bike racks on the front of public buses in the United States!
  2. Digital mobility concepts may be overhyped, but the importance of high-quality data for traffic planning is evident. Effective data-sharing between the public and the private sector as well as data access for researchers and the public is key for making informed decisions. Researchers at the Mobility Network at the University of Toronto use such data for sophisticated modeling to track transportation behavior as well as urban air pollution. Our participants were impressed with how the City of Toronto uses its in-house transportation data analytics team – comparing this to less sophisticated approaches they have encountered in German municipalities. A variety of mobility data sources (GPS data, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi probes, data provided by ride-hailing companies, and camera-based passenger and car counting systems on street crossings) are used to conduct impact measurements of transportation projects. As Europeans used to looking at data through the lens of GDPR, we did leave with some unanswered questions about data protection and risks of de-anonymization of seemingly harmless transportation data.
  3. Equal access and social justice play a large role in public transit debates in North America. All our meeting partners seemed to be very aware of the social implications of their work – from a Universal Basic Mobility experiment by the City of Pittsburgh and the private sector to Carnegie Mellon’s research on how to increase mobility options for those living in food deserts in underserved parts of the city.. We heard from Pittsburghers for Public Transit how local activism put an end to a project that planned to use autonomousshuttles (and taxpayer dollars) to ferry Carnegie Mellon employees from wealthy suburbs to the University. We met others who were critical of autonomous driving throughout our tour. “AVs are a technology born out of opportunity, not necessity,” said the DC-based transportation expert and journalist David Zipper. This is certainly the case for Pittsburgh, which is a popular location for AV start-ups due to its proximity to the robotics institute at Carnegie Mellon.
    We were proud of the gender diversity in our cohort, in which women and LGBTQIA+ people were well represented, especially given the technical field they work in. But as an all-white group of visitors, we were inspired to meet with several women of color in leadership positions in transportation policy and research in Canada and the U.S., who clearly view their jobs through the lens of inclusion and equity.
  4. It will take more work to align climate goals with electrification and digitalization goals in the transportation sector. We learned a lot about federal and local emission reduction goals for urban traffic – and we also learned about the funding allocation of the Biden administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act) in a meeting with officials at the U.S. Federal Transit Administration. But overall we found that climate goals featured less in our conversations on sustainable mobility than we would have expected. Many urban transportation officials we met with presented ambitious goals for the deployment of EVs and/or AVs, but often the connection between these goals and other co-determinants of sustainability, such as the local energy mix was not explained.  We would like to find out more about the reasons for this, but based on the anecdotal evidence obtained on this trip, we assume that this perspective already is better integrated in German transportation planning.

We hope to find out more about the sustainable and inclusive use of transportation data and digital solutions in a transatlantic research project with the German Wuppertal Institute and the Eno Center for Transportation in the U.S. in the early summer 2023 – so stay tuned!