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Smooth flow through the cities of tomorrow

by Kay Dohnke  July 2018

Conquerors of the airways?
Drones appear in many visions of transportation, both in logistics and passenger service. Besides startups, large corporations such as Airbus, VW, Daimler and Uber are investing in ideas of flying taxis. Quite a few experts, though, tend think that drones will flop: too noisy, too inefficient, too complicated, too costly.

Masters of efficiency
Cities are growing together into conurbations and trains play a key role in both urban and interurban transportation. No other means of transportation is able to take as many people from A to B with equally minimal space utilization. However, the costs incurred for railroad infrastructure are high and the environmental footprint of rail transportation heavily depends on the type of electricity consumed and capacity utilization.

How can more and more people be transported through the world’s metropolises in fast and eco-friendly ways? A look at the challenges, systems and potential of local public transportation.

A stop in Karachi, Pakistan. The intersection of Preedy and Zaibunnisa Street in the historic Saddar Town – yet again – is totally clogged. Pedestrians, mopeds, cars and buses are pushing toward each other from all directions. It’s a scene that depicts what urbanization currently means in many places: more people, more mobility needs, more deliveries and more vehicles while traffic areas remain the same or, due to construction sites, are even reduced, almost always resulting in – gridlock.

 

Inexpensive and effective: dedicated bus lanes

 

The situation in the megacities of poorer countries is particularly critical because they often simply lack the money to invest in effective local public transportation systems. Karachi’s 20 million inhabitants can neither use a subway nor a tram. The trackage of the Karachi Circular Railway is only 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) long and efforts to expand it have repeatedly failed. Consequently, local public transportation is limited to buses – and they are trapped in the same traffic jams as other vehicles. Indonesia’s capital is more advanced in this respect. Jakarta – with a population of 26 million – is the world’s biggest city without a subway. As there are currently no funds available to invest in one, the city government chose a less costly alternative to alleviate the burden on the regional train system with its loosely knit network. In 2014, construction of 15 dedicated lanes was started in which buses can bypass traffic jams: a relatively simple yet effective method that works in Jakarta as well as in other cities. Another good example is Mexico City where the local government in 2005 established bus lanes on the permanently congested Avenida de los Insurgentes. Since then, the buses have been rushing past the traffic jams on the world’s longest urban street – with half a million passengers on board per day.

In 1974

Curitiba in Brazil was the first city in the world to roll out a Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) system with dedicated lanes. As early as in the 1960s, Curitiba began to systematically coordinate urban and transportation planning. Today, the city with a population of 1.8 million is regarded as the environmental showcase among Brazilian cities.

The provision and interlinking of diverse means of transportation is the key element of the entire future transportation development

Prof. Andreas Knie,
transportation expert and sociologist, TU Berlin

The various versions of buses will play an important part in future scenarios of local transportation as well, especially in poorer countries. Their purchasing costs are relatively low, they don’t require major investments in infrastructure, and can get around even in narrow spaces and hilly areas. With electric motors – using battery, super capacitor, overhead line or hydrogen technology – buses can operate in the city with zero emissions. A current report by information services provider Bloomberg predicts that as early as in 2025, 47 percent of all buses will be propelled by electric systems. Connecting the buses with their surroundings could enhance efficiency and comfort. Permanent bus stops and rigid schedules are supposed to soon become obsolete. Instead, algorithms, considering current passenger needs, will calculate the optimum route and smartphones will guide passengers to the next boarding point. Ideally, door-to-door service may be arranged or transfers to other means of transportation without waiting periods. Of course, all of these scenarios are conceivable and feasible as driverless solutions as well.

 

A bus concept from China that, like a rolling viaduct, was to hover 2 meters (6.6 feet) above road traffic made headlines a few years ago as well. However, it has since proved too utopian a vision: The vertical clearance for the cars was too low, the total height too great for many bridges and cornering difficult. Furthermore, the Transit Elevated Bus (TEB) was traveling on rails that would have had to be specifically installed for this purpose, so it was more like a train than a bus. Finally, the initiator of the project has since been indicted for fraud. Even so, the utopian and failed TEB shows that buses still have plenty of potential to be tapped.

Self-driving trains
In the EU alone, one billion people per year – and counting - are already transported by autonomous trains. A driverless train has been traveling through Lille, France, for 30 years. In an EU-wide survey conducted by Allianz pro Schiene, a non-profit transportation alliance, system operators said that automated service enables shorter intervals, higher capacities, good on-time service and a high level of safety. None of the operators reported any acceptance issues on the part of passengers.

Be back in a minute
Elevated circular rail systems transporting people in a continuous loop in small gondolas over short distances may be able to enhance and provide relief for classic local public transportation. The “Panama” concept by Ashish Thulkar and Charles Bombardier proposes to connect skyscrapers using such mini suspension railways.

Cars finance public transportation

 

A stop in London: Since 2003, drivers of automobiles have had to pay a toll fee if they want to enter the city, similarly as in Stockholm, Oslo, Milan or Singapore. In London, the current “congestion fee” is 11.5 pounds sterling (approx. 13 euros) which generates sizeable amounts of money for investment in the expansion of public transportation. The reason is that, after people initially switched to buses and trains as the cheaper alternative, traffic density has increased again. In 2017, London reported new record smog levels. The example of London shows how hard it is for many people to switch to public transportation and how much they value driving their own cars. There are several reasons for this. Convenience plays a major role. Lack of direct connections, waiting periods when making transfers, gaps in the network, crowded buses or trains, dark and dirty stations – none of these are good arguments for public transportation. London is trying to improve this by means of a mammoth construction project: The 120-kilometer (74.6-mile) long Crossrail project connects remote neighborhoods of the city – where rents are still affordable – with each other and with the center by means of fast subway trains so that four million commuters will be able to benefit from enhanced mobility.

Engineering the London Underground

When the railroad conquered the city

As early as in 1863, London sent the first trains pulled by steam locomotives through tunnels – marking the birth of the first subway that was subsequently copied by countless cities. In 1875, service of the Tünel underground funicular line covering a 573-meter long (1,880-feet) distance started. This system was possibly inspired by the San Francisco cable cars that were rumbling up and down the hills at the Golden Gate, pulled by long cables running below the street. Around 1900, 600 cars served a line network of 160 kilometers (99.4 miles). At the same time, Wuppertal was even twice as innovative: In 1901, service of the Suspension Railway started, a system that not only featured new technology but on its elevated single rail along the Wupper River also circumvented two topological obstacles: lack of space on the ground and unfeasibility of an underground system due to instabilities caused by nearby mining operations at the time.

Switching is a snap

 

A stop in Hamburg, U-/S-Bahn Station Berliner Tor: a hub of several train lines on two levels surrounded by congested arterial roads. In the Northern German metropolis, many citizens find it difficult to send their cars into retirement as well. The ratio between passenger cars and residents is over 800,000 to 1.8 million. Like other cities, Hamburg is trying to get more citizens to switch by offering connected transportation. At the Berliner Tor station, a switching point (“switchh”) has been established that interlinks the U- and S-Bahn (subway and suburban) trains with car sharing and rental bike offers. Intermodal transportation is the magic word. Everyone can find exactly the type of transportation they need or prefer at a particular time. All vehicles can be booked in advance using a single app.

 

This a concept that’s used or planned to be used in other places as well. The American metropolis Denver for instance is planning to develop an app for booking and paying for bicycles, ride sharing, public transportation and taxis. Daimler’s subsidiary Moovel is testing such an app in Hamburg and Stuttgart. The project is billed as: “All your city’s transit systems in your pocket.” The consulting firm Deloitte has developed a scenario in which prices for such intermodal transportation offers are dynamically adjusted depending on demand – like airfares. Service companies such as Uber, Lyft, ZipCar and Via complement the intermodal transportation offering alongside the classic taxi.

