Urban Mobility Needs Tech, Guardrails, And A Human Touch

AI and air taxis can dramatically improve transportation networks if they are deployed equitably, SXSW panelists agreed

sustainable mobility, flying taxis, autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles, public transit, mass transit, urban mobility

Our cities are on the verge of a transportation revolution. Technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and flying taxis can transform the way people get around while cities notorious for traffic jams are investing heavily in mass transit and micromobility. But for these solutions to have the greatest impact, they must be implemented sustainably and equitably, according to experts who participated in the Oliver Wyman Forum’s South by Southwest (SXSW) panel on the future of urban mobility.

City authorities and the mobility industry must grapple with difficult tradeoffs between sustainability, economic pressure, and how best to serve the public good. Some green transport solutions may be too costly for city budgets and consumers while others need to be considered and tested by a wide range of communities. “Industry players and cities must form unconventional coalitions with unique solutions to unlock these challenges,” said Fabian Brandt, co-lead of the Oliver Wyman Forum’s Mobility initiative and SXSW panel host. 

So, how can cities realize the full potential of new mobility solutions? The panelists agreed on three key takeaways:

Urban air taxis are ready for take-off

With one air taxi player seeking regulatory approval to launch service in Paris for this summer’s 2024 Olympic Games, the technology may soon take flight into the mainstream. To get there, though, providers must convince regulators that the technology is safe and engage with local communities to win their support, said Bryan Willows, Americas director of advanced air mobility at Bristow Group.

 “The last thing we or consumers want is for us to build a vertiport in their backyard and have them unable to see the benefit of it,” Bryan said. 

As with most any new technology, Willows explained, the initial cost is going to be high. Educating consumers about the benefits and safety of urban air mobility will help reduce the price over time as people become more comfortable using it and demand rises. And if air taxis become autonomous, services will become even more affordable and widely accessible. “Back when I was a kid, a plasma TV cost $10,000,” he said. “I just bought a new one for $400.” 

Enabling mobility for all is critical 

While the air taxi industry is placing its hopes on the Paris Olympics, Los Angeles is investing in terrestrial improvements for its staging of the 2028 Summer Games. 

High costs of living and housing have squeezed households in many urban areas around the world, making it hard for many residents to access jobs that require long commutes. This is especially true in Los Angeles, which is notorious for traffic gridlock across the sprawling city. Authorities have just four years to enhance the regional mobility network for a flood of tourists who would otherwise congest roads even further. 

Ongoing public transit plans will help. L.A. Metro, the transportation authority for Los Angeles County, is expanding metro lines, active mobility, and multimodal projects under a 30-year program. In addition, a March 2024 $139 million infrastructure grant to the city will fund bus-only lanes and mobility hubs for first- and last-mile trips to Olympic venues. 

But the key to growing ridership lies in raising awareness among commuters of these new opportunities and making journey planning seamless with a single app, says Heather Repenning, head of sustainability executive officer for sustainability policy for LA Metro, “We have one digital vision in advance of the Olympics,” Repenning told the SXSW audience. “We want to make it easier to navigate between different modes that are available, help people understand their options to travel, pay in one place, and know they can use their device to do it.”

Collaboration can strike a balance between equity and innovation

An open dialogue between mobility providers, regulators, and consumers can used with every new emerging technology. Take San Francisco, which lies on the cutting edge of mobility innovation, especially autonomous vehicle technology. Its rich ecosystem of talent from Silicon Valley and academia and a willingness to embrace new solutions makes it one of the top mobility networks in the world. 

But innovation for innovation’s sake is not the ideal road to take, explained Tilly Chang, executive director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. The key lies in harnessing new technologies, like artificial intelligence, to serve the city’s goals of sustainable and affordable mobility. Ensuring the community and companies have an open dialogue in rolling out these solutions can help ensure the benefits are shared equitably and serve the broader public good.

“The successful companies are not the ones that dump solutions on our streets and market to just the wealthier and tech-savvy demographic,” Chang said. “We need companies to hear directly from city agencies, nonprofits, and community-based organizations. From ages eight to 80, nobody is shy in San Francisco. Everyone has an opinion.”