Life force represents our sense of vitality; it’s the thing that separates the living from the nonliving. In our cities, our collective life force is demonstrated by the quality of our lives, as measured by the health of our society, economy, and our relationship to the environment; indeed, transportation is the vital force that spurs continued growth and well-being for communities.

Typically, in a discussion of smart city technology, transportation and human services aren’t explored together. But if we’re committed to designing a smart environment that’s founded on empathy for our citizens, we must first consider how our design influences the movement of people through the city. We also need to account for the subsequent impacts on fundamental transport issues as well as public health and wellness. How we organize a smart city’s transportation system determines how the city develops and becomes sustainable over time. Our design affects land-use policies and myriad elements of the built environment. It also forces us to face the truth about how transportation can segregate disadvantaged neighborhoods and how that isolation can limit ready access to hospitals, community clinics, public parks, and even food.

In this light, the concept of urban transportation must go one step further than our traditional thoughts about conveyance, because wherever the transportation infrastructure accommodates and encourages non-motorized transportation, positive impacts on public health can result. Physical activity improves citizens’ health, but equally important is the decrease in transportation-related pollution that results in asthma, respiratory illness, heart disease, lower healthy birth rates, and certain types of cancer. Further, multiple studies have shown that a limited access to affordable transportation creates health inequity, decreased access to education, and fewer recreational opportunities for all populations – especially disabled and senior citizens. Transportation has always been job one for urban designers, but if we believe that smart technologies should improve livability and increase resource sustainability, there may be no more impactful a goal for transportation design than improving health outcomes by how we move people around.

Big Data Analytics Guide the Way

Data about location-based, real-time conditions can improve the use of existing infrastructure, but it can also serve to build out new, almost fantastical systems of transport. But, fundamentally, transportation scenarios must begin to embrace smart technology for advanced coordination that comprehends more than just the mechanics of moving people and things around; it must consider for the habits and behaviors of drivers and riders themselves.

Smarter transportation solutions that positively impact the urban experience include:

  • Creating healthier, more-walkable, and more-livable cities
  • Improving transportation infrastructure to reduce congestion and enhance public safety
  • Reducing urban food deserts and improving access to social services

Transportation analytics provide the tools and models that bring nontraditional data sources to our well-known operational systems. These analytics encourage smarter traffic data systems and adaptive technologies, with social media feeds that can tell us where people are going and where they last ate tainted seafood to deter burgeoning public health issues.

Data allows us to get to our bus on time, but it also enables improved predictions about which roads will be impacted by the construction of a high-speed train route and how to adjust other transit schedules and communicate with the public about how they can best cope with the major construction impacts. When unplanned incidents and events occur – such as accidents or strikes — traffic can be rerouted and other utilization decisions can be made in many planning horizons, from budgetary cycles to real time. Data-informed transportation planning is able to account for comprehensive land-use development strategies, such as understanding how to account for the transit requirements that will result if we build a new hockey rink in an outer downtown ring, or look to modify our streets to create public spaces for mobile food trucks in blighted areas.

The design opportunities only become greater as more data is brought under consideration. And designers can become more capable as analytics techniques improve and people understand how to better access data, use it properly, and improve their interpretation of it. How cities access and activate the data that’s available to smarten our cities determines the rate and depth at which favorable change can occur. Advanced transportation systems are a key element of an enriched and vibrant city and an opportunity for high-impact solutions that can reach most every urban dweller.


Carol L. Stimmel is the Founder & Chief Executive Officer of Manifest Mind LLC.