Clever through the city

Smart mobility has been given top priority in China. Digital systems in megacities help keep traffic flowing and protect inhabitants from smog. Sensors and data enable ever greater mobility diversification and allow inhabitants to cleverly combine different transportation options – for example in Nanjing.

Zheng Lin’s digital map looks like a living organism: streets blink, are sometimes colored red, at others yellow. Green clouds appear on the monitor as if by magic, then disappear once again. Some red points glow ominously. A typical morning in Nanjing. Residents of the Chinese megalopolis are traveling to work, where they commute from the suburbs to the center of town. “Traffic jams and other disruptions are impossible to fully eliminate,” says Mr. Lin, vice-director of Nanjing’s Development and Reform Commission. “But our work helps keep them to a minimum.”

The conurbation in the east of the country is home to 8.23 million people. Nanjing sees itself as a megacity that wants to combine two things: growth and quality of life. Can it be done? More than a million private cars are registered here, and the number is growing. Then come 10,000 taxis and 7,000 buses. The city freeway network is 230 kilometers long. How can such a leviathan be kept in motion?

Control room in the Beijing Traffic Management Center.

Since 2009, Nanjing has focused on the concept of Smart Mobility: All taxis and buses have sensors on board that send traffic data to the command center. Private vehicles also communicate with infrastructure. Almost every resident of Nanjing carries a Travel Card with RFID technology that transmits information about their location and the flow of traffic. Approximately 100 million data sets are sent to the transportation command center every day, which are then used to create road maps based on Big Data solutions. These are the blinking digital city maps that appear on Zheng Lin’s monitor. His job is to keep a watchful eye over the new technology and its effect.

Effective and elegant

Smart Mobility has a clear goal: Residents should look beyond their private cars for mobility, maybe take a bus, carpool or ride a bike. But the aim is to cleverly combine transportation options. “We wondered how we could motivate people limit car usage to those situations where no other options were available,” says Zheng Lin. Appeal to their conscience? Impose restrictions? “We think it is more intelligent to have people choose an alternative because they can see the benefits for themselves.”

Positive education only works in Nanjing thanks to a unique city app, which more than two million residents now use. MyNanjing guides people through the turbulent and complex transportation system, using real-time data and detailed suggestions for transportation alternatives. Walk a bit and then take a bus, take a quick hop on a bicycle – and a hybrid car from the rideshare program is waiting at the corner to take you to the office. It sounds complicated, but when the bus is on time, the shared bicycle is where it should be and traffic is flowing smoothly in the carpool lane, the mobility mix is not merely feasible but also effective and elegant.

Nanjing is a pioneer in China, with many other cities following its lead. Currently 200 pilot cities are working on Smart Mobility concepts. The dynamic growth is born out of necessity: Six out of ten Chinese now live in urban areas, which is double the number from 1995. The trend shows no sign of letting up: In 2018, 20 million people will move from the countryside to cities, creating traffic jams and smog; the government wants to do something about it. China has no other option besides Smart Mobility.

Lots of money for ambitious goals

The government is investing a lot of money: The state is supporting the technologies of the future, such as autonomous vehicles or the 5G communication network – a mobile communication solution with enough capacity for the countless networks formed when vehicles, Travel Cards and infrastructure communicate with one another. “The compulsory sales quotas for electric vehicles is also an illustration of the Chinese government’s commitment to making future transportation more efficient and environmentally friendly,” says Andreas Goller from the Delegation of German Industry and Commerce in China – and points out an attractive add-on effect for the country: While Europe and the United States are only expanding slowly into these emerging fields, Chinese government support means that certain development phases can simply be skipped. One example is commercial viability in terms of price and demand. Economists refer to the process as leapfrogging. China is simply leaving out a few steps – and thus improving the country’s strategic positioning in these key industries.

Charging an electric delivery vehicle at a local packet collection station.

Nevertheless, the Chinese way of doing things has some side effect, such as data protection problems: “Many Chinese consumers are simply not worried about it,” says Andreas Goller. Many frequently use the apps to organize all aspects of their lives. In doing so, they are producing the exact data needed to generate smart concepts – but it can also be used for surveillance. A new cyber-security law has been in effect since 2017 and forces private companies to take on more responsibility for data protection. However, the government is a huge collector of data. By 2020 a Social Credit System will be in place to evaluate the Chinese, AAA will be granted to top-class citizens and anyone who can maintain the grade will be rewarded. The lowest grade is D, where punishment looms. The evaluations are carried out using the digital data tracks the Chinese leave behind– as consumers, users or when travelling.
However, it would be wrong to condemn the Chinese agenda. The variety of approaches is enormous, and some are groundbreaking – such as the Green City concept, a planned suburb for Chengdu, a city of 14 million people in western China. The suburb will be home to 80,000 people but the planners guarantee all areas in the city are within a 15-minute walk of one another. Logistics and mobility there will use completely new vehicle types, including electric transporters, delivery drones and autonomous shopping carts. Anyone thinking further quickly realizes that vehicle fleets in the megacities of the future will be more varied than ever before and data-supported mobility solutions will be essential. The increasingly electric automobile will maintain its place, even as alternative transportation options become more popular. In China, some of the future is already here.

Photos: "Smart and Connected Mobility in the Szechuan Basin", AHK Greater China, Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMUB)