Smart Cities: Cars, Roads & Mobility

October 6th, 2020

This is the third blog post in a series on “Smart Cities and Urban Environments” and the implications for networks & telecoms. About 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas; for developed OECD countries the figure is about 80%. Urbanisation is good for economic and even environmental reasons, but brings challenges for transport, roads and personal mobility*.

*Readers should note that “mobility” has a different meaning in a smart-city context to that in normal telecoms usage. Mobility here refers to human mobility, vehicles and transport systems – not mobile networks and phones themselves.


Municipal authorities face a growing set of challenges around mobility of citizens and visitors to their cities. Although managing traffic congestion and road safety is not new, there is now a growing emphasis on optimising road use and transit systems for overall air quality, CO2 emissions and productivity. There are varying levels of integration and support for “multi-modal” smart city systems for mobility, allowing people to combine multiple transport choices into efficient end-to-end journeys.

For city authorities, improved network connectivity, IoT and data analytics enable improved decision-making, both in real-time for day-to-day traffic and transit operational measures, and over long-term periods consistent with planning and investment cycles for cities’ mobility infrastructure.

At the same time, technology evolution is enhancing transport operational models such as shared-use assets, while creating new modes of mobility such as electric vehicles (EV) and even drone-based air taxis. Wireless and fibre network access is central to all of this – whether that uses 4G, 5G, LPWAN or other technologies.

In 2020, urban mobility has faced additional challenges because of the pandemic, with transit shutdowns, empty urban cores, more delivery drivers and an expectation that the “new normal” that emerges will feature a very different landscape for living, work, travel and personal mobility.

Growing range of urban mobility options

A decade ago, the early smart city mobility projects had to deal with only a limited number of transport modes – private cars, public bus and metro-train transit, plus pedestrians, a few cyclists and taxis. A “smart” mobility strategy might have just consisted of urban-edge “park and ride” facilities, where commuters left their cars and continued into the city-centre by bus. There were relatively few touch-points with networks and wireless technology.

But over the last few years, there has been an acceleration in mobility options. While this potentially enables a much richer and more flexible landscape for transport, the constant change has made the task harder for both municipalities creating a smart city mobility strategy, and the network and IT providers developing the technical platforms needed.

Some of the recent individual trends have included:

  • Extension of existing metro rail systems, bus networks and tram routes. Typically, newer networks have digital sign-boards, integration with route-finding apps, and sometimes on-board Wi-Fi for passengers.
  • Wide use of GPS-based apps and other systems for mapping and navigation, allowing users to see differences in travel-time and costs, across multiple mobility options. These often tie into public transport real-time data via APIs.
  • Various mechanisms for controlling private car usage and traffic congestion, including permits, tolls, metered flows and automated charging zones.
  • Rapidly accelerating growth of e-scooters and e-bikes, including shared-usage schemes. These include a mix of municipal-owned and private schemes.
  • Greater electrification of cars, buses and goods vehicles, including the establishment of charging points and EV-only roads or lanes.
  • Encouragement of cycling, with protected cycle lanes, safer parking, and a wide array of bike-share systems with connected terminals.
  • The broad adoption of independent app-based ride-hailing systems such as Uber and Bolt, although these have often been opposed by local authorities.
  • Wide use of sensor and camera networks, enabling real-time views of traffic and pollution levels, and the exposure of data for various navigation applications.

Looking to the future, we can expect that most smart city projects will look to embrace and support autonomous driving when it becomes feasible. Some authorities are already pioneering trials of self-driving cars and buses, especially if they have key technology innovators based locally. This brings a plethora of intersecting issues – the potential for safer roads and less congestion, together with a need for new networking and oversight infrastructure.

Many municipalities will also want an early view of how such changes to mobility might affect the urban landscape more broadly – for example whether fewer car-parks are needed, whether autonomous cars displace usage of other forms of public transport, how smart mobility affects choices of where to live and work, or whether “mobile bedrooms” might change the nature of inter-city travel and tourism.

Smart city connectivity for mobility

The majority of smart city transport innovations described have a heavy reliance on connectivity and improved network availability. The static road infrastructure itself – traffic signals at junctions, display boards, traffic-monitoring sensors and cameras, toll-booths, lighting, EV charging stations, parking meters and so on – requires secure and reliable networks, delivered either via fixed or wireless connections. Increasingly, these are forming part of interconnected ITS (Intelligent Transport System) networks, which often have their own technical standards and dedicated spectrum.

Municipal transit vehicles such as buses and trams have many use-cases for mobile connectivity, from telemetry to security cameras, and broadband connections for passenger Wi-Fi. Authorities want to be able to monitor exact vehicle positions to regulate adherence to schedules, provide accurate arrival-time estimates for waiting passengers, and also view mechanical indicators for preventative maintenance, driver-behaviour and energy management. Today, many are connected with public 4G LTE networks, but we can expect upgrades in 5G in future years. Some cities are also considering their own private cellular networks, although most such efforts are still at a testbed stage.

The rise of smartphones and mobile apps has paralleled – and often directly enabled - the evolution of new transport options. Citizens book ride-share vehicles, consult mapping and navigation tools and interact with smart city authorities via their personal mobile devices – usually connected via public MNOs’ networks, as city-wide Wi-Fi is very rare, especially in suburbs.

Delivery drivers and shared-mobility systems such as bikes and scooters also usually rely on public networks. This means that ubiquitous  public network coverage, across all major providers, is essential to the efficient functioning of the overall mobility system.

The pandemic and a future “new normal” for mobility

2020 has seen the smart city mobility paradigm change again. Many cities globally have been put into lockdown situations, with use of public transport shut down or severely limited. Authorities have varied in their permissions for use of private cars.

Mobility-related behaviours – and the implications for networks – have shifted radically. Fewer people are commuting, with many continuing to work from home. Shopping and entertainment patterns have changed hugely, as well as tourism. Meanwhile, most cities have seen a huge upsurge in delivery drivers – both light trucks delivering parcels and groceries, and bikes collecting food and other small deliveries. These have become critically-important elements of urban living in the pandemic, but remain outside the scope of most authorities’ control or focus from a mobility point of view.

As the situation evolves with the arrival of 2021, smart city mobility technologies will come to the fore in new ways again. We can expect social-distancing monitoring and contact-tracing to be integrated into public transit technology and communications systems. The use of personal mobile devices and apps may rise even further, to avoid the need for public touchscreens used for municipal mobility ticketing and information.

At the same time, economic challenges and reduced passenger numbers may put limits on investment affordability – especially rapid upgrades to 5G, or some of the more ambitious aims around wholesale/neutral private municipal infrastructure. That said, where specific governments are looking at economic stimulus ideas – especially if they can blend transport connectivity with fibre and mobile for healthcare, education or public safety – there could be additional opportunities emerging in future.

The overall outcome of the pandemic for urban transport is still unpredictable – and will probably vary according to each city’s circumstances, resources and priorities. But this will itself ultimately put a premium on network flexibility – whether than means dark fibre, or open and virtualised public or private mobile networks.

Conclusion: What does this mean for telecoms?

Smart cities should be fertile grounds for both conventional telecom operators and new-entrant network providers, with mobility management a specific focus of many connectivity solutions.

Unlike some smart-city application domains, transportation is clearly one which straddles both public networks – especially citizens’ use of mobile apps – and private/local infrastructure. The dynamic “in motion” nature of mobility also implies a major focus on 4G/5G cellular networks, although fibre is also critical for fixed infrastructure elements along roadsides and pavements.

There is also considerable network innovation and deployment occurring for dedicated metropolitan Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS), which is often outside of the normal telecoms industry - although they potentially intersect with commercial mobile networks, with C-V2X technology evolution.

Today, urban road networks often have telcos’ fibre networks buried in ducts underneath them, or alongside on poles, with rights-of-way granted by local authorities. These networks serve the usual carrier retail and wholesale broadband markets, but also include MNOs’ backhaul and fronthaul needs. Given enough “joined-up thinking”, the critical reliance of the city’s mobility solutions on those same public networks should encourage a more relaxed attitude to fibre trenching and siting of connectivity assets such as cell-towers and antennas.

While Disruptive Analysis expects long-distance transport networks (including road and rail operators) to become major players in fibre deployment, with wholesale as well as internal use, this may not be replicated in urban areas. Most cities have existing commercial fixed telecom providers, and it is unclear that municipalities have the financial or operational scale, or regulatory support, to compete head-to-head.

However, there is significantly greater opportunity in the wireless space, where smart city solutions can incorporate a mix of private cellular, Wi-Fi and LPWAN technologies for a variety of use-cases. These access networks will themselves require backhaul, packet and transport infrastructure – likely a mix of optical and high-capacity wireless – able to deliver appropriate bandwidth and latency characteristics.

Wireless smart cities may initially be oriented towards IoT use-cases such as environmental monitoring and waste-management, as well as private 4G/5G for health and education scenarios. It seems likely that such models could also extend to city-run mobility and road-management applications as well.