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Urban Transportation Planning: How to Achieve Balance through Technology

Urban transportation planning needs to focus on consistency, convenience, and “clean” fuels if we are to thrive in the urban jungle

Updated: January 11, 2024 13 mins read Published: December 08, 2021

Rudyard Kipling once wrote that the law of the jungle never orders anything without a reason. (And also that only the fittest will survive.)

In modern urban jungles, this principle holds true — there’s always a reason behind horrendous traffic jams or poor public transport services, which only the fittest urban dwellers can survive without silently cursing under their breath.

But leaving your home and going places doesn’t have to feel like a daily battle. The sooner we achieve better urban transportation planning, the more collective value we’ll obtain.

By 2030, mobility innovation could radically transform everything from power systems to the use of public space, while simultaneously introducing a new city dynamism. In 50 metropolitan areas, home to 500 million people, integrated mobility systems could produce benefits, including improved safety and reduced pollution, worth up to $600 billion.


So how could (and should) a sustainable transportation system of the future look like? What technologies do we have in place to design such systems, and how feasible are different use cases? We answer these questions and more in this post.

What is urban transportation?

Urban transportation is the collection of means we use to transport passengers and goods into, out of, and within the city limits.

Effective urban transportation engineering is tough. Planners have to create optimal routes and supporting infrastructure for ever-growing municipalities, crowded by both personal and private vehicles. Plus, they have to work with private mobility companies entering the space.

What does it take to succeed? You need to accurately predict urban transportation demand and manage supply while staying profitable and ensuring satisfactory service levels.

Pressing urban transportation problems

A tiger has stripes and urban transportation is prone to disruption — every five-year-old will tell you that.

The complexity of urban transportation systems is proportionate to the size of the urban areas they serve. However, rising demand (on account of more people) isn’t always optimally met by increasing supply (adding more means of public and private transportation).

Due to that, several acute urban transportation problems remain unresolved:

  • Lack of multimodality. Transportation in urban areas is often fragmented. Passengers can’t easily switch between public, private, and shared modes of transportation. As a result, people are often dissatisfied with public transport options (leading to a decline in ridership) and use personal vehicles more (leading to more traffic jams and pollution).
  • Reduction in public transport ridership. This is prompted by many factors, including a transition to private vehicle ownership (in developing countries), the increasing availability of “shared” transportation services (in mature markets), and the global coronavirus pandemic (everywhere). All of these impact profitability.

In 2020, 65% of US public transit agencies cut services. This year, 4 out of 10 are considering additional cuts to close their budget gaps.

  • Public transport crowding. The pandemic has forced authorities to implement physical distancing rules and reduce public transport capacity. But in practice, these rules are not always observed during rush hour, prompting more passengers to use private transportation. Even before COVID-19, people chose to avoid public transport at rush hour and instead crowd the roads with cars and trucks.
  • Rising rates of congestion and pollution. Optimistic prognoses say that journeys made by green transport will overtake those by car by 2030. But this transition won’t happen in all regions. Many car-centric cities, the populations of which are steadily rising, will keep experiencing congestion issues and subsequent pollution. Because public transport is crowded, inconvenient, or unavailable, people will stay behind the wheel.
  • Rise of micro-mobility. Micro-mobility and shared transport address the previous two issues. At the same time, it’s a standalone transportation problem in urban areas: many cities lack proper urban mobility infrastructure, which is expensive to develop. For instance, Paris plans to spend over $325 million to convert 50 kilometers of car lanes into bicycle lanes. To justify such an investment, better visibility into micro-mobility and shared mobility use patterns is required.
  • Growth in last-mile deliveries. The boom of the eCommerce sector and subscription services accelerated the growth of last-mile deliveries. The US eCommerce market increased by 15% in 2020 and is expected to grow by an extra 16% YoY until 2025. Even more commercial vehicles are bound to hit the streets, yet city infrastructure is hardly prepared to accommodate such growth.

