Deep Dives

Rethinking Urban Mobility

A collaboration between the World Economic Forum and the city of Boston serves as a model for how cities can seize control of their transportation future.

The first thing that the groups collaborating on Boston’s ambitious autonomous vehicle project want you to know is that it is not just about driverless cars and trucks. While autonomous vehicles promise to make travel safer and more sustainable, they are just one part of a necessary, far more fundamental effort to re-think every aspect of urban transportation. That’s the key takeaway from the first 18 months of a collaboration between the World Economic Forum and the city of Boston. If autonomous vehicles or any other disruptive transportation service evolve in isolation they could clog the roads with more, rather than fewer cars, and lead to a host of other unintended consequences.

Planners worry that falling transportation costs and increased convenience would encourage people to order a pizza delivered by a self-driving car; or offer new liberty for elderly residents who can’t drive, leading to an explosion in vehicles on the roads. Then there are the potential jobs losses for taxi and delivery drivers, and the risk that sprawl will increase if people decide they can live further outside the city.

To leverage the innovation sweeping across the transportation sector, cities must seize control of their transportation future rather than letting it be steered by for-profit companies launching disruptive services, according to the initial results of the Boston project, which are scheduled to be presented at the Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 23–26. To integrate innovative private and public transportation services, the Forum recommends deploying a mobility platform that gives access to new entrants while allowing local governments to retain ownership of transportation data and ensure the system serves the broader needs of the community. “It’s been an evolution from talking about autonomous cars to the future of urban mobility,” says John Moavenzadeh, head of the mobility industries and system initiative at the World Economic Forum. “Now it’s about thinking about the whole city as a system.”

The Boston experiment is expected to serve as a model for other cities and regions. At the annual meeting, a Forum working group will begin discussing next steps, including expanding the project to a few more cities this year and developing a mobility platform for regional transportation. With advances in autonomous driving accelerating, and a growing number of cities grappling with how to adapt, the goal is to develop a blueprint that helps cities and regions test assumptions as they go along while also reaching consensus on policymaking.

“It’s never been about the city of Boston per se,” says Moavenzadeh. “It’s about making cities better in general.” The project is the result of a fortuitous collision between two transportation projects that began separately about three years ago, one organized by the Forum and the other by the city of Boston.In 2014, the Forum convened a working group of 35 representatives from the automotive industry, local and regional governments, traditional tech giants, and transportation startups to map out issues and questions raised by autonomous vehicles. In the spring of 2016, the group moved from theoretical talks to practical experimentation by inviting cities to apply to be the first test site, a process that led to the selection of Boston in July 2016. Boston was appealing for a number of reasons. The economy is booming, it’s home to renowned research universities, has a thriving tech scene, and has a sprawling public transportation network. At the same time the city’s public transport systems have been criticized for failing to serve the poorest residents, and the economic and population surge has strained its roads, trains, and buses. Boston was painfully aware of these issues. Which is why, under Mayor Martin Walsh, the city in 2014 launched its own effort at long-term transportation planning called “Go Boston 2030.” The city wanted to envision a future that would create a more sustainable and equitable transportation network. Autonomous vehicles were seen as way to potentially achieve those goals. But it was far from obvious how a city like Boston could introduce them while also improving options for pedestrians, bicycling, and better public transportation. Among the concerns at the outset was the growing evidence that other disruptive transportation options, such as ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, had increased the number of cars on the roads in some cities as people opted to call an Uber for a short ride rather take a bus or subway. “Autonomous vehicles risk becoming victims of their own success, increasing the demand for transportation by making mobility cheaper and more convenient,” Boston Consulting Group (BCG) wrote in a report it published last October.

