Navigating Tomorrow

How innovation can transform America’s urban landscape

The country’s growing metropolitan areas may become safer, more prosperous and easier to get around in

The country’s growing metropolitan areas may become safer, more prosperous and easier to get around in

On June 27, New York City’s subway finally hit the breaking point. The decades-old system for years had been experiencing mounting interruptions and malfunctions. In 2012, the subway had some 28,000 delays each month, and by early 2017 that figure exceeded 70,000. The worsening trend came to a head in late June, when the derailment of a southbound A train underneath Harlem prompted state officials to act. Just days after the accident, which left dozens injured, the governor declared a state of emergency and pledged $1 billion for upgrades.

New York City is not alone—urban transit is in dire straits nationwide. According to a 2013 Federal Transit Administration report, more than 40 percent of the country’s buses and 25 percent of rail transit are “in marginal or poor condition.” For many cities, however, the crisis offers an opportunity to do more than simply plug holes in a broken system. By working with organizations like Battelle to invest in digitally- focused solutions, communities can make transportation safer, more accessible, affordable and user-friendly. From integrated transit offerings to responsive traffic lights, technology could be the silver bullet to improve urban mobility.

Some basic math defines the problem. More and more people are moving to American cities. In the period from 2000 to 2010, the nation's urban population increased by over 12 percent. Today, more than 80 percent of Americans are urban dwellers, living in cities of all sizes, and the trend toward greater density will only continue. Mid-sized cities, for example, are expected to absorb much of the U.S.’s population expansion and grow at three times the rate of the rest of the country by 2050.

The result will be more and more people vying with each other to get around in cities. Americans now spend over 40 hours a year stuck in traffic. Public transportation options are strained as increasing numbers of people use them. From 1995 to 2013, American transit ridership grew by nearly 40 percent. In 2016 alone, Americans took over 10 billion trips on public transportation, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

ready for a system upgrade

The increased usage unfortunately hasn’t been matched with regular system investment. “We’ve been living off a trust fund,” said Jesse Berst, chairman of the Smart Cities Council. “Back in the 1960s and 1970s was the last time we invested in [infrastructure].” But cities are ready to change this—and eager to invest beyond traditional infrastructure upgrades to digital solutions.

The connectivity that comes from implementing these digital solutions can have many different applications. Driver assistance mechanisms, like forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking are increasingly common. Analytics are being used to understand patterns in human behavior. Digitization has allowed cities to create smartphone apps that integrate maps and predictive scheduling so users can monitor a diverse range of transportation offerings. Perhaps most notably, localities are deploying responsive infrastructure that communicates with vehicles to help reduce congestion.

“[This technology] could be vehicle

based, it could be on phones. All of

that is about how to have a more

efficient, effective, and safer

experience on the roadway.”

“[This technology] could

be vehicle based, it could

be on phones. All of that

is about how to have a

more efficient, effective,

and safer experience

on the roadway.”

– Deborah Hersman,

President and Chief Executive Officer, National Safety Council

Battelle is a leader in deploying such innovations. The organization uses its expertise in transportation and resilience to deliver intelligent transit services to commercial and government clients, including the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as well as state and local authorities. The organization blends behavioral research with data analytics to address urban mobility challenges. From focus groups to cloud- based GPS data collection to human-machine interface design, Battelle deploys a diverse toolbox to meet the needs of policymakers and practitioners in the transportation industry. All with an eye toward delivering human-centric solutions.

In just one example, Battelle helped implement systems in Ohio and Florida that integrated traditional transportation options, like buses, with rideshare and e-hailing services. They were also part of the team that helped their home city, Columbus, win the Smart City Challenge, a DoT-sponsored competition to help a city develop a transit system for the future.

Battelle’s other transit focus is rail safety, where it deploys two key technologies: Communication Based Train Control (CBTC) and Positive Train Control (PTC). CBTC facilitates better system control through connectivity between the train and the track, while PTC is a safety upgrade that can automatically stop a train to avoid a collision.

Progress comes from partnership

There are challenges to implementing these solutions. Government regulations may lag behind technology and municipalities must balance transit priorities with support from interested groups. You need to get buy-in, Berst said, both from within governments and among constituents. “How do I get departments to collaborate, when for the last 100 years they worked in their own silos?” he said, posing the key question for public officials. “And how do we get those internal stakeholders involved?”

