How IoT is innovating transport to make cities more liveable

By | 3 minute read | November 28, 2016

IoT transport and smart cities

This is the third post in a three-part series on how the Internet of Things is impacting transport.

Congestion, primarily driven by commuters and centered around cities, is a huge economic problem – costing the U.S. $160 billion per year according to researchers at Texas A&M. This is a global problem, often affecting growing cities the most, whose infrastructure can’t keep pace with urbanization. Urbanization itself is often cited as the root cause of these problems. According to the United Nations Population Fund, more than half of the world’s population now lives in towns and cities, and by 2030 this number will swell to about 5 billion.

In prior blog posts we’ve examined how the Internet of Things (IoT) is poised to transform road and train transportation. Now let’s look at the hub of the issue – inner city transportation. Here are three ways IoT will change how we get around cities:

More reliable service to handle increasing ridership

For many city dwellers, other than some form of bipedalism, inner city rail systems are the primary means of transportation. Subway/metro systems shape the very fabric of the cities themselves. From Moscow’s ornate metro stations to Tokyo’s notoriously crowded train cars, each system has eccentricities in how they operate and the vast majority are struggling to cope with increasing ridership.

Maintaining smooth operation is particularly challenging for some of the more established transit systems, some of which date back hundreds of years. The London Underground, for example, dates back to 1863 and is the world’s oldest underground rail system. But by no means is it antiquated.

Similar to the technology being deployed on commuter trains discussed in our previous blog, the London Underground is using IoT technologies to transform how it operates. The system gets real-time information from trains and stations that enables efficient job scheduling and proactive maintenance. All assets are managed in a centralized system, including trains, fleets, tracks, signals and even facilities. This consolidation of the management of assets improve train uptime, keeps stations running smoothly and improves passenger satisfaction.

Innovation in above ground transport

In the past few years, we’ve seen unprecedented innovation in above-ground transportation in cities. Services like Zipcar and Uber have changed the way city dwellers interact with cars. New services centered around ride sharing or pooling stand to change how people commute. We’re even seeing innovation in bus service, with private shuttle services addressing areas of cities underserved by public transport – sometimes referred to as transit deserts.

One of the hottest innovations in the auto industry is the driverless car, but most innovation has centered around the individual driver. Today, the Internet of Things is enabling even more advanced driverless systems. For example, Olli is the first cognitive-enabled, self-driving vehicle powered by Watson, that is able to have authentic interactions with riders. Olli has the potential to transform inner city transportation, as it can provide personalized shuttle services that adapt to the changing transportation landscape around it and service areas with limited transportation options.

Mass transport that learns from the city

Arguably the biggest challenge with transportation management is that regardless of how much is invested in infrastructure and planning, the systems are still vulnerable to externalities. So to optimize transportation, it’s important to consider linkages to other city systems.

For example, we’re seeing the rise of the cognitive building (to learn more, visit the Cognitive Building Forum hosted by WIRED and Watson IoT). Buildings can now understand occupancy in real-time and adapt operations based on usage. This data can feed transportation systems, so they can plan accordingly. Is there a large sporting event or conference downtown, so should the metro deploy more trains once the event ends? How might a public works alarm, such as a broken water main, inform shuttle services?

One company innovating in this space is KONE, one of the world’s largest elevator and escalator manufacturers. KONE is investing in technology to understand people flow using sensors and IoT technologies, and they are one of the companies that connect transportation systems with buildings and cities. In the not too distant future, people flow insights may serve as detection systems for transportation stressors, and can be used to optimize multiple city systems and improve inner city mobility. To learn more about KONE, visit their people flow website or read about their partnership with IBM.

These examples illustrate that IoT sensors alone is not sufficient to drive the benefits of IoT, but that cognitive systems combined with IoT will provide the intelligence needed to deliver true value to both enterprises and consumers/commuters. How do you see cognitive IoT changing how your travel, commute, and live?