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Smart City Technology can Address Urban Mobility Challenges Head-on


Smart city technology is helping to solve urban mobility challenges such as traffic congestion and traffic safety. But when will smart city technology become integral to city projects rather than a novel experiment?

SANTA CLARA – Over the next several decades, cities are on track to expand substantially.

Generating jobs, diverse economies and hubs of social and professional activity, ballooning urban populations also create a host of problems for city dwellers and visitors, from traffic congestion and energy efficiency, to public safety concerns, infrastructure breakdowns and unequal access to services.

Today, 55% of the world’s population lives in cities; that number is expected to increase to 68% by 2050, according to data from the United Nations. This continued growth is likely to exacerbate many of the challenges of today’s city living.

A particularly vexing concern: urban mobility challenges, which encompass transportation, traffic congestion, public safety and roadway efficiency. These complications contribute to fatalities and environmental problems.

Approximately 1.35 million people die each year as a result of traffic crashes, according to the World Health Organization. About 50% of car accident fatalities involve drivers; 17%, passengers; 16% pedestrians, and 14% are cyclists. And consider, too, the environmental toll of commuting According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, transportation was responsible for nearly 30% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2017.

Experts on urban planning, transportation and smart city technology recently gathered at IoT World to discuss how technology can address these worrisome urban issues. Exploiting Internet of Things (IoT)-connected devices, and using the data insights provided by IoT, artificial intelligence and other technologies, can address some of the thorniest of smart city challenges, experts agreed, while noting that the transition to the next era of smart cities is a work in progress.

Solving mobility challenges with artificial intelligence, IoT

Pedestrian safety is a natural fit for smart city technology. As populations increase and augment urban mobility challenges, data insights can play a key role in preventing accidents. Consider the city of San Jose, which has piloted a program to understand and better prevent traffic accidents.

“We’re doing a pilot with computer vision and artificial intelligence,” said Dolan Beckel, director of civic innovation and digital strategy for the city of San Jose. “We took our three most busy intersections and we’re . . . look[ing] not only at accidents but near misses.” The goal is to extend the project to more extensive deployments.

Optimization of traffic signals also enables emergency vehicles to operate far more efficiently, Beckel explained.

“We are a very spread-out city,” Beckel said. “We have a long way to go between police departments and the person who got hit by a car. Over 1,000 intersections now have vehicle-to-infrastructure communications. When a fire truck now gets dispatched, and gets close to an intersection, all the lights turn red for the cars, and the traffic lights now turn green for the fire truck. Prior to that, trucks were using flashlights and strobing the signal to try and get it to change for them.”

Using data insight to address smart city challenges

With IoT, traffic signals can also dynamically respond to their environments rather than simply default to a set time for a passenger walk signal. In the past, traffic signals couldn’t account for varying pedestrian speeds: The elderly or parents walking with a stroller may cross an intersection at a different speed than a younger pedestrian. Fiber optic lines, combined with IoT-enabled sensors in Santa Clara County, optimize traffic signal times so that pedestrians have time to cross at their registered speed, explained Ananth Prasad, a principal engineer for Santa Clara County. Signals turn green efficiently so cars spend less time idling at a red light. This is an example of how Santa Clara uses edge data to optimize car traffic and ensure pedestrian and bike safety.

Santa Clara also uses cloud-based data to optimize traffic during peak times. Video from highway cameras is analyzed in the county's traffic cloud-based operations center, Prasad explained. While the county used to provide a templated traffic plan for morning, afternoon and evening commutes, Santa Clara can today use its video data to provide more dynamic traffic estimates.

“We can use video analytics to get traffic counts and patterns,” he said. “It opened our eyes to how the traffic patterns [operate].”

Prasad noted that the data lags about five minutes behind real time, so the county is working at the edge to predictively estimate commute times.

"Video analytics...opened our eyes to the traffic patterns." -Ananth Prasad, Principal Engineer, Santa Clara County

When commuters have the ability to use that data to make smarter decisions about the best commute time, such as leaving 20 minutes earlier or later, they can shorten commutes and reduce emissions from idling cars.

Yet another technology, 5G, the next generation wireless standard that provides great networking speed and performance, enables connected traffic lights and big data insights enable real-time signal response and predictive traffic patterns.

Public-private partnerships fuel smart city projects—if incrementally

According to Deloitte, more than 1,000 smart city pilot projects are in progress or under construction worldwide. Spending on smart cities initiatives will reach $95.8 billion in 2019, according to analysts at International Data Corp. That's a 17.7% increase over 2018.

But even as overall smart city funding increases, communities struggle to justify smart city projects. Many projects are launched as pilots, and funded through public-private partnerships, but then may fizzle before they become integrated into city operations.

“Public-private partnerships work in those infrastructure situations where a private actor can come in and do a pilot for free or at low cost,” said Tony Battalla, chief technology officer and head of IT for San Leandro, Calif., in a panel on the role of public-private partnerships in smart city development. “But the use cases haven’t materialized at a grand scale. We just aren’t there yet. We’re still at those base hits.”

"The use cases haven't materialized at a grand scale. We're still at those base hits." -Tony Batalla, CTO and Head of IT, City of San Leandro

The goal, say experts, is to generate incremental momentum and then capitalize on small wins.

“You don’t need to knock it out of the park right away,” said Eric Hembree, director of IoT at an IT and supply chain services company, and another IoT World panelist. “You start to get some headwinds from the community, from incremental investors on rolling out a full environment. But it all starts with, ‘Where can we get some incremental funding, and how can we leverage the partnerships that are out there?’”

According to a recent McKinsey report on smart cities, even incremental smart city development can have significant impact.

“Smart technologies can reduce fatalities by 8–10 percent, accelerate emergency response times by 20–35 percent, shave the average commute time by 15–20 percent, reduce the disease burden by 8–15 percent, lower greenhouse gas emissions by 10–15 percent, and reduce water consumption by 20–30 percent,” according to a June 2018 McKinsey Global Institute Report.

Smart city technology needs to be institutionalized into city projects

While smart city technology has wended its way into projects, people, processes and technology are still hurdles to wider adoption. Indeed, the McKinsey Global Institute Report noted, “Even the most cutting-edge and ambitious smart cities on the planet still have a long way to go.”

Consider technology integration issues. Planners in San Jose believe the city needs a unified technology environment from which to manage smart city initiatives. At the same time, no single provider will be able to supply that environment, posing potential interoperability challenges.

"Even the most cutting-edge and ambitious smart cities on the planet still have a long way to go." -McKinsey Global Institute Report, June 2018

“Ultimately, the city will need a city operating system, a city API [application programming interface]. Everyone is realizing that there is a lot of collaboration needed, and there isn’t an ability for one private-sector player to be the technology platform for the city to interoperate with all the things we want to achieve.”

Batalla said that most cities fail to see smart city projects as infrastructure upgrades. The focus on the shiny technology can marginalize smart city projects.

“Every time I bring a smart city project, [city officials] are going to see it as a tech thing,” Batalla said. “Until smart cities become a core thing that the public works team is doing as part of the project, until you get there, you don’t scale.”

Lauren Horwitz

Lauren Horwitz is the managing editor of, where she covers the IT infrastructure market and develops content strategy. Previously, Horwitz was a senior executive editor in the Business Applications and Architecture group at TechTarget;, a senior editor at Cutter Consortium, an IT research firm; and an editor at the American Prospect, a political journal. She has received awards from American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), a min Best of the Web award and the Kimmerling Prize for best graduate paper for her editing work on the journal article "The Fluid Jurisprudence of Israel's Emergency Powers.”