What can we actually expect from Singapore in terms of intelligent mobility when it reaches its first century asks Jonathan Spear.
Since moving to Singapore from Hong Kong in the middle of 2016, it has become increasingly clear to me that this is a city with a mission. That mission is to achieve intelligent mobility in urban transportation, not merely as a theoretical technical and design concept, or as a set of web-enabled travel applications, but to instil it at the heart of the national consciousness.
This is a lofty claim, but there are two recent examples to back it up.
The first example, the 2016 National Day Parade, featured a view of what Singapore will look like when it celebrates 100 years of independence in 2065; a sky city where individuals and families will be able to access a wealth of travel choices from their connected household or personal devices, and be taken on-demand by driverless pods to wherever they want to go, whenever they want to go there, on roads which are free-flowing and without congestion.
The second example, this year’s Chinese New Year celebrations featured the usual dazzling lantern displays down by the marina. It was dominated, of course, by a massive illuminated rooster (this year’s zodiac sign), but also prominent was an unmissable Smart Nation display and within this two life-sized mock ups of the Gemini, a prototype autonomous electric capsule produced by TUM-CREATE, a technical research centre at the National University of Singapore.
These two examples are interesting because they are not aimed at the usual urban or transportation professionals, or at technology researchers, concerned with the planning or design of infrastructure. Nor are they part of the numerous autonomous vehicle testing taking place under the auspices of the Singapore Autonomous Vehicle Initiative (SAVI). Rather, they are pitched to the general public, residents and visitors, and with a clear message: we can see the future of mobility, it is intelligent, connected, automated … and it works.
So that can we actually expect from Singapore in intelligent mobility when it reaches its first century, a little under 50 years from now, not only as a vision, but how it relates to infrastructure and the planning, design and operation of the public realm?
Here are my views: like the Jetsons in 1962, deliberately visionary, perhaps provocative and unconstrained by the real technical, social and economic practicalities of getting there, but a big picture to kick-start the debate.
Will everyone actually use autonomous vehicles?
Yes, almost certainly, and driverless transport will come in all shapes and sizes, service configurations, user tastes and value-added services. It will also be electric, powered by hydrogen fuel-cells and other renewable sources, connected to the Internet of Things, and linked up to the smart grid and other technologies designed to limit energy intensity and carbon footprint to the absolute minimum.
Will people really use a single personal application and account on their personal device to access, compare and buy multi-modal travel options easily and intuitively?
Absolutely, and the current public transport smartcards and journey planning apps may evolve into a single iTravel online store offering hundreds of blended travel products for a monthly fee, tailored to individual needs and topped up on demand. This will be able to advise and adapt when the transport network is disrupted or conditions change in real-time.
Will rich data on transport infrastructure, network condition and asset availability, be universally collated, managed and disseminated via open platforms to inform people, and assist and nudge their journey experience, as they move around the city each day?
Definitely: And this data will also enable city managers (perhaps Google and Apple rather than, or in partnership with, BMW or Hyundai) to run infrastructure and vehicles more efficiently, reliably and sustainably, and deploy the right resources at different times and circumstances. Linking with other smart city systems and services, there will also be clear rules and operating practices which will regulate the governance, flow and integrity of this data in real-time, like the human brain regulates blood and nutrients as it flows through the living body.
The really exciting part of all this is how everything will join up. Infrastructure. Autonomy. Information. Pricing. Choice. Data. Energy. Service. Citizenship. All this will combine to deliver an integrated, reliable and intuitive user experience with simultaneously informs network managers and supports a liveable, sustainable and attractive city. And perhaps iTravel, or a similar concept, really could emerge as the brand, product and app store that encapsulates it, disrupts and changes everything.
What does this mean for transport and urban planning and design in Singapore?
In Singapore, a small island state at the tip of Asia where space is scarce, this vision has a clear focus. Intelligent mobility in all its combinations, will drive a sharp reduction in private car ownership – and all the negative social and environmental impacts that go with it. With technology causing the barriers between cars, public transport and forms of personal mobility to shatter, owning a physical asset which costs tens of thousands of dollars and spends 95 per cent of its time parked at home or at the office will be illogical and pointless. In 2065, the convenience of flexible personal travel on demand by multiple means will be available to just about everyone, without a private ownership model, at a level of service they want for a price which all can afford.
As part and parcel of this, in my opinion, transport infrastructure will be smaller and smarter, freeing up land for other uses and a greener and more inclusive public realm. Transport operators will be able to create more integrated service offers and products focused on the user and generating sustainable revenue streams to fund investment and make commercial returns.
It is even conceivable that by the time Singapore turns 100 the government may have banned manual driving altogether, and removed the right (or the privilege) of having a personal driving license. Or more likely, safety regulations, insurance premiums and market forces, with a slight push from government regulation, will just make driving so prohibitively expensive that very few will want and afford to do it, just like, as Elon Musk has said, owning a race horse or holding a private flying license.
I don’t currently own a car in Singapore. And I have no need and intention of doing so. Public transport is first class and taxis and ride brokers like Grab or Uber provide easy access when the trains and buses can’t get me there. Personal mobility in Singapore is tremendous in 2017. But I look forward immensely to seeing how the transport system will improve further in future years and how intelligent mobility will progressively reshape my life and the lives of those around me. After all, intelligent mobility is ultimately about people rather than robots.
This will happen elsewhere, of course, but with enablers such as government leadership, supportive businesses and a tech-savvy public, expect a few visionary cities, like Singapore, to lead the way, and transform their urban infrastructure and built environment as a result.
Singapore has an unashamed big vision for transport at 100 – big commitments, big actions and big results will be needed to secure that vision and ensure it benefits everyone. We will need to think creatively around making concepts real, combine function with physical design and efficient operation, focus on user needs and craft viable delivery models to make a future that works.
About the author: Jonathan Spear is a director at Atkins Acuity. He has over 20 years’ experience advising on a wide range of transport projects with a focus on policy, strategy and governance issues. He has led, supported or advised on assignments for national and local clients in Europe, the Middle East, China and South East Asia, including several for the World Bank and other international funding agencies. He is a member of Atkins Acuity’s global transport capability and has degrees in geography from Oxford University and transport planning and engineering from University of Leeds, UK. This article first appeared in Atkins All Angles March 2017
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