Smart Transportation

Urban Transport Systems: Challenges and New Directions

Congestion is still a major challenge in large cities. According to the INRIX Traffic Scorecard, iconic cities like Moscow, London, Rome, Paris, Madrid, Toronto and Chicago are all among the 25 most congested cities in the world. However, modern transport system can transform cities for the better. 

For example, Berlin built an extensive network of underground trains, trams and busses, with a single ticket enabling travel across all transport methods. As a result, the city has 850 bicycles, and only 326 cars, per 1000 inhabitants. The use of cars has been decreasing since 1998, and today 13% of journeys are made by bicycle and 27% by public transport.

New transport technologies and business models are helping cities reduce private car ownership and create incentives for more efficient modes of transport. In this article, we cover the key challenges facing urban transport systems, and how new transportation systems can transform cities for the better. 

In this article, you will learn about:

7 Transportation Challenges in Urban Areas

1. Traffic Congestion

Overloading is the primary cause of congestion. Patterns of land use and transport infrastructure influence traffic flow. While both commuter and freight traffic contribute to congestion, passenger movements are the main source of gridlock in urban areas.

Motorists in the 21st century spend three times longer in traffic than drivers did a few decades ago. Large numbers of single-occupancy vehicles add to traffic volume. The resulting congestion contributes to air pollution, inefficient use of fuel, and slower commutes, which makes urban life frustrating. Drivers contend with obstacles like buses, delivery trucks, and service vehicles, to searching for parking spots near their destination.

2. Long Commutes

Growing populations, roadwork, and the distance between homes and workplaces all contribute to increased congestion and longer commute times. Expanding road capacity is not always effective for shortening commute times, as it cannot keep up with the growing volume of traffic. New highways can actually result in longer commutes, as they encourage more vehicles to use road networks, increasing overall vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT).

Residential affordability also affects commuting patterns. While most employment opportunities remain in city centers, suburban housing is more affordable. Thus, cheaper housing comes at the expense of longer commuting time.

3. Sprawling Cities

Decentralization makes urban transport systems more complex. As cities expand outward, and distances increase between residences and places of work, congestion becomes a bigger problem for communities and commuting times a major burden for individuals.

Urban sprawl makes public transportation systems more expensive to build and operate and restricts pedestrian movement. Large-scale super­stores, and other facilities serving large catchment areas, are not easily accessible by foot, and this encourages the use of motor vehicles.

4. Secondary Infrastructure 

Demand for bike and pedestrian infrastructure is increasing, as more people choose to walk or cycle to work. However, many cities were built for cars and are not bike or pedestrian friendly. Bicycle lanes and wider footpaths make riding and walking safer and can help control traffic, but such infrastructure comes at the expense of roadway capacity and parking space.

Access to public transport often requires parking infrastructure. Suburban stations can provide parking spaces for riders to promote public transit usage. Commuters can use these suburban stations to avoid the inconvenience of parking in the city.

5. Large Fleets, Large Costs

Urban transport agencies face challenges when managing large fleets of vehicles and a growing workforce, including maintenance costs, recruiting and retaining skilled employees, and meeting task requirements. Agencies must train their workforce to increase safety and reduce accidents. 

Fluctuating demand for public transport poses a dilemma for public transport operators, who must determine the size of their fleets. A fleet large enough to meet peak-hour demand is not economically viable when operated off-peak. However, if operators don’t provide enough vehicles, they cannot support the volume of passengers during peak hours.

6. Parking Difficulties

Drivers stuck in traffic while looking for a parking spot contribute to urban congestion. Cities struggle to provide sufficient parking space to serve central business districts (CBDs). Large car parks consume expensive real-estate, while street parking takes up lanes that could be used for moving traffic.

7. Negative Environmental Impacts

Automobile dependency affects the quality of life of residents, including public health. Cars and related infrastructure have a visual impact on cities. Air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions, increases alongside vehicle-miles traveled (VMT). Road networks consume between 30 and 60% of metropolitan land, and their territorial imprint grows as more people use private cars. 

Traffic generates noise and fumes that make walking in urban areas unpleasant. Prolonged exposure to these fumes, especially if the engine is inadequately maintained, is hazardous to health. Fumes emitted from cars contain carbon monoxide, aldehydes, unburnt hydrocarbons and other gases and deposits like tetra-ethyl lead, nitrogen oxides, and carbon particles.

Changing Urban Transportation Systems for Improved Quality of Life

Cities can measure the quality of their transportation systems and apply their insights to their transport policies. The efficiency of transportation systems can be defined by their availability, affordability, efficiency, convenience, and sustainability. Below, you’ll find a review of key factors that influence urban transportation commute, and the solutions that could solve transport issues.

Before the Trip

Availability directly influences how people choose to travel. A number of indicators define availability for four categories of transport options: 

  • Rail infrastructure: The proximity of train stations to workplaces and residences, as well as pedestrian access to and between public transport lines.
  • Road infrastructure: Road quality and the presence of bicycle lanes, as well as connectivity between car parks and pedestrian zones.
  • Shared transport: The number of vehicles in car-sharing services or the number of rental bikes per capita.
  • External connectivity: Access to destinations outside the city, including the number of flights departing from local airports.

Cities can leverage affordability to encourage or discourage certain modes of transportation:

  • Public transport: Ticket prices in relation to average income
  • Barriers to private transport: Cost of parking tickets, taxes, fees, and road tolls, as well as policies restricting the use of private vehicles

During the Trip

Efficiency involves speed and reliability and is especially important for public transit systems:

  • Public transport: Travel time at rush hour, waiting time for street-level transport options (buses, trams), and the proportion of dedicated bus lanes throughout the road network 
  • Private transport: The predictability of commuting time, differences between peak-hour and off-peak travel times, and average speed during peak times

Convenience affects the quality of public transport services. The following four parameters measure convenience:

  • Travel comfort: The quality and age of buses and train carriages, transport operating hours, the frequency of services, and the extent of access to the disabled
  • Ticketing system: Availability of a travel card that is valid for multiple modes of public transport, mobile ticketing, and remote top-up
  • Electronic services: The usability of public transport apps, access to WiFi in buses and metro carriages and stations, and the availability of real-time information on the progress of transit services, parking information and online payment options for parking
  • Transfers: The distance between metro stations and bus stops, the time it takes to transfer from one mode of public transport to another, and the availability of a navigation system to help passengers plan journeys

After the Trip

Transportation systems need to be safe and environmentally friendly to be sustainable:

  • Safety—the number of road and public transport-related casualties relative to population, as well as safety enforcement measures
  • Environmental impact—encompasses fuel standards, the age, and quality of vehicles, the proportion of electric vehicles sold, and the time private motor vehicles operate

Smart Transport Technology is the Answer to Modern Transport Challenges

Traditional modes of transport and infrastructure cannot support the demand for mobility in today’s megacities. Transport routes have turned into a complex puzzle, one that can only be solved with big data, smart algorithms, connected vehicles, and strong collaboration between the private and public sectors. 

To learn more about the new trends and paradigms that are making it possible to manage and optimize transport in tomorrow’s megacities, and safer, read our in-depth articles about: