Using live transport data to deliver sustainable cities

Fabio Pulizzi: 00:09

Hello, this is How to Save Humanity in 17 Goals, a podcast brought to you by Nature Careers in partnership with Nature Water. I’m Fabio Pulizzi, chief editor of Nature Water.

Welcome again to the series where we meet the scientists working towards the Sustainable Development Goals, agreed by the United Nations and world leaders in 2015.

Since then, in a huge global effort, thousands of researchers have been using those targets to tackle the biggest problems that the planet faces today.

In episode 11, we look at Sustainable Development Goal number 11: to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. And we hear from a Singaporean researcher who works on smart transportation networks.

Lynette Cheah: 01:11

My name is Lynette Cheah. I’m a chair, professor of sustainable transport at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia.

I am also coordinating author of a global environment outlook report of a United Nations Environment Programme, which looks at pathways to sustainable development.

SDG 11 is about sustainable cities, or how can we make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable?

These words represent our ideals for cities, We want healthy environments where we can thrive, places that promote fairness, are resilient to shocks like pandemics or natural disasters, and are environmentally sustainable.

Now this goal is laudable. But there are some challenges. Cities are concentrations of people, activities and consumption. They are where many people come together to work, live and play.

Cities take up only 3% of land but they host more than half of the world’s population. Now people move to cities because of the opportunities and because cities are engines of the economy. 80% of global GDP are generated in cities.

But because cities are hives of human activity, it is oftentimes challenging to pursue sustainable development.

So here are some facts. Two thirds of the world’s energy are consumed in cities. Three quarters of greenhouse gas emissions come from cities. And around one out of five urban residents live in slums or informal settlements, mostly in developing countries.

So many cities are not yet sustainable. Yet cities are the key to solving some of our most pressing challenges like climate change.

So pursuing sustainable cities can complement other SDG goals. Because cities drive much of the way we use resources, cities present opportunities to introduce more sustainable ways of living.

Lynette Cheah: 03:08

So there are many ways to interpret what smart cities mean. So broadly, a smart city is one where we bring together data and information technology, communications, to connect people and infrastructure to improve lives, right, to enhance urban living. And there are many applications and services that that can come about through smart city.

In the transportation sector, for example, we can have things like adaptive traffic signals that can adapt to real time traffic. Or sharing of real-time information for commuters so that they know when the bus is coming around.

We can have connected vehicles that communicate with one another and communicate with the infrastructure or demand-responsive transit, which is basically a way for public transport services to respond to real-time demand, and then, you know, provide the service accordingly.

Smart cities can align very well with SDG 11. The use of data and technology can definitely help promote sustainable cities. For instance, we have big data from smart travelcards, and that can help to reveal passenger demand patterns for better transit operations.

So imagine, as a passenger, you’d have more on-time bus and train schedules. Even better, again, an adaptive system that’s responsive to demand. So what this means is with big data and with technology, we can achieve more reliable transit service, shorter waiting times, smoother journeys for everyone.

So by improving public transport, we not only meet the transport needs of the urban population, but also reduce emissions, improve air quality and enhance the quality of life in cities.

Lynette Cheah: 04:56

I was born and raised in Singapore. It’s a very dense and tropical city. Maybe you have been there before?

Even though I grew up in a city, I’ve always really enjoyed being outside and outdoor activities like walking, hiking.

I did my engineering degrees, including a PhD, in the United States. So my PhD was in engineering systems, after which I came back to Singapore and joined academia.

So I spent about 10 years at the Singapore University of Technology and Design as a faculty member. And I recently relocated to to Brisbane in Australia, where I’m currently based.

So I’m now teaching and doing research in the area of sustainable transport at the University of the Sunshine Coast. I’m very interested in transport. It is sort of one of my greatest passions. My research focuses on sustainable mobility.

So my team is interested in pathways towards sustainable passenger and freight transport. So this is a really critical part of sustainable cities. We can’t have sustainable cities without transforming the way people move and how goods are moved around.

We need to build cities where amenities are easily accessible. Or we need to avoid using private cars and encourage the shift to public transport, cycling or walking. So these are also called active transport modes. We also want to reduce our reliance on fossil fuel-powered vehicles and encourage electric vehicles instead.

Lynette Cheah: 06:22

Yeah, Singapore is quite a unique city, right? Very special. So it hosts about five and a half million people in an area half the size of London. So it’s such a compact and densely built-up city. How do we accommodate so many people in a limited amount of space?

And the island has no natural resources. So we have to import all our food, our water, our energy. And all we have is people I guess, human capital. So I think it is this existential threat that really spurred a lot of, like, strategic planning, foresight, thinking about the future.

So since Singapore’s independence in 1965, urban and town planning has always been quite well thought out. You can see that even every blade of grass in Singapore is planned. So we have airport in the east. The sea port now, in the west.

There’s been lots of efforts to put in lots of efforts into integrating land use and transport planning to make sure that infrastructure keeps up with growth and future growth. So it’s, of course, not always perfect, but the long-term vision and long-term planning is always there.

Singapore has also always been very ready to embrace technology and innovation. You know, to become one of the smartest cities in the world. The population is quite tech-savvy. So most, almost everyone owns a smartphone. Digital connectivity is very strong.

The government has set up a Smart Nation Office to promote a digital society. So it has encouraged open data, data privacy frameworks, cybersecurity. So this has been applied to government services, healthcare, transport, built environment, everywhere.

So Singapore has consistently ranked within the top 10 in smart city and digital connectivity indices. Digital services are quite quite prevalent, It’s quite common for us to all turn to other use of our phones and apps to to you know, get things done.

