Seamless Mobility and Hierarchical Transportation or How can public transport improve in the near future

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If you had to plan the urban transport system from scratch today, would it look the way it does now? probably not. Urban transportation planning suffers from a mental fixation and I invite you to take a step back with me and rethink about how it should be conducted. In my opinion, the IT systems we have today can lead to a new type of transport, one that is not defined by Nodes and Modes.

This article was divided to several parts due to its length.

  • The problems – why current public transport is inefficient (previous article).
  • The system – the proposed system for the public transport of the future (this article)
  • The rider – the future experience of traveling to and from.
  • The city – possible influences and actions only the municipality can do.
I’ll mention that this entire blog is a draft of a book I’m writing so I have no aim in skimming things and I prefer actually to examine them in depth. As for web readers like you... sorry.
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The best way to rethink known issues is to go back to basic assumptions. Let’s start with that – What do we want from the city transportation system? As I am an architect and an urban planner, I  aim to benefit the city and its residents, with that in mind I chose and laid out the following goals (in order of importance).

  • We want a pleasant city for walking. Walking is the basis for any city and it is the preferred transportation method for short distances of less than 300 meters.
  • We need to allow commuting to and from the city at a reasonable speed even in the city center during rush hour. People are the economic oxygen of the city, without these daily commuters city centers will become wastelands.
  • The system should be cheap. There is no point in offering expensive solutions such as conveyors and flying cars. We need the trip fare to be cheaper than our current bus ticket.

Of course, you can make your own assumptions or think of other priorities. But for me, if I were mayor, these would be my priorities and this is also what I want as a citizen.

To find a new solution we will need to let go of any basic assumptions – Let’s forget buses, taxis, cars, modes, nodes etc.; But we’re not looking to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. So let’s agree that the buildings will stay put and the transportation itself will take place on our current streets. We’ll assume that cars will have only basic autonomous capabilities and focus only on contemporary technology. We’ll use nothing that is too futuristic and that is not currently at an advanced testing phase out there.

And now a question:

Do we need Nodes in the transportation system?

In the past, the need was clear. Since there was no coordination between the passengers and the buses, the only way to bring them together was to set a time and place for the pickups. The vehicle would arrive and if there was a rider at the station, it would pick him.

But today? Today, when we can connect everything to a coordinating system, do we still need specific sets of nodes? Is it necessary that the bus will ride at a defined route even when we already know that there are no passengers there? Well, no.

We no longer need nodes to coordinate passengers and cars. We also don’t need pre-defined routes for public transportation. There is no need to mark the lines (line 6, line 83). We can just tell the car to stop at the intersection and pick up Alice, and instruct Alice to wait two minutes and get on the car that blinks in purple light.

Does Alice care if she is waiting at this or other intersection? No.
Does it matter to her whether the car that will be taking her to her destination will be a bus, minibus or van? No.
Even if Alice rides to the same work place every day, the system can tell her to wait here or there, to get into one vehicle or another and route the car to her destination though one way or another. Who cares about all these minor details as long as Alice gets to work, and if so, why do we limit our systems?

We no longer need to define the Nodes or Modes system. Vehicles can stop and take passengers at any safe point.

We will still use nodes for really large traffic junctions, train stations and the like. We will use different modes that are tailored to the number of passengers who are supposed to be moving.

How do you get maximum butts on minimum seats?

The economic logic behind this proposal is simple, we try to minimize the cost of travel to make it affordable for every resident. To do so, we’ll use mainly shared transportation (public or private) and adjust size of the vehicles to the number of passengers… or in the terminology presented in the previous article – maximum butts on minimum seats.

This principle has additional advantages besides the price. It will bring to dramatic reduction in the number of vehicles and allow us to dedicate some of the remaining lanes to bicycles or pedestrians.

Hierarchical Transportation System

To understand this proposal, you have to regard the city as a hierarchical system and think about the transportation scheme as if it were a tree. Actually, this is how our city is built but so far we were not able to allocate the transportation accordingly. The current public transportation schemes are either latitude and longitude lines (Figure 1) or radial lines of center and periphery (Figure 2).