Cost-efficient alternative
The great advantage of buses over trains: They can be used more flexibly on existing streets and roads. But only eco-friendly drive systems make buses a great choice for urban areas. Plus, in dense traffic, they’re only really fast when traveling in dedicated bus lanes. Thanks to modern data technology buses are supposed to become even more flexible and serve routes tailored to meet the passengers’ needs – also autonomously.

Versatile
In the Bio-Hybrid, Schaeffler combines an e-bike’s ease of handling with the weather protection and transportation potential of larger vehicles. The Schaeffler Bio-Hybrid works as a stand-alone solution as well as in sharing operations as an additional mobility solution for modular and connection local public transportation.

Elevated
What’s the answer when traffic is congested on the ground? Rising above it! In contrast to the use of drones, airspace is relatively easy to conquer with cable cars. They require little space (50 % less than a comparable street), are silent, clean and cost-effective. Cable car manufacturer Doppelmayr estimates that a cable car costs only one to two thirds of a conventional means of transportation. Particularly attractive are cable cars for big cities with difficult topographies.

Ride hailing, ride pooling and shuttle-on-demand offerings that make it possible for people to join others in vehicles heading for the same destinations fit the intermodal transportation concept as well. Automaker Ford recently acquired Chariot, a startup offering shuttle services using mini buses in San Francisco, Austin and New York. In Nanjing, China, workers in an entire industrial zone are also provided with low-cost riding options. In Hamburg, VW’s subsidiary Moia has started a pilot project offering on-demand mobility services in mini-buses – which triggered protests from the local taxi industry.

 

An initial step: more efficient utilization of existing means of transportation

 

Peer-to-peer ride sharing takes us to our next stop: San Francisco. The metropolis on the U.S. West Coast with its cable cars (see also info box above) established local public transportation as early as in the 19th century and today makes it possible to efficiently get around the downtown area thanks to a closely knit network. However, like many U.S. cities (as well as metropolises such as London or Paris) the San Francisco metro area has been sprawling. In suburban areas, the public transit system becomes increasingly patchy which is the reason why many people continue to drive their own cars into the city on clogged roads. A simple way to reduce the number of cars is peer-to-peer ride sharing. Finding the right passengers is easy thanks to smartphone connectivity. Like on some express freeways in Los Angeles, fully occupied cars are able to pass the traffic jams in dedicated car-pool lanes. Smart guidance systems such as car-2-car- and car-2-x communication can additionally assist in balancing traffic density. In a next step, car-pool vehicles equipped with respective technologies might be interlinked to create an autonomously driving “swarm” that saves space and, like a train, travels into the city where the convoy is subsequently dissolved again. Ideally, such a self-driving car will autonomously find a vacant parking place where it’ll patiently wait for its next run. Connecting suburban districts poses a challenge to many cities. The Texan metropolis Austin is investigating the possibility of using autonomous vehicles from suburban centers to the downtown area whereas the city government of Columbus, Ohio, is planning the future use of autonomous shuttles in a smart corridor leading to centers where many people work.

 

Closing the last gap

 

Be it L.A., San Francisco, Paris, Berlin or Tokyo: A major issue in developing advanced local public transportation concepts is closing the gap between commuters’ doorsteps and the nearest bus stop or train station and from the destination stop or station to their place of work. In professional circles, this distance is also referred to as the first or last mile. A visit to Baden-Baden in Germany: At the Schaeffler Symposium held there, the technology group presented two vehicle concepts for short urban distances. The Schaeffler Mover is an electric vehicle featuring a modular design that’s suitable for autonomous transportation of passengers and goods. The four drive units with wheel hub motors can be rotated by 90 degrees which makes the Mover extremely maneuverable. Its compact dimensions support the vehicle’s utilization in tight traffic areas. The Schaeff­ler E-Board is even so compact that its user can take it along on a train, allowing for highly individual coverage of the first or last mile (more on the Schaeffler E-Board and Schaeffler’s research and development center for urban mobility here).

