Mobility Hubs to Help Reshape Urban Transit

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In Cape Town, South Africa, as well as in many U.S. cities, wealthy suburban dwellers choke roads driving into the city, eschewing the public transit that shuttles blue collar workers. The addition of bus and rail lines in the city’s center in anticipation of hosting the 2010 World Cup has city leaders increasing efforts to get people out of their cars and on to public transit.

In Cape Town, most white collar workers drive themselves to work, fearing crime on trains and on the 20-seat shared taxis that shuttle one-third of inner city commuters. Business leaders from the Cape Town Partnership, along with the University of Michigan and Ford, are working with the city’s largest employers to get more of the 400,000 daily commuters moving by alternative modes of transportation by establishing mobility hubs.

The mobility hubs will enable people to seamlessly switch between transportation modes, including getting off of trains and private cars and on to buses, green taxis, and bikes. These transfer points with heavy commuter populations will provide information to show the locations of the best transportation options for reaching their final destinations.

“The (transportation) grids are not aligned,” says Susan, Zielinski Managing Director of the Sustainable Mobility & Accessibility Research & Transformation (SMART) initiative at the University of Michigan, and a consultant on the project. Zielinski says commuters don’t have the ability to synchronize their traveling between buses and trains, and many don’t know that services like car shares and bike rentals exist.

The Cape Town project, which has involved 200 people from the public and private sectors, will identify 4-5 hubs that are critical transfer points with a bounty of commuters. The hubs will include signs to aid people getting around, and the city wants to add bike rental programs and car share programs nearby to encourage reduced-carbon commuting.

A proposal has been drafted to provide communications through a website to kiosks and mobile phones that would provide all forms of transit schedules and traffic information. Zielinski envisions creating a single payment system via a debit card for taking public transit and renting cars or bikes by the hour.

The problems of too many cars and underutilization of public transit are common across the globe, and Zielinski says the knowledge gained from Cape Town could be applied in Ann Arbor, Detroit, Atlanta or Los Angeles.

Ford, which has provided funding for the Cape Town project, as well as others in Bangalore and Salvador, Brazil, believes it can play a role in solving the IT and logistics challenges in better organizing urban commuting. David Berdish, Ford’s Manager of Sustainable Business Development, says the company will apply its experience in logistics in moving vehicles and freight to urban mobility.

Ford is using the pilot projects to understand the business opportunities and see where it can play, because “cars aren’t always the answer,” according to Berdish. Ford’s SYNCH technology could potentially play a role in sharing mobility information between vehicles and the built environment.

Ford will gather information from the projects about traffic patterns, the concentration of commuters, and where they change cars for other forms of transportation. Berdish says that “NYC has a lot more in common with Bangalore than it does with Wyoming,” when it comes to urban transit.

The Cape Town project leaders are working with some of the city’s largest employers to create group transportation solutions. One of the options is to provide security guards on trains and to escort workers on a “walking bus” to their office that would address safety concerns. “It’s totally out of the box thinking for business people in South Africa to take public transport to work,” says Claire Janisch, of the Cape Town Business Partnership. So far employers Investec, Woolworth’s, Nebank and BP have expressed interest in changing commuting behaviors for workers who live in the suburbs, she says.

The Partnership is developing a website to provide information about the various transport options, many of which have been recently added in preparation of the World Cup. But it has been slow going to get funding from the city or federal government for the SWITCH website. “Cape Town is called the mother city because it takes nine months to deliver,” says Janisch.

Urban mobility presents a unique opportunity that crosscuts IT and automotive industries, and that’s why Ford, IBM, Cisco and others are eyeing the space. As vehicle ownership per capita stabilizes or even goes down in North America, auto companies need new methods to remain relevant. Urban mobility projects can also minimize the congestion from introducing more vehicles to emerging metropolis by keeping the cars out of high trafficked areas. It may be a bit out of Ford’s comfort zone, but learning urban transit so that you can assume a new role is much smarter than thinking that the world of transportation isn’t changing.

Andrew Russell, who runs Rikki’s green taxi service in Cape Town, says the first meeting about mobility hubs took place in 2007. Russell, whose company runs a taxi service for students who stay out late (aka the “Drunk Bus”) sees public transport as an effective means for reducing congestion and carbon emissions.

The project team is also recommending other ways to reduce carbon emissions, including encouraging employers to put bicycle lockers in their buildings, and to use video conferencing instead of flying to meetings. “White collar workers cause 90 percent of the (transit) problems,” says Russell.

John Gartner is the editor in chief of Matter Network and an Industry Analyst at Pike Research

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