Digital Technologies to Accelerate Smart Cities: Part 2
This is the second of 3 posts in the series on “Digital Technologies to Accelerate Smart Cities.”
The focus of this post is on the ways to leverage digital technologies to decarbonize transportation and logistics.
As our population has soared, and the means to travel has increased, it has become challenging for the transportation and logistics sector to align with the net-zero agenda. Despite many solutions to get to net zero, transportation emissions have been trending in the wrong direction. Since 1990, annual emissions from the sector have grown 1.7% per year. According to the International Energy Agency, we need to find a way to actually reduce emissions from the sector by 3% per year if we want any chance to get to a net-zero future by 2050.
Let us review the relationship between digital approaches to decarbonizing transport through the lens of three themes: land use, electrification, and shared multimodal mobility.
1. The best transport policy is the land use policy
The first step in decarbonizing any sector is to look for ways to eliminate the need for the emitting activity altogether. The best transportation policy is the land use policy which reduces the need for carbon emitting transport like cars and trucks.
The growing interest in 15-minute cities, where residents can live, work, and play within a 15-minute active travel radius, illustrates the extent to which improved land use policy has become a main pillar in decarbonizing transportation as well.
Digital enablers for unlocking short, low-carbon passenger trips
We have seen an explosion of micromobility services around the globe including pedal bike, e-bike and kick scooter, and moped sharing. While many cities have struggled to regulate and moderate this sector (a topic for a different post), it is impossible to deny that micromobility services have transformed the way people move around, and have definitely contributed to reduced demand for private car and taxi/ridehailing trips.
Shared micromobility only works due to the increased ubiquity of smart phones from residents and visitors, and the ability to connect the micromobility vehicles to backend software systems to allow for the operator and user to have real-time access to vehicle location, geo-fencing information, and charging levels.
Digital enablers for low-carbon, last-mile logistics
The post-COVID shift towards more remote work, video calls, and conferences has permanently changed commuting patterns and emissions from commuting. In London alone, a study found that COVID-influenced commuting reductions would result in eliminating 11 billion commuting miles and 3 million tons of GHGs, if the commuting pattern changes were permanent.
Reducing the need for transport also applies to the production and distribution of goods. Many cities and industries are embracing 3D printing and urban logistics hubs to reduce transportation demands.
Speaking of London, the city has been a leader in embracing urban logistics hubs as a means of reducing congestion, pollution, and emissions from last-mile goods logistics. In May 2023, British Land, a leading UK property company, announced plans for a net-zero logistics hub at 5 Kingdom Street, Paddington Central, which is projected to remove 100 large vans from Westminster’s roads on a daily basis.
Another intriguing experiment is underway in Europe. The Urban Logistics as an on-Demand Service (ULaaDS) is a EU 2020 funded project involving three cities and a range of other partners. The ambition of ULaaDS is “to foster sustainable and liveable cities through the deployment of innovative, shared, zero-emission logistics, while dealing with the impact of the on-demand economy.”
ULaaDS has developed a system that enables logistics trucks to bundle products going to nearby neighbourhoods in small containers, which are then taken to urban logistics hubs. Recipients are notified to pick up their package at the hub or zero-emissions cargo bike operators pick up the containers and deliver the packages to their destination.
Finally, in this category of solutions for last mile logistics, Barcelona (where I am based), has been a pioneer in experimenting with 3D printing technologies. In fact, Fab Lab Barcelona launched the ambitious Fab Cities initiative which challenges cities to aspire to produce 90% of everything consumed in the city within the region. One major strategy to achieve this involves leveraging decentralized 3D printing facilities throughout the region to allow for localized production and distribution of goods to local neighbourhoods. Design innovations from innovators in other parts of the world can be sent digitally to other fab labs for local printing and production as well.