When you look at the city in a hierarchical way, it looks like this: We start with buildings (level A), that are located in blocks or quarters (level B), that comprise a super block, a district (level C) and those all are converging to a city (level D). Each of those levels have a different vehicle that suits it. To better explain the hierarchical structure of transportation I will begin with the building.

Building Transportation(A) – the elevator. Pay attention to this transportation system. It is on-demand, electric, cooperative and autonomous. It runs on a fixed route and it is free (kind of). The elevator can carry four passengers and runs at 5 kph.This vehicle is designed to facilitate the internal traffic in the building and to bring the passengers from the door of their home to the building exits.

Quarter Transportation(B) – the “elevator” of the quarter, I’m talking about the autonomous self-driving shuttles that are being tested in cities today. These are autonomous, on-demand, and I suggest that unlike today, their route will not be fixed.


img: KEOLIS

With 8 to 12 passengers and a traveling speed of up to 20 kph these vehicles (B) are intended for transportation within the quarter and are rare to leave it. Their number will be proportional to the size and load of the quarter. Their job is to transport passengers from the inner parts of the quarter to pick-up points of C-type vehicles at the quarter outskirts. Traffic within the quarter is slow, quiet and relatively safe. Those vehicles function almost like elevators, they will arrive only if you invited them but their route is not fixed.

Districts Transportation (level C) – buses and minibuses. These vehicles will not operate on a fixed route as today. Just like the level B cars, they are on-demand and have a flexible route. They drive at speed of up to 40 kph and have room for 20 or 50 passengers. The purpose of that level is to take passengers from one quarter door to another or to another bus.

The C level bus system is the equivalent of the existing municipal bus system, however there are number of reasons why it is more efficient – buses do not need to enter the quarters, they have less stopping points and the distance between them is greater. Level B transport or a minibus from level C collects passengers to those points and performs “the last mile”. Their occupancy is relatively high, and the entire system is managed “from above”.

Cities Transport (level D) – buses, trains, subways, airplanes … anything that exists today. Unlike the current intercity buses system, their final stations can be scattered at the city outskirts and do not have to reach one central station. A passenger can find out that they get off the bus one day in one location and in another location the day after. In any case the system directs the C level continuous vehicle to him.

Pedestrians and bicycles

Due to the higher occupancy, it will be possible to allocate routes and lanes in the intersections between quarters for both pedestrians and personal transportation like bicycles and scooters. A hierarchical system managed from above, as I suggest here, will also make it possible to turn some streets to one way streets. Although one-way traffic may extend the ride to some passengers, from an overall perspective, there will be more passengers that will profit from it.

Cars, taxis, carpools, and all the rest

All those will always exist in our city. Systems such as Uber or Carpool will be invited to integrate with the city’s transportation system but will also be able to work independently if they wish.

More about the considerations at the city level in the fourth article.

Managing the Public Transportation System

As you have probably noticed, the proposal is actually based on a system that manages the passengers as if they were parcels. There isn’t any technological limitation to build such a system. In my proposal the system tries to optimize the total travel time of passengers, not the travel time of a single passenger. In other words, there may be a situation in which the system decides to skip a specific passenger and extend his ETA to shorten the arrival time of three others.

Though the system manages the passengers, they are of course still free to ditch the transport allocated to them or request to step down in the middle of the ride. In those cases, the system, just like Waze today, will announce “re-calculating route” and once approved, the passenger will re-enter.

More about the passengers’ experience in the third article.

The system Advantages:

  • Much more efficient than any existing transportation solution.
  • Cheaper than current public transport.
  • Create better city for pedestrians and cyclists.
  • Allows an increase in the number of people entering the city while reducing the number of vehicles moving in it.

The system Disadvantages:

  • Real seamless mobility is required – As the passenger will have “hops” between vehicles than today, there is a need for a simple and easy transition. More about it in article 3.
  • The system requires coordinating different transport systems – B, C, D, trains and more. Changing the management of these tools from managing of lines and timetables to the managing travel time and occupancy is not simple. More about it in article 4.

That’s it. I hope I was clear enough but you are welcome to ask me if you want me to clarify things further. Register here for updates or just come back in a week for chapter 3.
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