There’s this app called Singpass app that every citizen or resident has. And it has your driver’s license on it even has your high school records. In your past history, some of the health information is on it, as well as like an all-in-one service government service app.

So it’s really quite remarkable quite easy to to get around. In terms of payments, you know, it’s mostly digital payments also. So you don’t have a need to carry a wallet around anymore. You just bring a phone.

Lynette Cheah: 08:52

Much of my research involves modeling the environmental impacts of passenger and urban freight transport. So, with my research team, we often partner with planning agencies or companies. And we use a lot of real-world data to inform the way we approach these problems, to make sure that our models are realistic and useful.

The goal is usually to assess and reduce emissions, or energy use and transport. Or to help guide policymaking or investment decision making. This work has varied quite a bit, depending on the interest of our sponsors, or my students, or some of the ideas that we have.

So it often involves collaborations with other disciplines like psychology, computer scientists, and urban designers.

I myself, am from the engineering field, right? So we’ve tried to combine all these different disciplines together to address transport problems.

So recent projects would include measuring the carbon impact of e-commerce deliveries, comparing the lifecycle impact of electric vehicles. Lately, we’ve also been monitoring the stock of materials in transport infrastructure, like roads.

So one of the most interesting projects is where we looked at the carbon footprint of ecommerce deliveries. So when you order something online, through a website, and it gets delivered to you, sometimes those deliveries would have a pretty high impact depending on how well the delivery company might go about organizing these deliveries.

If it’s only one package per vehicle, or if it’s not consolidated, if packages are not consolidated or well planned out before the van is sort of dispatched along its route, then it may have a very high carbon footprint.

So we modelled that impact depending on where the origin of the product that you just ordered, you know, your location, the modes used, and things like that in order to assess the the carbon footprint.

One interesting part that we did also in this project was to ask people. You know, we start getting into the behavioral aspects of the question here. If they are willing to compromise maybe the delivery delivery times, you know, for a greener option.

So maybe you could choose greener shipping, but it’ll take a bit longer to get to you. So are you willing to trade off that delivery time versus carbon footprint?

And we got some interesting results. I think most people, more than half of the respondents that we asked, were actually willing to to wait a bit more. So maybe that high expectation of next day delivery or, you know, a short delivery timeframe, need not be there.

Lynette Cheah: 11:36

So there are many countries that embrace smart transport, especially in Asia, where we have very high density cities. So East Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, and China have all deployed intelligent transport systems to cope with that very high travel demand. Cities in Australia, including Brisbane have also made efforts to make available in open datasets, which is part of making transportation smarter as well.

Another notable example is Finland, which was an early leader in mobility as a service. So this is where you can, you know, again, using a phone or a demand-responsive bus to come pick you up.

Or you might subscribe to a mobility service package, and then all your payments and your ability to move between transport modes is all consolidated on one platform.

So mobility as a service is a very novel concept when it came out quite a number of years ago, and Finland was one of the early leaders in this regard. Finland had also done quite a bit of autonomous vehicle trials. Many countries followed also shortly after.

Lynette Cheah: 12:50

There are two issues to consider when pursuing smart city initiatives. Firstly, I think we should recognize that some people are not as digitally connected as others, right. So there’s some segments of the population that may not have smartphones, and so on. So smart city initiatives should aim to be inclusive and serve everyone.

We don’t have to sort of implement these too quickly. I don’t think we need cities that are too smart. Instead, we are looking to create human-centric cities right? The objective should not be about the technology itself. It’s more about the services that are enabled by the technology. I think we sometimes get very excited about technology, but it’s really actually a means to an end.

Secondly, another issue to consider when pursuing smart city initiatives, I think we need to remember that many cities do not have the means to collect good data to enable these solutions.

So many cities, especially those in developing countries, would have informal transport options, which are not centrally planned by the local authorities. So in Thailand, this will be tuktuks, or jeepneys in Philippines, or matatu in Kenya.

So data availability is a challenge. And again, we have to think of innovative ways to overcome this. I think we have to be creative in terms of ways to collect information.

So now there are initiatives like crowdsourcing information on where some of these informal transport options apply. You know, what’s the service area, travel time and so on. You could tap on the crowd to get a sense of where and then the network coverage it’s offered.

So I think it’s not the typical approach where you have a central authority that knows where all the buses are in the fleet, and how well maintained they are.

In this case, you have sort of like a, like an army, right, of independent drivers that are fulfilling these rides.

In a sense, the system is actually a bit more resilient because you have many drivers that are able to fulfill similar rides.

So there are advantages. There are disadvantages. Again, when it comes down to innovating, we have to come up with some creative ways.

Yeah. I think it’d be quite challenging for SDG 11 to be achieved by 2030. Because 2030 is less than six years away.

So while it is goal, a sustainable development goal, again, I see as the SDGs as a way to sort of express our vision and ideals.

So some cities are inherently more sustainable than others. For others will require some deep structural changes in the way we plan and operate our urban infrastructure systems.

So these will be like our energy system, transport system, water system, and so on.

But I am very optimistic that good science and knowledge does exist to help us, you know, track the path towards sustainable urban development.

It’ll take lots of work. It’ll take like public-private partnerships. It’ll take some credible financing, lots of capacity building.

I think we’ll need all hands on deck to achieve our, the ideals of inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable cities.

One other thing to also notice that we have cities now that are growing, some are shrinking, but the majority are growing.

And there are many cities that have yet to be. So you know, I think in the future, we also have to think about planning these future cities, and what to do with these legacy cities that are still around.

Fabio Pulizzi: 16:35

Thanks for listening to this series, How to Save Humanity in 17 Goals.

Join us again next time when we look at Sustainable Development Goal number 12: to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. See you then.

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