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Virus pandemic to speed up smart-city visions?

Anja Steinbuch
June 2, 2020

The pandemic lockdowns have shown how much healthier city life could be without clogged streets, deafening noise and polluted air. But will the virus boost efforts for greener cities? The technology is already there.

Urban Skyfarm - Konzeptuelles Prototyp für Seoul
Image: aprilli.com

The pandemic has achieved what climate activists and green technology campaigners have not even dared to dream so far: virtually empty city streets, clean air to breath and no airplanes in the skies.

According to the latest data from Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, Germany's three biggest cities saw their traffic fall by more than a third during the weeks in which lockdown measures were imposed in March, April and May, significantly reducing both rush-hour traffic congestions and CO2 emissions.

With sweeping stay-at-home orders now gradually being relaxed in Germany and elsewhere, authorities all over the world are wondering whether the pre-COVID-19 traffic madness will return to their cities or if there's an alternative that can make them healthier, greener and a lot smarter than previously.

Smart traffic lights 

Michael Ganser, an engineer with German telematics systems provider Kapsch TrafficCom, believes there's a big opportunity for city planners to transform inner-city transportation in line with smarter principles, including traffic control and information, smart parking management, street-usage fees and what he calls pop-up bicycle lanes aimed at encouraging people to leave their cars at home

"A more intelligent steering of traffic lights alone could reduce street congestion by 25%," he told DW, and argued that digital technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and big data processing could bring about a significant improvement at relatively small cost.

"All new cars are already outfitted with smart tools, and mobile phones boast the necessary tracking features. All it now takes is an upgrade to the existing traffic infrastructure," he says.

A new bicycle lane set up during the lockdown in Berlin
Less crowded streets as a result of smarter traffic management could free up space for additional bicycle lanes and for pedestrians, subsequently lowering pollution and greenhouse gas emissionsImage: Imago Images/K. M. Höfer

To begin with, Ganser wants to establish "adaptive" traffic-lights management systems in German cities that quickly react to specific traffic situations and change traffic flows.

The company he works for has successfully launched such systems in Madrid, Mumbai and Quito, and at a cost of just about €2.50 ($2.78) per citizen. Operating the system will cost these cities another €1 per person and year, Ganser says.

At the same time, however, authorities would save up to €500 per person and year due to lowering congestion-related costs by 25%, he adds.   

The savings could even be higher, he claims, if smart traffic lights would be allowed to relay routing options back into passenger-car systems. "This would cut traffic jams in half, and save cities about €1,000 per person and year," says Ganser.

Modern traffic-management systems, also known as telematics systems, would basically finance themselves, the German engineer argues, because imminent reductions in CO2 emissions would automatically lead to fewer carbon certificates that cities would have to buy under existing or planned carbon trading schemes.

Freeing up the data

Martin Eldracher shares Ganser's belief that the current virus pandemic could possibly provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for speeding up the introduction of digital technologies aimed at improving our lives. 

The senior managing partner of German IT-consultancy DXC Technology, considers monitoring current social-distancing guidelines as one of the most imminent areas of using digital technology during the pandemic. Observing the rules at workplaces, he cites as an example, could be "facilitated" through wearable sensors sounding distance alarms.

Moreover, facial scanning for body temperature, but without identity recognition, could improve infection control at railway stations and at events where many people come together such as concerts.

The digital infrastructure, of course, needs to be in place, Eldracher stresses, and laments patchy networks in many German cities and communities that are still holding up digital developments.

The DXC Technology CEO has a vision of a post-COVID-19 digital Germany that many will find breathtaking, if not revolutionary, for a country frequently mocked as a bureaucratic nightmare, and one with the toughest of data privacy rules.    

"City authorities could, for example, use the data gathered from their own monitoring stations of traffic flows, road construction activity and car emissions and put that on an open-source platform. Municipal and private companies could then analyze the data and send information directly onto people's on-board car systems or smartphones."

Already existing analytical tools from Google or Waze could be integrated, he even argues, making it much more comfortable for drivers to avoid congestions or find a free parking lot. "Much untapped potential" would also lie in local firms and startups, Eldracher thinks.

Air travel value chain needs upgrading

Alongside road and rail traffic, air travel is also expected to undergo fundamental changes in the post-COVID-19 era, some experts say.

International Air Transport Association (IATA), fears the pandemic-induced hit to bottom lines in the industry will be over €300 billion this year, while Porsche Consulting believes the slump will be long-term, keeping aviation revenues down to 75% of pre-pandemic levels for several years to come.

Porsche Consulting's aviation expert Joachim Kirsch says travelling for business will remain low because working from home and video calls have proven useful, while the number of holiday flights will fall due to "a lack of money on the part of customers and reduced offers from travel operators."

"If falling revenues should be compensated for," Kirsch argues," the companies that have so far engaged mainly in price wars must return to quality as a model and quicken the pace of their digital transformation."

In that the entire "value chain surrounding passenger services" must be reviewed, he says, by making them "much more individual."

Travellers with suitcases waiting in the rain at a Berlin bus station
Travelling in pre-COVID-19 times was more of a hassle than a pleasure. Will passenger services change in tighter transportation markets?Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

As the aviation expert expects the return of the traditional luggage carrier to help you with your suitcases at the airport, he thinks big data will also become the "fuel of growth" in the future of the travel industry. "Airlines and airports will have to know the spending habits and travel preferences of their customers much better to be able to compete, for which data analytics is essential to offer tailor-made solutions." 

Office rentals a dying trade?

Not least since Morgan Stanley Chief James Gorman announced that most of the US investment bank's 80,000 staff could continue to work from home in the post-pandemic era, nerves have become frayed at real estate firms peddling offices for rent.

As telecommuting is apparently functioning well for many in the digital economy, Andreas Mattner expects some changes in the real estate sector, which however "will not become entirely obsolete."

The president of the German realtors' association ZIA expects the market for office space to fall by 20% over the next few years as new forms of working are emerging, shaping also our urban landscapes. 

The skyline of the banking district in Frankfurt, Germany.
Crowded downtown business districts like the banking quarter in Frankfurt, Germany, may longer be what employees are looking for in the futureImage: picture alliance/Eibner-Pressefoto

Architecture critic Niklas Maak thinks the coronavirus crisis will become a "catalyst of urban development."

"The relationship between the city center and the periphery is set to change, as individual mobility and control over data streams will be revised," says Maak. While buildings were in the past designed to meet investment needs, they would in future have to place greater emphasis on sufficient space to reduce health and work-related risks to staff, he argues. 

Essentially, this will mean fewer high-rise apartment blocks and shopping malls in cities, but more open spaces for meetings between and communicating with people.

Such a shiny new world of urban living in smart cities is also envisioned by Ganser, who has estimated the new digital technologies like networked cars and adaptive traffic lights — if installed in all of the world's cities with populations of more than 200,000 people — would save the planet 2% in man-made greenhouse gas emissions. It looks like there's much more to do for our cities than wait for the post-COVID-19 era of imminent salvation.

How do you make a city smart?