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How can automated mobility be integrated in our cities?

Jun 4, 2021

Today, cities and urban regions are faced with the task of adding new technologies and solutions to existing mobility systems. Automation in particular is leading to changes in mobility. We spoke with experts and city representatives about why it is important to put this topic on the urban agenda now.

The Austrian Association of Cities and Towns considers itself obliged to inform cities about the latest developments and to facilitate exchanges and joint learning. “Automation will take place, or “find the city”, that’s for sure – regardless of whether the cities have already taken precautions in advance or not”, says Stephanie Schwer, Transportation Expert of the Austrian Association of Cities and Towns. For this reason, existing transport and mobility concepts have to be expanded and adapted to the new tasks, and obligatory statements should be made for objectives and the bans and prohibitions based on them. “For traffic planners of cities, automated mobility goes hand in hand with an expansion of their portfolio of tasks in the areas of data management and security as well as traffic and fleet management. Infrastructure also needs to be rethought and repositioned in the direction of digitalisation. Further challenges arise in spatial planning, for example, when we think about the use of sidewalks or the planning of new settlement structures with reduced parking space keys.” explains Schwer too.

Identifying and exploiting the potential
The potential of automated mobility varies. For Andrea Stickler and Mathias Mitteregger, who work for the AVENUE21 project team at the Vienna University of Technology, it is above all in their feasible support for an ecologically, economically and socially sustainable change in transport. “Compared to today’s forms of (car) mobility, automated mobility could open up enormous opportunities due to demand-oriented offers, digitally integrated booking platforms, convenience and cost advantages. At the same time, the use of automated mobility will be contested and will cause conflicts of interest and space.”

Scenarios with automated vehicles are still often researched and tested on high-level road networks, as this can be done more easily than in urban areas with many – even unregulated – intersections, pedestrians, cyclists and others. “Due to the more complex environment, cities can even wait for experiences on motorways, for example. Implementation could then take place in different stages. However, the needs of the population have to continue to be taken into account in the event of any necessary changes to the design of public roads. I see great opportunities for cities in the area of multimodal mobility guarantees”, says Franz Dinhobl, City Councillor of the Statutory City of Wiener Neustadt.

The first test scenarios for and in cities have been developed in particular with automated shuttles as a complement to traditional public transport or for the distribution of goods. “This will make mobility in the city more efficient and safer. As an operator of public transport, we see potential in internal processes at depots and as a provider of additional mobility services”, reports Martin Schmidt, Planning Management & Infrastructure, Head of Line & Traffic Development at Holding Graz.

First steps in implementation
Concrete use cases are the key. And since cities have very different requirements and conditions, the scenarios for testing and pilot projects with automated vehicles have to be individually defined.

“European cities and regions have very different spatial structures, mobility styles and transport and urban planning approaches”, explain Stickler and Mitteregger. “In our project “AVENUE21 Automated Transport: Developments in Urban Europe”, we have shown that these different spatial, social and political conditions will have a decisive impact on the use of automated mobility. From a technological point of view, there are different degrees fo suitability of existing road infrastructures for the use of automated mobility, which may create a new inequality that has not been discussed so far. We also expect a long transition period in which mobility technologies can differentiate and exist at the same time.”

“In the line and traffic development department of Graz Linien, we have been working on this topic since about 2017. On the one hand, it is about identifying achievable benefits for us as an operator. On the other hand, it is also a question of assessing what this development may have in terms of behavioural change and how it might change our market environment. As part of the “Move2Zero” project, we have introduced a shuttle pre-operating (i.e. non-automated) as part of the project, but a dedicated booking platform for such applications can be used for instance. Through our MobilityLab, we support the project partners organisationally in preparing a test with a highly automated vehicle on a public transport route in the SHOW project”, says Schmidt.

Often the goal is to reduce traffic volumes or to make the mobility offer more inclusive with automated mobility solutions. In order to address the citizens, tests are often installed when a high level of user involvement is given. Dinhobl: “During the national exhibition in 2019, an autonomous bus was tested in the city centre of Wiener Neustadt. Further technological development in general and autonomous mobility in particular could be used to reduce the negative impact of transport.“

Next steps
Technological change takes time. Partial autonomous systems are the first step. “In my opinion, the challenges lie in the fact that the implementation will increase the transport routes in the environmental network. From today’s point of view, a full-scale implementation is still associated with major challenges. The framework for action of cities lies in regulation and promotion according to network expansion and road hierarchy, says Dinhobl.

In order for cities to be able to fulfill these tasks, partnerships and cooperations have to be entered into ahead of time and thought should be given to financing structures. In this way, cities can proactively play their shaping role in the field of automated mobility and not give way to a sprawling future.
"It is important that the use of new technologies remains in harmony with the overriding transport and climate policy goals. In this context, it is not only important to design mobility with low emissions, but also in a way that is compatible with urban life. This includes leaving enough space for people and reducing the separating effect of traffic axes. A further increase in single-passenger journeys or even "ghost journeys", where vehicles travel without passengers, should therefore be avoided, because this would further increase land consumption," Schmidt emphasizes. Instead, there should be fleet management, in which urban transport companies, for example, offer overall mobility as a service, explicitly including peripheral areas. "Another challenge relates to the extent to which automated vehicles rely on the exchange of data with the infrastructure operator (and thus the cities). Here, municipal administrations could face high investment and operating costs as well as challenges in terms of skilled personnel," Schmidt continues.

Expectations are sometimes high. However, there cannot be a "one-size-fits-all solution". Stickler and Mitteregger summarize: "Although it is true that in the best case we can solve the so-called "wicked-problems" of mobility with automated mobility - i.e., greater decarbonization of transport, safety in the transport system, noise reduction, and the reclamation and use of public space, we think that really sensible areas of application are primarily on the outskirts of cities and in suburban areas that are more car-oriented today. In more rural areas, use in tourism might work, but probably not in truly thinly populated, peripheral locations. In these areas, a valuable extension of public transport is possible. At the same time, it must be ensured that forms of active mobility (walking and cycling) are not affected. Then, automated mobility represents significant added value for cities themselves, for mobility operators, and for citizens."


 “There’s a general understanding amongst European cities that automation is not a goal in itself but a potential enabler to support the shift from individual car use to shared, electrified multimodal transport services. They look with interest at what is happening in this area but – like with urban air mobility – they don’t see it as a priority yet and apart from accommodating and scaling up pilots or studying potential impacts, they are not yet preparing for major deployment.”

Peter Staelens, Senior Project Coordination EUROCITIES

"It is important that the use of new technologies remains in harmony with the overriding transport and climate policy goals. In this context, it is not only important to design mobility with low emissions, but also in a way that is compatible with cities. This includes leaving enough space for people and reducing the separating effect of traffic axes."

Dipl.-Kfm. Martin Schmidt, MSc Planning Management & Infrastructure Head of Line & Traffic Development Holding 

"Technological changes take time. Partially automated systems are the first step. The challenges are that implementation will increase environmental transportation."
Dipl.-Ing. Franz Dinhobl, City Councilor of the Statutory City of Wiener Neustadt

"The future of mobility is a very conflict-ridden field that "moves" many people emotionally, but is also associated with strategic interests. We researchers are part of this conflict-ridden negotiation process and can analyse and expose this process, but also partly moderate between different interests, point out different design options and advocate for certain struggles in the sense of a sustainable transport turnaround."

Andrea Stickler and Mathias Mitteregger, AVENUE21 Project Team of the Vienna University of Technology