Promising Results

To begin wrestling with these issues, the Boston project initiated conversations with the Forum’s working group, representatives of BCG, and executives at the various city agencies involved, including Boston Commissioner of Transportation Gina Fiandaca; Chris Osgood, Chief of the Streets, Transportation, and Sanitation; and Kris Carter and Nigel Jacob, co-chairs of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, a civic innovation team that was started in 2010. And just to emphasize the complexity cities face, there was also a need to coordinate with MassDOT, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, and the Massachusetts Port Authority.

“The City of Boston’s partnership with the World Economic Forum has provided a tremendous opportunity to implement safe and increasingly complex testing of this innovative technology in a controlled environment on Boston’s streets,” says Fiandaca. “Our objective is to be able to foster this technology and make it available to our residents.” The partners gathered transportation data from sources ranging from the city to private companies like UPS. This information was plugged into a model built by BCG that attempted to map every possible variable — including taxis, bicycles, pedestrians, stop lights and parking spaces — surrounding part of a neighborhood bordering the city hall. From there, the model began to look at two variations for introducing autonomous vehicles: a gradual shift to self-driving cars and a “disruptive” shift. Each scenario included a few extra autonomous vehicle variables: privately owned cars, taxis, ride-sharing taxis and autonomous shuttle buses.

The results were promising. Both models showed less congestion, shorter travel times, and a drop in harmful emissions. Further, the improvements in each case were greater using the more aggressive, disruptive scenario. That encouraged the city to move into the next phase of testing in late 2016: Putting autonomous vehicles on the road. “If you had asked me if this would take six months, I would have guessed much longer,” says Nikolaus Lang, a senior partner and managing director at BCG. “I would have not expected such an overwhelming number of local and city administrators to push AV vehicles at this speed and this dimension.” In late 2016, the city signed an agreement with NuTonomy, an autonomous vehicle software company spun out of a project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that was named a Technology Pioneer in 2017 by the Forum. The city approved two more testing agreements in June 2017 with the self-driving car companies Optimus Ride and Delphi.

In November, Delphi acquired NuTonomy, and then spun that out into a new self-driving company called Aptiv in December. These tests were initially limited to specially designated zones within the city and eventually expanded. Each car company began filing regular reports with numbers and observations about how people reacted to the self-driving experience but also on what the companies themselves were learning. Take nuTonomy for instance. In a November report, the company noted that the feedback from riders was glowing, with most saying they “never felt unsafe” and elderly riders appreciating the newfound mobility. On the other hand, in another report, nuTonomy described some of the technical challenges. “Our autonomous vehicles have repeatedly encountered seagulls on the road surface and flying within the range of our sensors — we now identify them correctly,” the company wrote. The project has also given the city of Boston a way to help its residents gradually get used to the notion of self-driving cars by seeing them on the streets in limited numbers and trying them at public events.“We thought giving testing partners access to the roadways would play a big part in socializing people to the idea of AVs (autonomous vehicles),” Osgood said. “There’s no better way to do that than actually having them on the road.”

Lessons for the Future

As the Forum prepares to expand to new cities this year, participants have been focusing on six key lessons so far from the Boston project: cities should consider all varieties of autonomous transport (private cars, carpool services and shuttles); a city’s unique dynamics and needs should be taken into account; cities should not worry about actually owning all the forms of transportation; cities should enable deployment via regulations; cities should be proactive by developing a plan that allows them to manage the transition as well as the new ecosystem that evolves; and cities should have a centralized digital tool that will serve as a digital mobility platform to coordinate all new and old transportation. On the Forum’s agenda is also the question of how regions like Boston should build such a mobility platform. The goal is to have a kind of centralized dashboard that spans all transportation modes to allow city officials to make sure any changes help achieve the municipality’s goals. To that end, the Forum recently brought into the project door2door, a Berlin-based startup that makes a mobility platform for cities. Co-founder Maxim Nohroudi has long advocated the need for cities to control their transportation future rather than being dominated by private, for-profit companies. He and others interviewed are optimistic about the autonomous transportation revolution — as long as cities are shaping that future in a way that fits the best interests of their communities.

About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.