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Rethinking urban mobility systems through data intelligence

Rethinking urban mobility systems through data intelligence (Photo: Pexels)

At the IAA 2019 in Frankfurt, Germany, Umberto Fugiglando, research manager at Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), spoke on how intuitive use of data could act as an enabler for improving urban mobility. In an urban setting, existing mobility systems generate millions of data points every day, which can be processed to create insights that help improve mobility.

“Today, we have technology entering our physical space – bits are converging with atoms. And with technology, with digital data, we can explore cities from a different perspective and understand how to improve it,” said Fugiglando. 

At the Senseable City Lab, Fugiglando and his group of researchers analyzed data on 170 million taxi pickups and drop-offs over one year in New York City. Every instance was superimposed onto a heat map, and the researchers got thinking on the possibilities of getting people to share cab rides if they are moving more or less to the same destination. 

(Source: Hubcab MIT)

“We got some researchers coming up with an algorithm, and the result was impressive. You can move New York by sharing trips up to 95%. So just imagine taking out cars and the impact of it on traffic and transport,” said Fugiglando. 

Soon after the lab published its results on the possibilities of cab-sharing in 2016, the New York Times wrote a piece on it. Though it was appreciative of the theoretical results, the article was skeptical of its practicality, as it contended that New Yorkers would not be interested in sharing rides, even if it meant mobility was more sustainable. However, enamoured by the concept, Uber launched its cab-sharing ride option called the Uberpool later that year, which went on to become a resounding success in several cities across the world. 

“When you change perspective, you see that cars are becoming computers on wheels. And we’re thinking of different ways on how we can better understand the city from the point of view of cars or how a car could monitor our infrastructure and the people driving,” said Fugiglando. 

Fugiglando gave an example of how cars and phones could be used to help maintain bridges. Most of the bridge infrastructure in the Western world is quite old, with little cracks developing in several structures almost regularly. This warrants regular maintenance checkups, which could either be done by putting people over bridges for inspection or by installing sensors. Fugiglando pointed out that both these process involved lots of manpower or money, making it unfeasible on a large scale. 

“These sensors we set up record bridge vibrations. Vibration tells us a lot about the structural properties of a bridge and its health. Deploying these sensors is expensive as you need to install them, bring electricity, and connect them to the internet – this costs thousands of dollars for each bridge,” said Fugiglando. “But if you think about it, we have a sensor in every pocket – the cell phone. While driving over bridges, you get a lot of data from cell phones in cars.”

Fugiglando ended up driving over a bridge with several phones on his car dashboard, acquiring data in the process. Processing the data helped the researchers understand bridge vibrations to an extent where they could circle in on the health of the bridge, and provide insights on its maintenance needs. 

Even in cities like Amsterdam, where there are more water canals than streets, technology could be used to design new forms of mobility that can improve city mobility. The researchers at MIT developed an autonomous boat called the Roboat, which could wade through the channels on its own while being capable of avoiding obstacles along its path. 

“The interesting thing is how are you going to make it interact with the city. We are envisioning on moving people around on the Roboat, but also goods. For example, trash collections, which is a big problem in Amsterdam,” said Fugiglando. 

Such technology can be made to interact with legacy infrastructure by bringing life to non-autonomous boats. Roboats could be utilized to create an open-air market, or when there’s an emergency and a swarm of Roboats could coordinate to create a temporary bridge for help people cross the canal.

“We’ve jumped into a future where we know that autonomous mobility would revolutionize everything – from the way we build cars to the way we experience them,” said Fugiglando. “Cities will become testbeds for experimenting to see what is going to be the impact of self-driving cars and autonomous mobility on the city. That’s what we envision – to use our current technology to change a little bit of the paradigm, and looking at mobility as not just a way of bringing us from A to B, but to actually help the city.”