Information will determine how we move inside our cities

An interview with Mobility and Transportation expert Jorge Pinho de Sousa of FEUP – Engineering Faculty of the University of Porto, INESC Porto and MIT-Portugal, on the present and future of mobility.

Jorge Pinho de Sousa is a professor at FEUP –  Engineering Faculty of the University of Porto, Portugal and a researcher at INESC Porto, where he coordinates the Enterprise Systems Engineering Centre (CESE). As a researcher, Jorge Pinho de Sousa has an extensive scientific activity and has been involved in several large national and European R&D (Research and Development) projects within the areas of Decision Support Systems, Operations Management, Transportation Systems and Mobility.

The professor leads the Transportation Systems Focus Area at the MIT-Portugal Program and won, in 2010, the “MIT-Portugal Education Innovation Awards” in the Transport Systems category. This prize acknowledges the performance of Portuguese professors working within the MIT-Portugal Program.


CoF: The process of urbanization is increasing at a fast pace, placing additional strain on the cities’ resources and infrastructures. Which are the main challenges in today’s cities regarding urban mobility?

JPS:  First I must say that mobility is somehow a secondary matter because the development of cities and metropolitan areas should imply that people can have access to a set of goods and services without having to travel. New habits of life, teleworking and nearby services might reduce the need to travel, for the benefit of us all.

However, there is a surprising new aspect: with the increasing number of people out of work (the elderly and young unemployed people), mobility patterns are now becoming quite different from the home-to-work commuting. This means that urban mobility needs (when people don’t have access to goods and services without having to actually move) are becoming very different. This also means that people who have less regular mobility patterns need more information, such as traffic conditions and journey times, all the more so when it involves several modes of transport during a single journey.

A multimodal system is a richer and more flexible system. However, not only does it require more transport connections, but it also forces people to seek for more information, in order not to get lost during their journeys. This is very important.

I regard urban transport systems as a set of networks: one are the vehicles and infrastructures (the physical element), the other is a very complex data network. Often this information is spontaneously generated and gathered in real time, it is co-created in the sense that sharing this information might help people make decisions when they need to travel. Therefore, mobility systems are becoming increasingly complex but equally interesting.

Mobility Vs. Accessibility. ©City of Future

CoF: You once said that, as far as mobility is concerned, the proliferation of apps and the emphasis on technological solutions may be a factor in “social exclusion”. Could you elaborate on that please?

JPS: The idea that everyone in a given community uses this sort of tools as easily or as naturally as the younger generations and those familiar with new technologies is a wrong idea. And it is dangerous to assume that older people (a group of population that is becoming significantly larger) use these tools with the same ease as others. Most of these instruments are not natural to them, there are ways to provide information less based on technology: it can be displayed on bus stops, information offices and inside the vehicles.

Not only does this information have to be ergonomic and natural, but it also has to comply two requirements: one is to facilitate the journey. When travelling from point A to point B, I need to have the information that allows me to do it in a comfortable, fast and safe way.

The idea that everyone in a given community uses this sort of tools [apps] as easily or as naturally as the younger generations and those familiar with new technologies is a wrong idea.

The second requirement is related to that group of passengers who do not travel as regularly, and consists in making these people feel that they don´t get lost. This is why it is so important to have some reference points along the way, which allow people to know where they are – for many people it’s important to know if they are heading North or South, for instance. Creating this comfortable and safe environment is key.

When we visit some countries where these things work better, we realize that the solutions to these problems do not require lots of information, but they do require the right information, provided in the right format.

CoF: The concept of “smart city” implies that there is a “smart mobility”. What is your view of these concepts? 

JPS: There is a set of dimensions to consider in every system that includes people, given that there are several players or stakeholders involved, all with different demands and different perspectives on reality. And therefore a smart mobility is that which reconciles these various interests, even though the interests and perspectives of the community are often in conflict with individual interests.

When we think about it, it’s obvious that the rational choice is to use public transports which are more sustainable, less polluting and faster. But private transport offers flexibility and privacy, which many people value. So if the system is intelligent or smart, it will provide the right answer to each one as an individual without compromising the collective wellbeing.

washingtonpost.com

A street downtown Seattle with 200 people using different means of transport. Photos ©ISI/OnRequest Images; Source: washingtonpost.com

The smart factor in mobility results from the static information and also from the information gathered in real time. Much of this information comes from sensors (static information) but it is also provided by people trough their personal devices (such as smartphones) or even by giving information. When we let the community know that there is an accident somewhere, this is very useful information. So the smart factor comes not only from technology, but also from people’s participation or co-creation of knowledge on the system’s status.

This may have a brutal impact on allowing people to move faster. Commutes are perceived as a necessary evil. In other words, people commute because they need to and that’s the reason why they want to do it as quick as possible. In order to travel faster we must use vehicles less often, we must pollute less and we must be more rational on the use of resources. Therefore, we all may benefit from using the information that is available. But I insist, it’s not necessarily sophisticated information that will solve the problems.

