The Future Urban Mobility (FM) project is a joint venture between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the National Research Foundation of Singapore, and it aims to look at the future problems faced by urban access and mobility with a view to increased sustainability and improved mobility. A central theme to the research is how the availability of real-time data will improve the unique ecosystem that is the big city.
The FM team is developing SimMobility, a simulation platform that allows researchers to explore the transportation, environmental impact, energy, land use and population factors that influence inner-city travel. FM is working on several projects to this end.
To a certain extent removing the human factor from inner-city travel will improve its efficiency. Autonomous vehicles like those being developed by Google are one potential route, and these require research into vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication. Vehicle to vehicle ensures that autonomous vehicles can share data about their location in close proximity to others ensuring that whether a vehicle is moving, stopping or turning, others are always ready to plan a route around them and avoid each other.
Vehicle to infrastructure (and vice-versa) allows vehicles to access data from the cloud to improve route planning, avoid traffic hotspots seconds after they appear or plan ahead for traffic signals, slowing down early to reduce stop and go traffic. All these factors will improve efficiency both in terms of energy usage and time.
Mobility on demand
You might already have used a "mobility on demand" service. If you live in a city with a bike-sharing scheme, you'll be aware of the benefits. Mobility on demand means always having mobility wherever you are, whenever you need it and for however long you need it. You can pick up the bike at one location and drop it off at another, and everyone else can do the same.
Possibly combined with autonomous vehicles, future mobility on demand could involve hopping on board an autonomous pod from one point to another, ready for the next person to hop in and head to their own destination. Even if not autonomous, a more on-demand version of today's car-sharing services like Zipcar would let users pick up a car from any location and drive it wherever they wished without having to return it to the original location.
One way the engineers at MIT and Singapore are thinking of co-ordinating such a scheme essentially involves a network of mobile phones, connecting each vehicle via a network.
"LIVE Singapore!" project
With so many devices and vehicles now connected to global networks, it becomes possible to collate data and project how people and vehicles use a city space. LIVE Singapore! converges art, digital media and information technology to map out a city in multiple dimensions to show the movement of people, vehicles and show energy usage across a city. This could lead to projects targeted at improving movement and access for city dwellers.
If you can predict traffic and transport movement, you can automatically re-plan your route to take account of areas that might soon become congested. If every vehicle is able to do this, congestion never forms as traffic is kept moving freely by vehicles taking optimal routes.
DynaMIT stands for "Dynamic Network Assignment for Managing Information to Traveler", and provides short-term traffic predictions to anticipate congestion before it occurs. Using real-time data (potentially gathered by other vehicles around the city or data centers monitoring conditions at a given point) and historical data, it simulates traffic conditions an hour into the future every five minutes, and recalculates based on any changes you make to your route based on its data.
It's been tested successfully in Lisbon, Portugal and is undergoing tests in other areas too, such as Los Angeles, Beijing and Singapore.
It's easy to see the benefits from all these systems - modern computing power, cloud computing and the use of real-time data means that even as cities become more and more populated, the complicated infrastructure demands can still be met. Far from city life becoming ever more difficult, the future for billions of city-dwellers all around the world could be about to change for the better.