Mega-cities are reshaping personal mobility

  • 16-Oct-2012 10:05 EDT
Shanghai traffic congestion.JPG

The morning rush hour commute in Shanghai. (Wade Bryant)


The Greater Tokyo Area is an urban environment bulging with millions of people, but Japan’s capital is not alone on the mega-city list—typically defined as a metropolitan area with at least eight million people.

In 2011, there were more than 20 mega-cities worldwide. “But by 2025, the number of mega-cities around the globe is projected to grow by 75%,” said Lisa Whalen, Vice President of Automotive & Transportation Growth Consulting at Frost & Sullivan. She moderated a panel discussion addressing urbanization at 3M’s Transportation Summit held earlier this month in Livonia, MI.

As more people live and work in mega-cities, alternative transportation solutions are vital. Vehicle- and bicycle-sharing programs are popular options in certain cities today. But the urban crowd of tomorrow could have an even larger array of choices, such as driving single-occupant transporters or ones that can communicate with each other and with the road infrastructure.

The largest test program of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications technology in the U.S. kicked off in August 2012. The Ann Arbor, MI, project involves NHTSA (U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, the U.S. Department of Transportation, as well as suppliers and automakers. (See http://www.sae.org/mags/aei/11381 for more program details.)

In Europe, said Maryland-based consultant Richard Bishop, who focuses on research strategy and partnership development in the intelligent/connected vehicle domain, “the DRIVE C2X project field trials are also collecting data to better understand performance and user acceptance.”

Getting a handle on what people want and need in congested cities was the underlying goal of a recent undertaking by General Motors. Wade Bryant, Design Manager at GM Advanced Design, said during his presentation at the transportation summit that visits to London, Shanghai, and other cities in 2012 enabled him and other GM staff to observe firsthand how people travel within a metropolis.

“What we’ve attempted to do is get more in-depth insight in terms of what this urbanization trend means to us as a business,” Bryant said in an interview with SAE Magazines.

Discussions with government representatives were an important part of this fact-gathering mission. Bryant said that being able “to understand what the cities have planned for the future in terms of how they see their cities developing from a mobility perspective” helped reveal areas of opportunity.

“We’ve uncovered a lot of unmet needs. People struggle with getting around—whether it’s cost, whether it’s their time, whether it’s convenient or inconvenient to park. All those things come into play,” Bryant said.

The globe-trotting travelogue provided Bryant plenty of inspiration for possible future concept vehicles.

“We clearly saw that people are searching for new ways to get around in dense environments," he said. "They need different modes of transportation. Certainly things that we’ve shown in the past—like at the Shanghai World Expo—have telegraphed some of the things that we see happening. We’re just trying to build on that and come up with new concepts and new technologies that we think will address this urbanization trend."

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