Learn more about emerging technology for optimizing last-mile deliveries

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Urban transportation planning: Four vectors for improvement

Life in cities with good public transport is better. McKinsey research suggests that a major city that takes advantage of seamless mobility will be able to move around 30% more people while cutting travel times by 10%.

But “seamless” is a rather vague description when it comes to an organism as complex as an urban transportation system.

To shed some light on the matter, our transportation team put a microscope to individual components of urban transportation systems. We identified the main vectors for improvement and technological solutions that you can add to your product development strategy to drive measurable outcomes.

Urban mobility solutions

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Curbing personal vehicle use

Having a car is amazing on some days and utterly frustrating on others. Parking can be expensive or non-existent. Road traffic can be soul-crushing, and vehicle ownership costs keep rising (including indirect costs).

For instance, in Los Angeles, the land allocated to parking exceeds the area of Manhattan. Converting this land for residential and public use could provide over a million people with new housing — another asset we all wish to own.

From a wider perspective, car-centric cities struggle with improving curb use, accelerating commercial deliveries, and battling air pollution.

During the pandemic, we literally got a breath of fresh air:

In Paris, a 70% reduction in toxic nitrogen oxides was reported, while satellite imagery showed nitrogen dioxide levels in Milan fell by about 40%. In the UK, road travel has decreased by as much as 73% and in London, toxic emissions at major roads and junctions fell by almost 50%.


Yet a future without cars is… futuristic. Collectively, humankind won’t all hop on e-scooters or fuel cell-powered buses within the next two decades.

Still, many urban planners are taking concrete and substantial steps towards reducing car dependence.

What can be done to prevent the continued domination of cars?

Urban public transportation systems will need to be refreshed and better integrated with emerging mobility as a service (MaaS) solutions. These two elements will be crucial to preventing the domination of single-occupancy cars. Likewise, infrastructure updates should be completed, such as adding e-vehicle infrastructure, expanding bike lanes, and adding extra public transport routes.

While the above is in the works, urban players should also look into:

  • Parking management. Specifically, solutions are needed that can a) improve curb use by optimizing on-street parking and preventing car idling, b) manage parking for shared assets, and c) optimize parking lots to prevent further crowding in hard-to-navigate areas and repurpose land in under-used areas.
  • Traffic management. Knowing when and why congestion occurs is essential for improving the urban transportation planning process. With the help of analytics, you can devise better controls to optimize public, private, and commercial traffic flows while progressively phasing out car use in certain areas, such as by introducing dynamic road pricing systems for different types of vehicles.

Learn how AI in urban planning helps to adapt transportation, traffic management, and delivery services to citizens’ needs

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Demand-responsive public transport

The rationale for owning a car changes a lot depending on who you ask.

Without a car, a person from the Midwest won’t be able to get to work or buy groceries, since public transportation is nonexistent.

For someone in Mexico City or Mumbai, owning a personal means of transport is the key to aspirational comfort — people buy a car as soon as they can afford one.

Residents of crowded cities like London, Paris, and New York aren’t so interested in buying a personal car unless they live in the suburbs and need to commute to a train or drive around the city outskirts.

But one thing unites all of these people: they can be persuaded to switch to public transportation.

Researchers have documented the paradox of obsessive reliance on cars:

When everyone wants to minimize their commute time and cost, the result is the worst-case scenario where the average commuting time is maximized.

Nod if you ever thought that going by car would be faster but then got stuck in the worst traffic jam ever.

Reduced travel time is the main reason most people use a car. Thus, if you can persuade more people that public transport is faster, ridership will increase and road traffic will be reduced.

  • In New York, a 15-minute shorter commute results in 25% higher rail service ridership.
  • When Amsterdam drivers perceive the travel time ratio between car and public transport as below 1.6, they are willing to go by public transport.

The bottom line: When an urban transportation system appears to be faster, people will use it over personal transport.

How to improve the speed and reliability of public transportation

You don’t need to convince every driver to go by car every day. If you did, then you’d have overly crowded public transport.

Instead, you have to strategically prompt alternative transportation options to balance demand and supply. That’s what a modern intelligent transportation system helps accomplish by:

  • Providing real-time traveler information services for route planning
  • Dynamically adjusting transport supply and schedules during peak hours
  • Pitching on-demand transportation options to remote and under-serviced areas
  • Prioritizing public transport over private cars during rush hour
  • Collecting and analyzing ridership data to plan new service routes

Learn more about implementing intelligent transportation systems

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For example, the Israel-based Optibus has already developed an AI-powered transportation network planning and scheduling system that helps identify the best-case servicing scenario. The cloud-based system uses real-life data to calculate the demand and profitability of different routes. It then proposes several routes and directs users towards under-used assets. Similar solutions can be purpose-built by our team.

Integrate shared transportation and micro-mobility

Let’s be honest: great urban public transportation systems are not enough to fulfill all transportation needs.

People will still want a private option. But private can be shared too.

Private mobility companies are not in direct competition with public transport. On the contrary, MaaS services can strengthen the quality, efficacy, and profitability of urban transport.

McKinsey found that cities investing heavily in better transport infrastructure, multi-modal integration, a consistent ticketing experience, and shared transportation options receive more riders across the board.

Cities with the highest change in transportation availability scores focused on shared transit projects
Urban Transportation Planning: How to Achieve Balance through Technology

Source: McKinsey — Building a transport system that works: Five insights from our 25-city report.

Common types of shared mobility services

  • Car-based modes — carsharing, on-demand rides, micro-transit
  • Micromobility — bikesharing, e-scooter sharing
  • Commute-based modes — ridesharing, carpooling, vanpooling
  • Autonomous urban mobility — shared self-driving vehicles, public shuttles
  • Urban air mobility (UAM) — emerging flying transport modes

Micromobility is a particularly promising niche, with ridership on the rise and high expected profitability. The pandemic rewrote our travel patterns. Instead of lengthy commutes, we work from home. Personal journeys got shorter too and are done by foot, bike, or scooter more often than before the pandemic.

It follows that shared micromobility use is on the rise. By 2030, the global micromobility market is expected to expand by almost five-fold and reach $195 billion. For cities, that’s both good and not-so-good news.

On the one hand, the transition to shared mobility can reduce personal vehicle ownership (and issues that come with that). On the other hand, better infrastructure, policies, and management of such projects are needed.

Similarly, many aspirational conversations are now taking place around urban air mobility (UAM) solutions — aka the flying electric “air taxis” we saw in the Fifth Element. Global consumers are understandably thrilled. Regulators? Not as much.

The cost of infrastructure, pilot training, and regulations can make such journeys rather expensive.

Operating costs could evolve for urban air mobility vehicles
Urban Transportation Planning: How to Achieve Balance through Technology

Source: McKinsey —To take off, flying vehicles first need places to land.

Autonomous shared vehicles, on the other hand, may hit the streets sooner. European regulators, in particular, are greenlighting a host of AV pilots. Many are prompting city authorities to explore opportunities to integrate with other modes of public transport.

For example, the SHOW project plans to deploy over 70 autonomous vehicles (cars, buses, and shuttles) in 21 European cities to assess how they can best be integrated with different urban transportation systems. Over four years, the team expects to transport over 1.5 million people and 350,000 containers of goods to understand the feasibility and impacts on public transportation and last-mile deliveries.

How to integrate new mobility services into urban transportation

Mobility as a service is an interwoven ecosystem in which every player, private or public, must work together. Without proper equilibrium, such systems will fail to produce value.

At present, the role of MaaS technology orchestrator is vacant in many markets, meaning there’s a solid opportunity for tech players to pursue.

A working MaaS solution needs to:

  • Support different transportation data standards
  • Integrate well with private and public APIs
  • Offer a convenient multimodal journey planner
  • Include integrated fare management and ticketing functionality
  • Securely collect and process users’ data to improve service levels

Learn more about developing MaaS mobility services and solutions

Read more

Provide e-mobility infrastructure

To reduce pollution and achieve net-zero targets, most cities will have to switch to electrified public transport and prepare for larger personal and commercial e-fleets.

Global EV sales from 2020–2030 Urban Transportation Planning: How to Achieve Balance through Technology

Source: IEA — Prospects for electric vehicle deployment

But exciting infrastructure is hardly sufficient for maintaining small but rapidly rising e-vehicle ownership.

To prepare the grounds for vehicle electrification, urban planners will have to start with investing in e-charging infrastructure. This is a niche where profits can be made by suppliers. In the US, charging services for electric vehicles could generate $15 billion in revenue and cost savings annually. Thus, private companies will likely get on board.

At the same time, public transport operators can offset some of the investment and new spending by proactively phasing out diesel and gas vehicles and switching to electric. For comparison, fuel costs for an e-bus are $0.99 per kilometer versus $1.19 per kilometer for gas and $1.05 for diesel. As battery costs further decrease, electric fleets will become even more profitable to operate.

Additionally, public authorities could share or rent out charging spaces to private MaaS companies with an e-fleet or logistics players to further recoup some costs.

Finally, private vehicle owners don’t mind paying extra for premium e-charging. As < a href=”” target=”_blank”>PwC found, 55% of e-vehicle owners will likely go for the nearest and fastest charger and pay extra for the time saved.

Apart from charging, both public and private operators will have to re-think route planning and optimization. The capacities of electric batteries are evolving. But it’s likely that many cities will have to harbor a mix of HEVs (hybrid electric vehicles), PHEVs (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles), and BEVs (battery electric vehicles) in the short term.

Vehicles in such mixed fleets will have different operating capacities, charging times, and charging requirements. To ensure smooth use, operations will need to adjust urban transportation planning.

How to optimize routes for e-transportation

Operating an electric fleet is different from operating a fleet of conventional vehicles and often requires fleet-wide transition planning.

Specifically, you’ll have to:

  • Simulate energy consumption across different routes
  • Factor in weather conditions (to determine heat and air conditioning use)
  • Determine the optimal battery size and charging locations
  • Estimate feasible route distances and schedules
  • Factor in expected battery reserve capacity and degradation

The above requires serious analytical groundwork. You’ll have to collect data from pilot deployments and also run advanced simulations to identify possible performance issues. For example, during a test in China, operators found that e-buses consumed 21% to 27% more energy when air conditioning was used. Field tests in India found that buses were driving at different average speeds across routes, which also created an asymmetry in charging needs.

Big data analytics and predictive modeling can help you perform initial simulations. Then algorithms can be connected to onboard e-vehicle systems to estimate energy use and provide further intelligence for route optimization.

Intellias recently helped an automotive company develop an intuitive onboard system for e-vehicle charging. Embedded into the car, the system continuously estimates energy use and builds routes based on the car’s capacity, adding charging stops when needed. Similar planners can be created for public transportation and commercial fleets.

Adding consistency and continuity to urban transport planning

Urban transportation is tightly integrated with other aspects of city life — planned construction work, major city events, scheduled commercial deliveries, and service provisioning.

So when something out of the ordinary happens — the city center is blocked off for a marathon — the carefully orchestrated transportation ecosystem reverts to survival of the fittest.

To be truly effective, urban transportation systems must be linked to connected infrastructure, public and private data sources, and other city management systems. Similarly, you should ensure that other members of the community — academic researchers, public policy planners, commercial companies, and budding startups — can access and contribute to the ecosystem.

Through standardized access to transport data, an open API ecosystem, and analytics-driven transport management planning, we can co-develop convenient, clean, and effective cities.

Contact Intellias to learn more about the technical engineering and consulting services we provide for urban transportation planning.

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