CoF: Alternative services of transport such as Uber or other car and bike-sharing services are becoming increasingly more popular. Do you think this is the way to go?

JPS: Definitely. Sharing resources – a generic term to refer to car-sharing, car-pooling (several people travelling together on a single vehicle), sharing lifts, bike-sharing and all those types of vehicle-sharing which are already attractive business opportunities – is a very intelligent thing to do for lots of reasons.

The aim of people who commute is not to own a car. From a merely economic point of view, owning a vehicle is almost nonsense and often impossible. Therefore, sharing is very interesting, and sharing vehicles and resources in a smart way depends on having the right information at the right place.

Smart mobility systems will be increasingly multimodal. And in those multimodal systems, private transports will remain very important. Some things are self-evident as the park-and-ride lots, where people heading to the cities can park their cars for a low fee and continue their journey on a public transport. This balanced way of managing the use of several modes of transport, seems to me the most natural way to address the issue.

The aim of people who commute is not to own a car. From a merely economic point of view, owning a vehicle is almost nonsense and often impossible. Therefore, sharing is very interesting.

By the way, these modes include the so-called soft modes of transport which are becoming increasingly relevant. Soft transport modes refer basically to walking and cycling.

This intermodal logic has a lot to do with modal interface, which is an increasingly important topic in today’s research. Transhipment platforms are natural points of friction, uncertainty and discomfort, that need improvement both on the physical conditions (the way transhipment is made) and on the information that is available in real time, such as information on delays, etc. This is fundamental.

CoF: Why is it that in Portugal the use of bicycle as a means of transport is so reduced when compared with other countries in Europe? Does it lack the infrastructures or is it a cultural issue?

JPS: It is very much cultural given that the topography in most metropolitan areas in Portugal does not allow the use of bicycle, even though there are alternatives such as the electric bicycles that help to reduce the effort of pedalling up hills. But it is clearly a cultural matter.

I believe that this could be changed trough public policies that encourage the use of some modes of transport instead of others. This has to be said very clearly: in Portugal public transports are very expensive and difficult to use. We are talking about very costly fares and monthly travel passes are an example of that. Yesterday I heard on the news that in Lisbon transport passes could reach up to 70 or 80 euros a month, which is a financial burden for a family of three or four members. With such high prices there is no incentive for leaving your car at home.

In Portugal public transports are very expensive and difficult to use. With such high prices there is no incentive for leaving your car at home.

By the way, it is not electric mobility that will solve the problem. Electric mobility will probably make journeys cheaper and more comfortable but at the same time it will introduce strong imbalances. And the worst of them, which never seems to be mentioned, is that if we have cheaper private transports available, it will completely destroy the system because many people will cease using public transports and suddenly we’ll have cities cluttered with cars, traffic jams and so on. These things may not be as obvious as they seem. How energy prices will be set in the future for electric vehicles consumption might also positively affect the way people travel. 

CoF: In terms of urban mobility, how do you think the cities of the future will be or should be like?

JPS: You’re asking me to do something I don’t feel capable of and which has not been the object of my research. When we look that far into the future we might not fully understand what will be the fundamental technological changes. Nevertheless, I believe that a couple of things are going to happen: commutes to work will be less frequent. Trips will become increasingly for the purpose of leisure and of personal-life management, hence much more flexible, which means that the current mobility patterns will significantly change. This must be accompanied by the creation of cities with multiple centers, with green areas and pleasant spaces that encourage people to stay there. If everything goes well, in 10 to 15 years we should be working fewer hours than now and thus have more leisure time.

Another thing that seems clear to me is that people will use their private car less often and there will be a shift towards the use of soft modes of transport. Such pleasant cities, where people can go shopping or attend concerts, are the type of cities where walking will become increasingly popular. Hopefully it will be done in a more comfortable and safer way and also with more information available. But there will inevitably be another shift towards the use of autonomous vehicles. The use of these vehicles, probably shared, will allow us to plan journeys in a more centralized and sustainable way.

The trend in urban mobility will be the reinforcement of intermodality and soft modes of transport accompanied by an increasing appreciation of public transports.

In short, the trend in urban mobility will be the reinforcement of intermodality and soft modes of transport accompanied by an increasing appreciation of public transports. This trend, which was unthinkable 20 or 30 years ago especially in the United States, can be confirmed by the fact that, nowadays, many young people choose not to have a driver’s license, because there are good public transports available that fulfil their function of being a service.

So this is the way to go and another important aspect, which I’ve been insisting on, is the reinforcement of information: information to the public and to operators, information to manage the system and energy consumption, and co-creation of knowledge, this is also very important. Here at FEUP (Engineering Faculty of the University of Porto) we are currently developing research projects on the co-creation of knowledge by commuters through social networks.

Urban mobility must be comfortable, non-aggressive and has to be regarded as something natural, that improves our quality of life, rather than seen as a waste of time in traffic jams, or waiting for a bus in the rain, or running to transfer from the train to the subway.