 

More and more new roads are no solution

 

Our next stop is another example which shows that the automobile can no longer play the key role when it comes to efficient commutes in conurbations. Istanbul, Karaköy ferry terminal: The ferries still departing from here used to be the only way to cross the Bosporus Strait in order to get to the other side of the city. Consequently, there used to be long lines of passengers waiting to board. In 1973, a six-lane freeway bridge paved the way to the other side. But traffic jams soon began to develop in front of it as well. A second bridge with eight lanes followed in 1988 – it, too, soon became congested, which proves the assumption that more and better roads entice people to drive more: a vicious circle. Currently, a third bridge is under construction, in addition to the Eurasia Tunnel that was officially opened in 2016, with foreseeable consequences even though a subway tunnel to the other side of the city has also been available since 2013. Or you just take the good old ferry again. Actually, using inner city waterways for local public transportation may well be a viable future option, for instance in the form of autonomous electric ferries with short-interval sequencing and capacity utilization that can be optimized thanks to modern connectivity technologies. In Paris, SeaBubbles is the first company to have tested electric water taxis on the Seine River and Tokyo Water Taxi is planning to direct a fleet of 60 boats by the time of the 2020 Olympics.

Short-distance classics

Escalators and elevators are primarily known from buildings, but they can also serve as a means of public transportation. Portugal’s hilly capital Lisbon for instance has elevators that connect neighborhoods at higher and lower elevations with each other. The Central-Mid-Levels escalator in Hong Kong is an 800-meter (2,600-foot) long system traversing an impressive elevation of 135 meters (443 feet) from bottom to top used by about 100,000 people per day. In the poor Comuna 13 neighborhood in Medellín that like many others grew on a steep slope, several escalators with a total length of almost 400 meters (1,312.3 feet) were built a few years ago. Horizontal moving walkways are increasingly used as well. In 2015, Thyssen-Krupp presented a high-speed moving walkway whose pallets move slowly in the entrance and exit areas but reach a speed of 7 km/h (4.3 miles) in the central high-speed area. According to a study of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, a speed of 15 km/h (9.3 mph) could be achieved by such a system. Using real data from Geneva, the researchers developed a mathematical model of a moving walkway with a network extending across a total of 32 kilometers (19.9 miles). Transfer points would enable users to switch between the individual moving walkways. According to the university’s calculations, such a system could be ten times as effective as private car transportation.

The Central-Mid-Levels escalator system traverses an elevation of 135 meters (443 feet) from bottom to top on a distance of 800 meters (2,600 feet)

The impressive Elevador de Santa Justa connects Lisbon’s Lower and Upper Town

Conquering airspace the easy way

 

Let’s turn from the road and water to another traffic area. While Uber, Airbus & company are pursuing the conquest of airspace using costly drones and air taxis that are hardly energy-efficient, examples of how this can be achieved faster and at lower cost have existed for quite some time: a stop in La Paz, the hilly seat of Bolivia’s government: Here citizens have simply been taught to “fly”. The Teleférico – the world’s largest urban cable car system with five lines and a network length of 19 kilometers (11.8 miles) – is able to transport 125,000 people per day. The advantage of such a system is that it hardly requires space and is comparatively easy and inexpensive to build. Medellín, Caracas, Ecatepec de Morelos on the outskirts of Mexico City, Ankara, Berlin and other cities, especially in Latin America, are by now operating aerial transportation systems. African metropolises such as Lagos (Nigeria) and Mombasa (Kenya) are thinking about adapting them. In New York, the East River Skyway could connect North Brooklyn with Manhattan, similar to the cable car system to Roosevelt Island that began to operate in 1976.

