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Are more bikes really the answer to congestion?


Comment piece by Peter Sorgenfrei, CEO, Autonomous Mobility – reported in Børsen February 11th 2018

It is time to seize the opportunity to make Denmark a transport pioneer. We need to form a sophisticated network of mobility.

It is time to seize the opportunity to make Denmark a transport pioneer. We need to form a sophisticated network of mobility.

Congestion is growing in and around urban areas. Each day, more people get stuck in increasingly severe traffic jams – and our society pays the price when traffic clogs up cities.

It’s a complex issue, and the challenges can’t be solved with an easy fix like increasing the capacity of the road network. Rather, we need to think in terms of flexibility if we want to regain control of congestion. The solution needs to cater to our differing and dynamic needs for transportation.

Within the current debate, the humble bicycle is sometimes offered up as the answer to our prayers. You’ll hear statements such as: “If only we had better conditions for cyclists, people would bike everywhere and all of the congestion and pollution would disappear”. I understand this mindset – I love to bike myself and do it on a daily basis. In a lot of ways, the bicycle is an unrivalled means of transportation: It doesn’t pollute, it occupies a minimal amount of space and it provides the user with lovely red cheeks and a good workout, while at the same time meeting our need to get from A-B.

But widening the bike lanes won’t magically make congestion disappear. Some distances are simply too long to cover by bike. Some people are unable to bike due to physical disabilities. Some people simply don’t like biking. And then some people have large families and find it challenging to move around on a rainy day with children, equipment and the whole shebang. And then there is the transportation of goods that are being delivered each day to stores, restaurants and private homes to consider.

It’s an equally appealing thought that if only we just added another lane to the highway, or built another road, that traffic jams would cease to exist. If our roads and transport systems aren’t currently able to meet demands – well then, let’s expand! This thought often pops into my mind when I find myself stuck in a jam with grid-locked cars in all directions.

But why implement an extra bus lane when people only really fill it during rush hour? Why build a whole new lane on the highway when there are no issues except between 7 and 9 AM? Actually, this solution would probably just increase the pressure on the roads leading into cities and form bottleneck areas where the stream of cars meet city limits. So instead of focusing so much on capacity, let’s try and think about flexibility instead.

The fact is that congestion is caused by the array of differing transport needs that need to be met. People are different. And their mobility needs change during the course of a day, a year and a lifetime.

Flexibility should be the guiding principle. Not just in terms of planning infrastructure and traffic management, but also when thinking about the individual vehicle, too. It may be that 24-year-old William is just fine without a car and enjoys his daily bike ride to the university. But when he needs to visit his parents in Kalundborg, he’ll need a better solution.

Ideally, we’d have a door-to-door system so integrated that the waiting time would be practically non-existent. To get to that goal, we need a refined network of data-driven vehicles that have the ability to adapt to our changing needs on an ongoing basis. Some people can jump on a bike, others need a self-driving bus. Some people can catch a bus right at the street corner, others need an extra link to the nearest stop. Some people occasionally use a large car to transport goods from the furniture store to their house, while on most days they’re fine with a cargobike. And then some like to explore country roads with their partner on weekends, while on a daily basis they prefer the train to work. Transportation needs aren’t static – thankfully.

Let’s be ambitious here and try to join up all those dots. City bikes, private bikes, private cars, shared cars, buses, trains, metros, light rails, s-trains and self-driving shuttle buses all need to work together - with passengers at the center of that cooperation.

Technology can help us here. Imagine, for example, if we implemented self-driving buses to cover a remote area; they’d provide mobility on-demand, by allowing people to summon a vehicle through a smartphone app. This would enable us to cover the first and the last kilometer between private homes and train stations without having large buses driving around half empty because nobody has need for them. The self-driving fleet could be further optimized through an intelligent use of data, sensors and software.

This concept of tailored transport should be taken a step further by not limiting our approach to catering for the individual. Rather, we should find smart ways to cater for entire groups of people who are headed in the same direction. An app, for example, could help us optimize the capacity of both  carpooling and shared means of transportation.

Once a self-driving shuttle has brought you to the train station, you’d then be able to take the train onwards to your final destination. Suddenly, the whole network becomes so integrated that even people who’d never go anywhere if not by car can see the advantages of switching from being a driver to a passenger. This means we’ll be able to better optimize use of the vehicles on the roads and rails.

In the years to come, we’ll experience a major shift in the patterns of transport around the world. Electrification and automation will eventually become the norm. This is why now is the time to invest and seize the opportunity to make Denmark a pioneering, self-driving country. We need to form a sophisticated network of transport that will allow Danes in all municipalities to get around – with less congestion and more flexibility.