Innovation in urban movement is long overdue. These five smart cities are at the forefront, offering novel solutions that will bring some much-needed innovation to the way we move.
Think about the way you move around. If you live in a city, chances are you’ve taken a car, train, bus, bike, tram – and maybe even a ferry – to get to where you want to be. And of course, you’ve probably done a lot of walking. But even with all of these options, most of us are limited to just a few – whether that’s due to convenience, price, environmental factors, or simply because there’s just one way to get to where we’re going.
As urban populations boom – an estimated six billion people will be living in cities by 2045 – travel prices soar and ageing transport networks shoulder increasing strain, it’s not always easy to get around your city. Watching the minutes drain away as you sit in congestion, or fighting your way through a tidal wave of commuters on the underground, is, well, stressful.
A handful of places on the planet are on the case, though. In a bid to make our everyday lives more enjoyable, hassle-free and greener, these forward-thinking smart cities are pushing the concept of urban movement to the next level – placing the quality of their inhabitants’ lives firmly at the fore.
Smart city #1 – Helsinki
In early 2015, Finland’s capital launched a real-time, ‘mobility on demand’ initiative. The goal? To completely overhaul its public transport network and reduce private car use by 2025. The idea is simple: using a smartphone, you input your location and destination. The dedicated app then plans your journey, offering you a range of options with differing methods, journey times and prices. So far so usual, but here’s the impressive bit. By merging private transport options (like Uber and cycle hire companies) with the city’s bus, tram, train, metro and ferry services into one unified network, Helsinkians will have a quick, easy, one-stop shop for all their transport needs – all at the tap of a phone.
Making the process completely seamless, the app also acts as a payment platform, so you only have to pay for your journey once – no matter how many legs it’s made of. With the city growing too rapidly for its current transport network – the population is projected to rise from 626,000 to nearly two million in 2050 – it’s all part of a plan to upgrade its infrastructure, bringing it bang up to date with a 21st century world in which we use our smartphones for a multitude of everyday tasks. And the expected result? A cheap, flexible and super-efficient alternative to private car travel.
Smart city #2 – Singapore
5.4 million people squeezing onto 446 square miles of island makes Singapore one of the world’s most densely populated cities. And rapid growth over the last few decades has meant that demands placed on the city’s transport network have rocketed accordingly. To combat congestion – and pollution and stress – it introduced the world’s first congestion charging scheme in 1975. Pioneering, when you realise that London debuted its scheme in 2003, and Stockholm in 2007.
Today, the city is continuing to lead the way, using the latest technology to give its road management real-time functionality. So, congestion zone borders are flexible and instantly changeable, without having to dig up roads or build new structures that can hold cameras. Named RoadRunner, the system – which communicates with cars wirelessly via a central server – gives each car entering a congested area a digital token. Once a set amount of tokens is used, a car won’t be able to enter the area until another one leaves. Eschewing financial penalties, the system also gives you turn-by-turn directions to help you avoid the congested zone. And when the area is no longer prone to traffic, all city authorities have to do is remove the virtual borders and select another zone.
Still in the development phase, computer simulations saw the average car speed during periods of peak congestion increase by 8%. It all bodes well for the system’s future; further cementing Singapore’s status as a transport innovator and a leader among the very best smart cities.
Smart city #3 – Songdo
15 years ago, the South Korean government rolled the dice on its newest technological innovation: the Songdo International Business District (IBD). Located 35 miles southwest of Seoul, $35 billion was ploughed into the building of this city-of-the-future from scratch – and on 1,500 acres of man-made island reclaimed from the Yellow Sea, no less.
With a master plan finalised and construction beginning in 2005, Songdo IBD was designed to be the prototype city for others to follow in future decades. 10 years later and the city is completed, with 36,000 people already calling it home.
Made smart through the latest connectivity technology – baked right in to the city’s fabric, from under the streets to the walls of every building – and super green thanks to its LEED-centric philosophy, ease of transport was high on the priorities list. No need to sit in traffic or battle swathes of commuters on an overcrowded metro here. The way the city’s residential areas have been planned means that everyone can walk or cycle to work – most probably through the picturesque, Manhattan-inspired Central Park.
“We’re a walking city,” said Stan Gale, whose New York-based development firm spearheaded the ambitious project. “If people need to walk for more than 15 minutes, they’ll get in the car. So from Central Park all our venues are within a 15-minute walk.”
Smart city #4 – Copenhagen
Since the early 20th century, the bicycle has been a symbol of freedom for the Danish. Cycling is ingrained into their collective consciousness. And even when cars became commonplace in the 1960s, the ensuing pollution, traffic accidents and congestion didn’t sit well. Cycling, with its myriad benefits, was still the ideal way to get around. The answer for Copenhagen was considered city planning that perfectly balanced spaces given to cars, bikes, public transport and pedestrians. Vast networks of bicycle lanes were implemented accordingly.
Today, a staggering 50% of Copenhageners ride to work. It’s not just the culture that encourages two-wheeled travel, but an infrastructure that does, too. Traffic lights are timed for bicycle speeds, cobblestone paths feature smooth shoulders, and riders are kept safe by parked cars that shield them from moving traffic.
But what really makes Copenhagen a game-changer is its dedication to pushing cycling boundaries, continually investing in new infrastructure. In 2014, the city’s iconic Cykelslangen – or Cycle Snake – gave its commuting riders an elevated, curving road over the harbour to prevent contact with speed-killing pedestrians. Four new bicycle bridges are also in the works, and existing cross-town routes are being upgraded.
In terms of urban design for bikes, Copenhagen’s 240-mile network is unrivalled – a constantly evolving blueprint for other cities that want to take advantage of urban cycling’s social, economic, health and environmental benefits.
Smart city #5 – London
Londoners have a love/hate relationship with their underground metro system, the Tube. At peak times, it can be so busy that commuters have to wait for a few trains to pass by before they can even attempt to get on a still overcrowded carriage. But what if we could use the Tube network to get around without any trains at all? In late 2015, architecture firm NBBJ revealed a conceptual plan that did just that.
A response to a challenge from think tank New London Architecture, NBBJ proposed replacing trains on the 110-year-old Circle Line with a set of three travelators – like those you find in airports – that would carry commuters to their chosen station. The three walkways would each move at different speeds, starting from three miles per hour, and rising to 15 miles per hour on the fastest travelator.
The proposed travelator would be faster than a conventional Tube train because there would be no need to stop at each station.
It’s an innovative use for the world’s oldest underground network. Instead of sitting still, slowing to a stop due to signal failures or a broken down train in front, the plan encourages Londoners to walk and stay active. According to NBBJ, the travelator would be faster than a conventional Tube train because there would be no need to stop at each station on the way to your destination.
While the idea is hypothetical, it’s new ideas that breed innovation. And NBBJ’s proposal is proof that London is dedicated to revolutionising transport.
“There are obviously massive technical hurdles, but we’re talking about simple components and a strong concept,” said Christian Coop, NBBJ London’s design director to Fast Company. “What we’ve done is to get people talking about ways to make the trains better, not just putting up with how it is. I hope it sparks imagination about ways technology can impact commuting in the city.”