Timothy Papandreou, a global expert and thought leader in the future of mobility and automation, works with governments and business on the shared, electric, and automated transportation transition.
After he took part in Transition Monaco Forum in June, Papandreou, the founder of Emerging Transport Advisors and former strategic partnerships manager at Google X and Waymo, he gave an interview for Balkan Green Energy News, in which he discussed what makes urban mobility sustainable and cities smart and livable.
The transportation sector accounts for nearly 25% of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe, more in the United States. As cities grow, so does the demand for mobility, compounding the problem where mobility depends on cars. Is that the sustainable way forward?
There are two key issues with mobility that are causing crisis levels in cities – pollution (air and noise) and congestion. On pollution, the fact is that our fossil fuel motor vehicles are the key cause for the severe air quality. So you can use technology and policy to deal with it. For example, you can electrify to reduce those emissions especially from the dirtiest vehicles (trucks, buses and old cars) which also reduces the noise too or you can restrict access to central zones so those vehicles don’t enter.
On congestion, it gets more complicated as the reason for congestion is different in each region. It comes down to supply and demand, what is the offering of options for the public and when are they needed and can the two be matched. If not, the answer is severe congestion which impacts the local and national economy and makes everything worse including pollution.
The fact is we have only so much space to move people and things and our cities grow, there are limits before we have to manage demand and shift people into other more efficient modes. For example, 1 person takes up almost 1 square meter when moving, whereas the same person in a private car takes up 8 times the space to move. So there is a limit to how many people can move in their own cars before causing congestion. There is plenty of room to move people on foot, on bicycles and in public transport. City leaders have to show leadership to reallocate the space on the street to make it easy, convenient and quick to use walking, bicycling and public transport, otherwise the public can’t shift.
Are there any simple solutions to traffic jams? Can workplace flexibility help?
Absolutely, the quickest and cheapest is to work with the major employers in the region and challenge them to support shifting work times around and encouraging people to work from home a few days a week or start at different times to avoid the peak road crush. Also working with commercial delivery companies, road works and other services to avoid being on the road during the peak.
These examples have worked in several cities and show how you can quickly spread the peak. These are all conversations that the governments need to engage in and lead. First by leading by example and then offering these examples to the business community.
This package requires political will and leadership
Then there is a package that cities have been working on. It’s part of the demand/supply equation. You charge for parking and driving to cap demand which creates more need for other ways to get around. That supply is better walking, bicycling and public transit service. That happens with priority protected lanes for bicycling and public transport to ensure that people feel safe and comfortable and can reach their destination just as quickly if not faster than driving. But this package requires political will and leadership.
You are an advocate of multimodality. Can you tell us what this transportation model entails in view of recent trends?
The transportation model is shifting from one that is fossil fuel powered, owner operated to one that is multimodal, shared, electric and automated. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it is showing signs across the world in different forms. A viable multimodal future would involve the ability to use any transport mode seamlessly so you can get to your next destination and not have to worry about things like how much it costs, when it comes, how long will it take, is it safe and does it get me to my destination? If any of these questions are not quickly answered, then people choose to drive.
There is so much technology now that we have the ability to “stitch” all these modes from walking, bicycling, scooters, public transport and ride-hailing and car-sharing. Done properly, there is no reason why you would need to own your own car or use your own car for every trip where these options are available. We’re not there yet as most of these services are in pilot, experimental or in silo operations and government and business have to work more closely together to focus on the customers’ needs – while ensuring that these services meet the outcomes of the region, namely congestion, safety, pollution; and social access, equity and inclusion.
It’s a transition process and takes partnerships. We’re just starting to see what this looks like in a few cities, so it’s the beginning of a major shift.
With 5G starting to roll out, autonomous mobility may become part of the solution. In some countries, it is already a reality. Drawing on your professional experience, can you give us an example of how autonomous mobility disrupts the transport system?
I’m not convinced that 5G is critical to the roll-out of autonomous vehicle (AV) technology. The most advanced AV companies have the computer make most of its decisions on board the vehicle using 3G and 4G now. 5G may help in some situations but it requires full roll-out and that is tricky to rely on. If you’ve traveled outside your home region you quickly see how spotty even 4G LTE can be in places.
All vehicles no matter what the type will eventually be automated
So on to AV technology. Remember it is a technology not a vehicle. The AV companies are vehicle agnostic meaning it can be attached to any vehicle, from a car, to a truck to a bus or a garbage vehicle. All vehicles no matter what the type will eventually be automated. That will have profound effects on three key areas of our society. First is on our transportation services – how we move people and things, anything that requires a driver will eventually be replaced. Then there are all these support services that rely on driving now: think mechanics, car dealerships, driving schools, drive thrus, car insurance etc., and lastly our land uses or urban form. This is where we will see the greatest changes with the combination of sharing, electrification and automation we will have more services and less ownership, more efficient vehicles needing less space, almost no parking.
This means that the thousands of car parking spaces on the street and in buildings will no longer be needed. The result could be redevelopment of parking garages into other uses for the city. Streets will have the ability to have more space for greenery, bike lanes or no car access to create large public plazas. We don’t have to wait for this to happen either we can start making this future we want now. Through sharing we’re already seeing signs that the top/bottom levels of parking structures are not being used so the trend has already started.
The smart city concept is increasingly discussed and implemented in the South-East European region. What lessons have been learned by stakeholders in projects you have been involved with and how can that help cities that are seeking to transform?
The key lesson learned so far is that successful smart cities are ones that are centered around their communities’ residents and workers and include them in the decision-making process with a clear connection to how these technologies help meet the city’s overall goals. The technology and metrics are in the background to manage and meet their needs. Not the other way around as has been the practice in the past decade. Too many times we see these sterile visions of high-tech buildings and streets with no people, no trees, no life.
The key questions to be asked are what does our region need to prosper? Where are we today? What will it take and what are we willing to do to get us there? What problem are we trying to solve? Why is this the right technology for that? What do we have to do that is policy and community and not about technology? How much of this can technology help us? And can it actually help?
To me, a smart city is about people who choose to live and exchange ideas and services with one another which creates a diverse built environment with a thriving economy. This looks like diverse and affordable neighborhoods with thriving local stores and farmers markets with people on the streets exchanging ideas and services, or just enjoying the outdoor green spaces. They get around by walking, bicycling, riding some version of shared green mobility to connect to the moments in their lives. It’s dynamic and constantly evolving, lots of foot traffic, fun, exciting and a little chaotic.
You are the founder of Emerging Transport Advisors. Who are the company’s clients and how do you help them prepare for disruption coming to the transportation sector?
We work with global investment firms and banks, Fortune 500 companies, governments, startups and research institutions in the Americas, Europe, Asia Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our key focus areas include providing clients with unique insights and use human centered design thinking to develop the right path forward to seize the opportunities and avoid the risks of the great shared, electric and automated transportation transition.