Cities are facing a conundrum. Approximately 83 percent of the American population lives in an urban area—and that number is expected to grow to an estimated 89 percent by 2050. Yet, city planners can’t simply snap their fingers and build infrastructure, or move buildings to expand roads. They’re contending with the changes that come with increasing rates of urbanization on multiple fronts. Amongst the many challenges cities face in maintaining quality of life, one challenge links them all: finding the best way to move people around. Citizens are the lifeblood of urban areas, and mobility is a constant heartbeat that maintains smart, healthy cities.
Therefore, any conversation about smart cities can’t exist without discussing mobility. Discussions about city infrastructure would be held in a vacuum if not paired with insights on transportation trends. Municipal transportation and the question of how to improve mobility takes place towards the top of any planning agenda.
Answering this question has never been more complicated. In the pre-digital past, cities relied on municipal-owned transit as the majority. The underground was ruled by subways, and taxis owned the streets. Today’s mobility infrastructure features more players in the arena in the form of third-party apps like ParkWhiz, ride-sharing programs, and micro-mobility. Because of this, the average citizen has never had as many choices to complete a journey door-to-door. Concurrently, a city has never had such an opportunity to get smart and solve the challenge of moving people around through innovation and data.
To address the opportunity this presents, we spoke with civil and transportation engineering Professor Stephen Boyles of the University of Texas at Austin and Juan Rodriguez, founder and CEO of FLASH.
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Mobility Is Integral To Future-Proof a City
“We see civil engineering touching mainly on aspects of connected cities, energy, and water. These three things are what’s driving our infrastructure needs as we move forward,” explains Professor Boyles. Indeed, city planners are largely focused on the infrastructure elements that will sustain cities in the future. Municipal governments are focused on how to distribute resources while curbing harmful overconsumption.
Historically, transportation has been directly linked to overconsumption and congestion. Therefore, any discussion of creating a healthy future must include mobility. Rethinking mobility can directly impact the consumption of energy, the distribution of resources as people dine and shop, and the spending power of an average citizen.
The Mobility Hub Is the Next Innovation in Municipal Transportation
When cities grow, the transportation supply is often not adequate for the increased demand. The result is congestion. And the solution becomes a juggling act. City planners have to match demand while also keeping in mind the need to reduce overconsumption and promote sustainability. “We can’t build our way out of congestion. That’s just not feasible to do,” remarks Boyles. He asserts that building more roads is not the answer and utilizes more resources than it provides.
Enter the mobility hub.
“A parking operator cannot be a parking operator anymore. It needs to migrate to a mobility operator. It’s going to do the things that it normally does today, but will need to be a lot more tech-savvy, and have the staffing to be able to support all of the additional integrations that help cities innovate,” says Rodriquez. He explains that the mobility hub is what parking operators will become, as gatekeepers of a smart city. A mobility hub is a transportation center that fulfills the door-to-door transit journey of individuals and businesses alike.
In the context of organizations such as FLASH, a mobility hub is the next iteration of a parking garage and offers more than just commuter car parking. As a technology born and operated via cloud computing, it provides an architecture that allows operators to add new integrations at will. This means that a mobility hub can include everything from micro-mobility storage (such as scooters) to oil changing services, EV charging stations, and fleet management options. It can offer spaces for mobile kitchens or provide places to holster delivery fleets or drones. Where traditional transportation was siloed by brand and location, the mobility hub integrates multiple forms of travel in one location. And where cities have an increased need to adapt and include EV and other innovations, mobility hubs can provide that infrastructure.
“A parking operator cannot be a parking operator anymore. It needs to migrate to a mobility operator. It’s going to do the things that it normally does today, but will need to be a lot more tech-savvy, and have the staffing to be able to support all of the additional integrations that help cities innovate.”
Rodriguez believes mobility hubs are a large part of the genetic makeup for the future smart city. Notably, he leans towards electrification as one of the largest infrastructural shifts to impact transportation. “From an energy and grid management standpoint, building the infrastructure to be able to support increasing EV charging is going to be required,” he shares. “Tesla is selling more cars than BMW and Mercedes. With their model three, they’re now targeting the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, and the Ford Fusion of the world. So this is going to be a massive infrastructure requirement that cities will be focusing on.
