Professor Lenz, is technology the key to making life in cities more liveable? Keyword “smart city”.
Lenz: Technology is always a means to an end. It can help make transport more sustainable and, for example, make alternatives to the car, such as the bicycle or public transport, more attractive. Yet very often, the idea of the “smart city” is narrowed down to aspects such as the digitization of services and processes. Much more important, however, is the question of how we can better combine the transport options we already have.
After all, smart transport concepts are associated with nothing less than the hope that they will save us from gridlock and increasing environmental problems.
Lenz: When we talk about supporting traffic with technology at various instances, such concepts are part of the solution – no more and no less. On the one hand, for example, systems run in the background to guide cars, trains, and pedestrian flows. On the other hand, individual mobility behavior can be actively supported by apps. People are increasingly relying on this to provide quick and easy access to public transport. Sharing services would no longer be conceivable without the support of digital media.
Some concepts even aim to control traffic flow with pinpoint accuracy using artificial intelligence. Is this utopia or also part of the solution?
Lenz: Replacing control processes devised by humans with artificial intelligence has long been a reality in many areas. Such control programs measure traffic flows and use them as indicators. However, I would express my doubts as to the expectation of “pinpoint accuracy”. People on the road don’t always behave the way that modelling expects them to. This produces small disturbances in the system that cannot be easily ironed out.
Densely populated cities in particular are also characterized by competitive situations – those who like to cycle want bicycle lanes, whereas many car drivers want to keep the space for motor vehicles. How can such conflicts ideally be resolved?
Lenz: Definitely not through technology alone. These conflicts are there, and some of them are even increasing. Public road space is a scarce commodity. New mobility concepts in particular – in which I would also include the bicycle, which we have rediscovered in recent years – need legal regulation as to who is allocated this space and to what extent. That’s a political question. In addition to cars, bicycles, and pedestrians, we have to take into account, for example, the ever-increasing levels of delivery traffic, as more and more households are getting goods delivered. But delivery vehicles also need space. Digital applications could help here again, for example to provide temporary parking spaces for delivery vehicles. But it won’t work without regulation and without monitoring the agreed-upon rules.
When we look from cities to the countryside – must everything stay the same, or are there innovative mobility concepts that will work out there, too?
Lenz: Smart mobility isn’t limited to cities. The challenge in rural areas is the significantly lower density of use. But well-functioning concepts already exist there, too – for example, making local transport with large buses and a rigid timetable more dynamic using smaller vehicles controlled by digital applications. It’s the old idea of the dial-a-bus service. But its long waiting times can be shortened and made more customer friendly with digital solutions.
With such concepts, how do you include older people who may not even have a smartphone?
Lenz: In a project in which my institute was involved, we offered the option of ordering flexible buses by telephone. However, it soon became apparent that older people didn’t have such a great need for flexibility. Not because they were inflexible, but because they simply didn’t need such offers. This target group had become accustomed to the timetables and had no problem adapting their daily routine to them. For younger people, on the other hand, the more flexible offers were perceived as a great improvement.
About Barbara Lenz
Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Barbara Lenz is head of the Institute of Transport Research at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), teaches as Professor of Transport Geography at Berlin’s Humboldt University, and is a member of the German Academy of Science and Engineering (acatech). She concerns herself with social and traffic-related aspects of automated driving, as well as trends and causes of congestion in passenger and freight transport.