2. Electrification is a necessary but insufficient step towards net-zero transportation
It is unlikely that we can realize the 15-minute city vision for all urban and suburban residents any time soon. Low-carbon public transit services are way less emitting than private vehicles, yet passenger and commercial vehicles are going to remain a significant part of the transportation ecosystem. As such, electrification of our global vehicle fleet is also a critical part of decarbonizing transportation. Increasingly we expect to see more EVs being part of what many refer to as CASE: Connected, Autonomous, Shared, and Electric.
Many have been singing praises of electrification in transport for decades. This is for a good reason. In the EU, estimates suggest that at the current mix of renewables in the energy grid, EVs reduce between 17 and 30% of emissions over ICEs and diesel cars over the life cycle, while that number could reach as high as 73% by 2050 if the renewable energy mix targets are met by then.
While most consumers only think about EVs as passenger vehicles, there has been growing interest in the electrification of fleets of all kinds. This not only includes the public transit space (buses and trains), but also commercial and industrial fleets. Not only can the electrification of commercial and industrial fleets help businesses meet their own Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions reductions targets, but it is often a smart business decision when reviewing total cost of ownership. A recent study found that light commercial vehicles for urban deliveries are already lower in lifetime cost than ICE vehicles, while medium duty EV trucks will reach parity by 2025, and long-haul heavy-duty EV trucks will reach parity in 2030.
3. Embrace multimodal shared, electric, and public transit
The ground mobility ecosystem worldwide is increasingly fragmented and lacks coordination. This is where Mobility as a Service (MaaS), or in some parts of the world Mobility on Demand (MOD) is supposed to come in. MaaS allows transport operators to seamlessly connect public, private, and shared mobility into a single user interface for discovery, routing, booking/unlocking, and payment of multimodal mobility services.
The idea behind such systems is that by making it simpler for the travellers to move from A to B with one app, they are more likely to leave their private passenger car behind (or eventually not own one) and instead seamlessly access the range of existing, greener mobility options to get to their destination.
MaaS solutions are not only for the general public but can also be beneficial for companies seeking to reduce Scope 3 emissions from employee commuting. Companies are increasingly providing employees with access to discounts or even mobility budgets, and dedicated MaaS apps so they can move without their own car at home or while on business trips.
MaaS systems can be further optimized by leveraging gamification and nudging. Think of “air miles for green mobility” allowing users to earn tokens for their emissions savings which can then be burned for discounts on green mobility, for digital collectibles, or even sold on an exchange.
The use of multimodal solutions is not just for passenger mobility in urban areas but can also be used for domestic and international logistics. Adding in more sustainable first and last mile logistics including the aforementioned urban logistics hubs to goods distribution can be valuable. I also believe that in the future we will see more hybrid models that involve better optimization of the entire mobility ecosystem for combining passenger and goods mobility. For example, why not have an open, permissionless (on the blockchain) mobility network wherein people or last-mile logistics services can access the best vehicle for their needs. Maybe a person who wants to ride in a carshare vehicle could simultaneously get a discount by agreeing to deliver a package on the way?
It is impossible to “not look up” and to ignore the reality that climate change, and the climate crisis, has arrived. Yet solutions exist in every sector of the economy to accelerate climate action, and in many cases, at a profit as well, while improving quality of life in our cities.
This is definitely the case for the transportation sector. While decarbonization seems a long way off given the current trajectory of emissions, we have a clear roadmap to accelerate climate action in transportation by embracing better land use, shifting more passenger and freight to rail, accelerating electrification, adopting multimodal mobility and goods logistics, and avoiding air travel when possible while seeking ways to decarbonize it along the way.
About the Author
Boyd Cohen is CEO and co-founder of Iomob, which is building the Internet of Mobility network and WheelCoin Move2Earn to gamify green mobility, and is a contributor on ReFi to CoinDesk. Since obtaining his PhD in strategy and entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado in 2001, he has spent the past two decades focused on accelerating the path to a low-carbon sustainable economy. He has published three books, multiple peer-reviewed articles, and started a handful of ventures in the smart cities and sustainability arena.