Applying Military Precision to Solving Cities’ Traffic Problems
Pick two U.S. Army soldiers at random. While their uniforms look very similar, their experiences in those uniforms are likely very different. That was certainly the case for us. After completing Basic Training, Juan was selected to work in the Pentagon as a Systems Analyst, and Eliseo spent four years as a Medical Specialist.
One of us was responsible for using technologies to move personnel all over the world. The other was responsible for keeping our comrades healthy wherever they were in the world. But we both learned how to leverage the military’s reliance on the combination of people, processes and technologies to accomplish our missions, whether in the field or in the halls of the Pentagon. We believe we can apply those three elements to solve the complex transportation issues that have plagued our cities for decades.
There are too many cars, trucks, buses, bicycles and electric scooters on the roads and sidewalks, all jostling for access to too little curbside space.
Too Many Vehicles, Not Enough Curbsides
The U.S. population is expected to grow about one percent annually, but this growth won’t be uniform nationwide. By 2030, 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities, up from about 50 percent today1. The nation’s infrastructure cannot support this steady migration of people (and their vehicles) to cities.
Traffic congestion is a daily issue in many cities, and can cost between two-to-four percent of national GDP when you consider factors such as lost time, wasted fuel, and the increased cost of doing business. Additionally, traffic is a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions that damage the environment and create public-health risks. We know the root cause of these problems: there are too many cars, trucks, buses, bicycles and electric scooters on the roads and sidewalks, all jostling for access to too little curbside space.
Yet, there’s a flip side.
As Deloitte points out in its “2019 Deloitte City Mobility Index,” transportation plays an essential role in supporting and growing a city’s economy and the quality of life for residents. The annual report examines how municipal officials are using cutting-edge technologies like cloud computing, the Internet of Things, A.I. and powerful data collection and analytics tools to create mobility solutions that will hasten the construction of so-called “smart cities.”
Not surprisingly, opportunities abound for private sector companies that are creating innovative products and services designed to provide affordable, reliable transportation options to all residents. Investments in new mobility start-ups have increased significantly. Since 2010, automotive OEMs, suppliers, and new entrants such as tech players and venture capitalists have poured $220 billion into the smart mobility ecosystem2.
However, there is a general lack of coordination, communication and collaboration among the ever-growing number of government agencies and businesses that stunts their efforts to reduce traffic congestion, pollution and make streets safer for motorists and pedestrians.
Consider how popular ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft have become over the last decade. They have revolutionized mobility by enabling their users to summon cars to pick them up with a couple taps on their smartphones. However, these vehicles have also had a significant impact on congestion, due largely to the additional miles these drivers spend commuting to city centers, driving between fares, and blocking traffic when stopping to pick up or drop off passengers. On top of that, we’re told fully autonomous cars will be on the streets in the near future, but that won’t alleviate the congestion either.
We believe that applying what we learned during our military service of how to effectively integrate people, processes and technologies can bring all parties together to overcome urban transportation and mobility challenges.
Breaking Down Silos and Fiefdoms
We realize it’s a tall order. The bigger the city, the more government bodies, transportation agencies and regulators, and private operators that must work with one another, and the private sector. A city typically has its own transit authority, and so do the surrounding areas. Meanwhile private operators compete with one another, and in some instances, with mass transit options.
We understand just how difficult it can be to get so many people and organizations in disparate locations and with different, sometimes competing, goals to work together. Eliseo saw this first-hand while he was involved in operations that required establishing medical stations in remote, even treacherous, regions of the world. Success required getting multiple units working together to accomplish in a matter of days what would the “civilian world” take months to complete.
Building a smart city is not a military operation. However, we know that applying the military’s approach to personnel movement, logistics management, and infrastructure construction can alleviate the daily frustrations so many people experience when trying to get from Point A to Point B.
For example, coordinating timetables among the various mass transit services to ensure that buses consistently drop off passengers at rail or shuttle stops shortly before their trains, subways and trams depart will encourage more people to use mass transit.
Additionally, private transportation services efficiently generate enormous data sets about trips. Such data can be helpful to agencies trying to manage system performance. Connected and automated vehicles will add even more information. Providing this data to public agencies will help them further improve traffic flow (while still protecting people’s privacy).
Powerful mobile devices, high-speed communications networks, satellite navigation systems, cloud computing, automation -- these are just some of the cutting-edge technologies the military has implemented to streamline operations and protect soldiers.
Juan served four years as a Systems Analyst in the Pentagon, and found himself drawn to the field of IT system automation. He learned how to help people become more productive by taking some of their work, particularly repetitive manual processes, off their hands. For example, he used automation technologies to compile complex reports in a matter of minutes that used to take four or five people 15 days to complete.
We want to bring these technologies to the transportation sector, which lags behind other industries in implementing cloud computing, the Internet of Things (IoT), automation, and powerful mobile devices, apps and communications networks. Look at the model the city of Helsinki is setting with its on-going effort to completely digitize its public-transit systems. The city and its private sector partners are developing an on-demand mobility program that aims to eliminate the need for any residents to own personal vehicles by 2025. People will be able to use mobile apps to book and pay in one click for any trip by bus, train, taxi, bicycle, and/or car sharing service. No more opening and closing multiple apps, juggling payment options, or struggling with route planning.
If you’re a parking facility owner or operator, consider using technology available today to help ride-hailing company drivers get off the streets by allowing them to reserve parking and easily navigate to spaces on their Uber or Lyft driver mobile apps. They can then use their devices’ Bluetooth connections to enter the facility, pay (perhaps at a discount), and quickly leave when summoned by customers. The entire process is automated and immediate; there is no need to pull out a debit/credit card, have cash on hand, or interact with a parking attendant. This will alleviate traffic congestion, help drivers reduce the wear and tear on their cars, and enable you to grow your business by filling otherwise unused spaces.
A smart city mobility hub should not only serve the ride-sharing industry, but all vehicles and their drivers and passengers. Parking asset owners can address this issue by cordoning off areas in their lots and garages and turning them into charging and servicing hubs. Why limit these areas to scooters and bikes? Parking garages can become hubs for charging electric vehicles, waystations for delivery trucks, and even landing areas for delivery drones.
Commitment to Serve
The call we both felt to enlist in the Army was not a promise to fight our enemies, but to serve our fellow Americans, our country, and anyone who needed our help anywhere in the world. When a natural disaster like Hurricane Dorian strikes at home or abroad, the U.S. military has always played a lead role in international rescue, recovery and rebuilding efforts.
Similarly, the transportation industry should see the opportunity before it as one to serve communities, not just generate new revenue streams. Eliminating traffic congestion will make our streets safer, reduce air pollution and enable the realization of the promise that smart cities hold for fast, affordable transportation options to all residents.
Juan Rodriguez is CEO and co-founder and Eliseo Diaz is CRO and co-founder of FlashParking (https://www.flashparking.com). They can be reached as follows: juanrodriguez@FlashParking.com and eliseo.diaz@FlashParking.com
1Shannon Bouton, Stefan M. Knupfer, Ivan Mihov, and Steven Swartz, “Urban mobility at a tipping point”, McKinsey & Company, Sept. 2015. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability/our-insights/urban-mobility-at-a-tipping-point
2Daniel Holland-Letz, Matthias Kässer, Benedikt Kloss, and Thibaut Müller, “Start me up: Where mobility investments are going”, McKinsey & Company, April 2019. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/automotive-and-assembly/our-insights/start-me-up-where-mobility-investments-are-going