Megacities, transportation, and you

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Megacities will strive toward creating a sustainable environment by investing in innovative smart city concepts that foster green technologies and transport across all aspects of the city.” –Mohamed Mubarak, automotive and transportation group industry analyst with Frost & Sullivan

If you haven’t yet heard the term “megacity,” get used to it quickly, for it’s something that’s going to make big changes in the transportation world from here on out.

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“Megacities,” by the way, are defined as urban areas with a population of 10 million or more. Today, there are 11 areas with populations of 15 million or more and just five years from now, the world is projected to have 24 of them –with such dense communities creating new transportation trend lines, such as the demand for more maneuverable freight hauling capability within their borders.

“Urban growth is surging worldwide and currently, over half the world's population lives in cities,” notes Mohamed Mubarak, automotive and transportation group industry analyst with research firm Frost & Sullivan.

“Explosive urban population growth and sprawl pose a variety of challenges and opportunities in the way people move around for social and business needs,” he said. “The cities in developing economies will become the largest markets for existing mobility technologies while their developed counterparts will pressurize the personal mobility sector to reinvent itself into sustainable forms.”

Frost & Sullivan is also hosting a special analyst briefing this week on how transportation will be affected by these megacity trends.

Mubarak said the spatial expansion of cities and the resultant change in mobility patterns will foster f new modes of commuting and a broader shift towards eco-friendly transportation. On top of that, there will be more demand for “integrated mobility” and more regulations governing vehicular movement, he explained.

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It is to be noted that 10 of the 20 largest megacities will be in developing economies and the demand for personal mobility will be more pronounced in these countries as a result of their newly gained economic status,” Mubarak added.

“In developed economies, megacities will strive toward creating a sustainable environment by investing in innovative smart city concepts that foster green technologies and transport across all aspects of the city,” he noted.

And it’s not all about transportation, either. Urbanization expert Dr. Willfried Wienholt, for one, believes future urban development strategies must give greater consideration to the principle of sustainability as, between now and 2030, 90% of global population growth will occur in cities.

Wienholt’s research indicates that an additional two billion inhabitants will move into urban centers in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East during this period, putting a huge strain on infrastructure and the environment.

Consider water, for example. Cities already consume 60% of all drinking water worldwide, either directly or indirectly as water for raising food products. With regard to energy, the state of São Paulo—the largest urban area in South America—accounts for 60% of total energy consumption in Brazil.

“Suitable housing and access to clean drinking water for all, power supplies and transport systems that are as efficient and environmentally friendly as possible, and land use and construction projects that proceed in accordance with the principle of sustainability, will all be required,” said Wienholt.

[For fun, check out the trailer for the awful 1995 movie Judge Dredd starring Sylvester Stallone. The film, based on a popular comic book hero, puts the megacity in a more negative context; making it a place rife with crime and disorder, in need of a military-style police force.]

Transportation in particular will be strongly affected by all of this, Frost & Sullivan’s Mubarak said.

“There will be a strong and steady growth in demand for conventional vehicles in the developing economies whereas the cities of the developed economies will undergo a transformation, witnessing the trial of a series of personal mobility concepts ranging from bicycle hire programs to on demand personal mobility services on a larger scale,” he pointed out. “The vehicle ownership trends in these cities will see a higher adoption of bikes, electric vehicles, city-centric cars and other forms of compact motorized vehicles not seen before.”

Of course, making such wholesale transportation shifts as smooth as possible won’t be easy – especially when it comes to electric vehicles, as they’ll place increased demand on local utility grids that supply the power to charge them.

As a result, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) just recently created a new standard, J2836/1, to establish “use cases” for two-way communication between plug-in electric vehicles and the electric power grid, for energy transfer and other applications.

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"The biggest challenge for utilities is managing the grid during peak times, a time when energy is the most expensive and demand is greatest,” said Rich Scholer, HEV E/E systems engineer with Ford Motor Co., chairman of SAE International's hybrid task force, and sponsor of the new standard.

“As we add more plug-in electric vehicles to the grid, we're increasing our need for on-peak power and infrastructure,” he noted. “This standard will help enable consumers to charge their vehicles at off-peak hours and help utilities better manage the grids during peak hours, thus minimizing cost and grid impacts."

Scholer added that J2836/1 is the first in a series of five standards that are being developed by SAE International to address utility programs for plug-in electric vehicles.

Vehicle electrification is but one “side effect,” if you will, driven by the growth of megacities, noted Paul Mascarenas, a Ford vice president and general chairman of the 2010 SAE World Congress.

“Throughout human history, urban areas have attracted individuals seeking greater economic opportunity. As a city’s population grew, so did economic prosperity, which then attracted more individuals seeking greater opportunities,” he said in a speech at the group’s recent annual meeting. “And so the cycle continues.”

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Yet despite the promise of mass transit, telecommuting and other alternatives, the automobile has been and will continue to be a key driver of economic opportunity in the megacities of the 21st century, Mascarenas believes, However, while automobiles offer unique potential to drive economic development, they also present unique challenges.

Consider the megacities projected to be the two largest by 2015, he said: Jakarta, Indonesia, and Tokyo-Yokohama, Japan. In Indonesia, the average age is 27 years old and gross domestic product [GDP] per capita is about $4,000, steeped in a rich mix of languages and ethnic backgrounds. By contrast, Japan has one of the most homogeneous cultures in the world, with an average age of 44 and GDP per capita of about $32,000.

“In both Jakarta and Tokyo-Yokohama, air pollution is a critical concern,” Mascarenas explained. “Yet simply adding already available emission controls – let alone introducing technologies like electrification – would make the average automobile unaffordable for most potential buyers in Jakarta.”

Growth rates, age of infrastructure and geographic constraints also vary widely from one megacity to another, he added. Consider New York City, which is geographically constrained with a long-established infrastructure and a population growing at only about one-half percent per year. “The slow growth makes it difficult to radically alter the infrastructure to support new vehicle technology or alternative transportation solutions,” he said.

On the other hand, Shenzhen, China, is a young megacity with a growth rate of 3.7% per year and a rapidly expanding infrastructure. “This offers the potential to support new and alternative vehicle technologies – or to develop solutions that combine personal transportation with mass public transit,” Mascarenas noted.

“So the question is, will emerging markets in the 21st century simply follow the same path that mature markets followed in the 20th century? Perhaps at an accelerated pace?” he asked. “Or will they follow a different path entirely?”

These are but some of the complex challenges that will impact transportation as megacities evolve – and the solutions to them won’t be simple, either.

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