 

Canadian innovator Charles Bombardier has imagined this concept even a few steps further. His “Urbania” proposal is an inner-city chairlift with closed cabins traveling close to the ground. By contrast, his “Panama” idea takes its passengers to lofty heights, traveling between skyscrapers in cabins suspended under a rail. These ideas conquer previously unused spaces which are too high for land vehicles and too low for airplanes and even helicopters.

Changing Mobility in Megacities

105.5 (346 ft)

below the surface: Kiev’s Arsenalna subway station is deeper than any other one in the world. The world’s longest subway tunnel – 47.3 km (29.4 miles) – is the one of Line 5 in Seoul

Exciting prospects

 

A stop somewhere, 25 years from now: Perhaps we’ll be seeing a coexistence of novel systems. Elon Musk’s Hyperloop is sending people to their destinations in super-fast tunnel tubes at high speed. His Boring Company is digging its way through the ground underneath cities to clear the way for electric high-speed mini buses. Taxi drones are providing fast aerial passenger transportation. Thanks to electrification and digitalization, the environmental impact of local transportation can be minimized, and schedules and capacity utilization optimized. The remaining privately owned vehicles are efficiently utilized thanks to smart planning and much cleaner due to scaled emissions-based cost of ownership. There are also ideas for piggy-back solutions where cars can “jump onto” trains. U.S. designer Kaan Yaylali has proposed the “Sebrid” car concept in which car-like privately owned “pods” autonomously get on and off trains traveling on dedicated tracks without the trains having to stop. Traffic jams are decreasing and getting shorter because people are using connected means of transportation in smarter ways. Sound like pie in the sky? Yes – but efforts to make it reality are already underway: also at Schaeffler.

Solution for the last mile
No matter how close-meshed public transportation systems may become a gap between the commuter’s doorstep and the bus stop or train station at the beginning and end of the trip will remain – the first and the last mile. Solutions for closing this gap are being pursued in many places. The idea Schaeffler proposes: a light-weight E-Board that’s easy and safe to control using a handlebar and brake and that, thanks to a folding mechanism, can easily be taken along on a train.

Always ready to go
The electric and self-driving Schaeffler Mover offers maximum maneuverability thanks to wheel hub drive and a 90-degree steering angle and is able to use even the smallest spaces and streets. In spite of its small exterior dimensions, it can comfortably accommodate up to six persons. The Schaeffler Mover is suitable as a connecting link to other means of transportation and as a solution for the “last mile.”

The author

The concept that today is called intermodal isn’t a new one – Hamburg author and sustainability expert Kay Dohnke has been using the means of transportation enabling him to reach his destinations in the best possible way: trains and buses in the city and his 1976 Volvo wagon when heading to the countryside with his three dogs.

Photos Dircinha Welter/Getty, iStock, Samuel John Hodson, Maucaine/Wikipedia, Lukasseck/Getty, private; John Lung/Getty

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Short-distance classics

Escalators and elevators are primarily known from buildings, but they can also serve as a means of public transportation. Portugal’s hilly capital Lisbon for instance has elevators that connect neighborhoods at higher and lower elevations with each other. The Central-Mid-Levels escalator in Hong Kong is an 800-meter (2,600-foot) long system traversing an impressive elevation of 135 meters (443 feet) from bottom to top used by about 100,000 people per day. In the poor Comuna 13 neighborhood in Medellín that like many others grew on a steep slope, several escalators with a total length of almost 400 meters (1,312.3 feet) were built a few years ago. Horizontal moving walkways are increasingly used as well. In 2015, Thyssen-Krupp presented a high-speed moving walkway whose pallets move slowly in the entrance and exit areas but reach a speed of 7 km/h (4.3 miles) in the central high-speed area. According to a study of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, a speed of 15 km/h (9.3 mph) could be achieved by such a system. Using real data from Geneva, the researchers developed a mathematical model of a moving walkway with a network extending across a total of 32 kilometers (19.9 miles). Transfer points would enable users to switch between the individual moving walkways. According to the university’s calculations, such a system could be ten times as effective as private car transportation.