Then there is the funding and actual deployment of smart transit innovations. Raising money is not a given for cash-strapped cities, and the performance and interoperability of the investments requires high-tech expertise and maintenance. Above all, education is crucial. “What we’re seeing is that a lot of the time when people have these technologies in their car, either they don’t know how to use them or don’t understand them. In passenger cars, 40 percent of the technologies are being turned off or deactivated,” said Deborah Hersman, president and chief executive officer of the National Safety Council. “We have to make sure that the technology is ready to come out and that it’s right, but also that users are ready to engage with it.”

click on an icon to learn more
about Battelle’s transportation technologies

click on an icon
to learn more
about Battelle’s

traffic lights

can monitor unsafe car activity and prioritize vehicles transporting emergency personnel on their way to help people

train control

is a safety technology that can automatically halt a train before it gets into an accident

v2v technology

can send alerts when other vehicles are too close and help prevent collisions

Successful deployment of these systems, however, can yield immense benefits, particularly for public safety. “Crashes are a major public health issue in the U.S.,” said Daniel McGehee, director of the National Advanced Driving Simulator Laboratories at the University of Iowa. “Last year, we killed over 40,000 people on our roads.” Vehicle accidents are overwhelmingly caused by human error. According to Battelle, over 90 percent of car crashes resulted from human factors, as did 40 percent of the rail accidents that occurred in 2016. “The overwhelming majority of crashes are when we’re inattentive, sleepy or impaired,” McGehee said. “They’re really not accidents.”

With technologies like forward collision warning and Positive Train Control, partially autonomous and connected vehicles can mitigate these factors. Battelle projects that vehicle-to- vehicle (V2V) technology, which allows cars to sense one another, can help avoid 80 percent of multi-vehicle crashes.

Smarter cities are safer cities

Technology also can help cities prepare for and respond more effectively when crashes occur. Governments can use traffic data to predict collisions and deploy first responders ahead of time. Smart infrastructure can move emergency personnel to a scene more quickly, said Hersman. There’s a device that’s “basically communicating with stop lights. Imagine an ambulance or fire engine coming down a road—they need a green signal in the direction they’re traveling,” she said. “As they’re approaching, they’ve got to turn those signals green so they’re not T-boning people in the intersection.”

Intelligent vehicles and infrastructure also make traveling simpler. E-hailing services offer mobility on demand. Single-payment cards give city residents access to all transport with a single piece of plastic, and digital tools let users check arrival times and connection options on most public transit systems. These features make traveling easier for all urban residents, especially the elderly, who may be unable to drive and may find it difficult to access traditional public transit.

“Better mobility can help bridge the

gap with economically disadvantaged

groups by improving access to jobs,

health care and education.”

“Better mobility can help

bridge the gap with

economically disadvantaged

groups by improving access

to jobs, health care


– Dan Berler,

Director of Transportation Solutions, Battelle

New technologies also offer the promise of reducing urban congestion. In Pittsburgh, for example, smart traffic lights reduced travel time by 25 percent and idling time by over 40 percent. Battelle predicts V2V technology can ultimately diminish congestion by 20 to 30 percent.

These innovations yield huge amounts of raw data. In Singapore, for example, the government is deploying sensors and cameras that will allow officials to track the movement of people in public spaces, as well as all local vehicles. The applications are vast if the raw numbers are mined effectively: The government could use the data to evaluate parking patterns, monitor how the elderly use transit systems or even predict the spread of disease. The data is also a research boon, offering insight into how people use and interact with the city and its systems—and a baseline for new smart-city solutions.

Better mobility leads to prosperity

Lastly, there are potentially vast economic benefits for individuals, businesses and economies as a whole. Only about a quarter of the current metropolitan workforce can get to a typical job in 90 minutes or less using transit systems, a fact that makes many urban jobs simply inaccessible to a large group of people. Lower-income Americans, who are more likely to rely on public transportation and are often further from the urban core, are particularly disadvantaged.

A number of studies correlate limited public transit access to poor economic outcomes, emphasizing the fact that efficient and accessible public transportation is critical for improving urban social and economic development. And congestion is bad for the economy at large. Trucks stuck in city traffic cost shippers some $30 million annually in operating costs and wasted fuel. The total annual cost of congestion is valued at around $120 billion.

And less traffic means a smaller environmental footprint. Congestion produces about 25 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions annually. The DoT projects that truck platooning (a technology that allows closer spacing on highways) alone could reduce truck CO2 emissions by 7 percent.

It’s been decades since American cities truly invested in the mobility of their citizens. But that is about to change—fueled by a revolution in how machines process data and interact with the world. “If we’re using this technology, it could be vehicle-based, it could be on phones,” Hersman said. “All of that is about how to have a more efficient, effective, and safer experience on the roadway.”