Mobility Hubs Can Contribute To Transportation Infrastructure
Parking operators are already searching for innovation because of the pandemic. It’s to their benefit that they recognize this moment not only as an opportunity for enhancing standard parking, but also to stay forward-thinking by providing solutions for municipalities. In fact, cities are even beginning to search for technology and infrastructure partners themselves.
As the visionary behind FLASH, Rodriguez is well aware of how cities are reaching out. He states that the more innovative municipalities have specific teams that start pilot programs and partnerships with private businesses. “They show businesses how to get initiatives approved along with the approval councils involved, etcetera,” he explains. “If a city doesn’t have that infrastructure, then it’s hard for folks who want to innovate.”
“We can't build our way out of congestion. That's just not feasible to do.”
The incentive for parking operators should be clear. You are in a unique position to share the future of mobility with your local governments. For instance: we helped the City of Las Vegas reduce congestion in 2020 by having rideshare vehicles wait in parking facilities instead of on the Vegas strip. It was an example of how parking operators and innovators can change the status quo of city transit.
Another unique way of adapting parking infrastructure for city usage lies in expanding the role of EV vehicles. They can actually act as batteries that provide energy back to municipal grids when they’re not in use. Boyles expands on this unique proposal by explaining that owners can potentially be paid for storing their cars in parking garages to supply energy. The possibilities are endless.
Mutually Beneficial Data Exchanges
Perhaps one of the largest benefits resulting from integrations between municipal and private mobility is the exchange of information. Cities have more questions than answers when it comes to travel data. They can track traffic movement, but it’s often the last-mile data that can lead to the largest innovations.
Parking operators who transcend the norm to become mobility operators have an opportunity to gather this type of information. From rich data, they can determine when people prefer micro-mobility, as well as help to mitigate traffic. In fact, people circling the block for parking is a large factor of congestion. “Apps that can alleviate this type of traffic are a huge benefit to cities,” Boyles states. FLASH’s integration with Arrive is an example of this new form of end-to-end mobility. It provides this type of consumer service, while also operating parking assets for businesses.
Taking it a step further: as a mobility technology provider, FLASH has helped collect accurate property taxes and conduct audits on operators. Rodriguez describes this as a beneficial mutual data exchange. “This data can help the city to audit properly and can help an executive make important decisions,” he explains. “It can inform how many EV chargers or scooters to buy, or when to raise or lower prices.”
More Mobility Leads to Healthy Competition
There’s a special benefit to having many players in the mobility arena: healthy competition that provides cities with new streams of revenue. Cities are the beneficiaries of new infrastructure integrations that lead to more ways for citizens to move. These new integrations come from increased options for ride-share and micro-mobility. When there’s an increasing number of people that move to more locations, the economy benefits. Small businesses see more traffic, cultural institutions see more visitors, and tourism increases. Therefore, cities should be encouraging new businesses to submit proposals and innovate—it makes urban transit more attractive and easy.
Moving Forward Requires New Levels of Integration
The resulting commute and travel patterns from the COVID-19 pandemic have all but concretized the massive impact that transit changes have on a city. If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that no organization in a city can solve mobility alone. The solution requires treating urban areas as a large organism, with each facet impacting the next. In this spirit, Flash has even created a team specifically dedicated to evaluating partners and solutions for our mobility hubs. Operators will be able to take advantage of these partnerships as soon as they’re available.
The resulting model of operation is a fast-food menu of implementation choices. One option may include upgrading EV level charging. Another can consist of certifying a garage for a specific car brand, so owners can know the garage will safely accommodate their vehicle. Cities can adopt the same concept and create a network of mobility options that utilize partnerships to get travelers from point A to B quickly.
The tools are all there to use. The next step is for cities and private operators to learn from each other and create the next generation of urban travel
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