How sustainability tech helps cities become smarter, safer and greener

The summer of 2023, with its extreme heat waves and fires, may be remembered as a tipping point in the public perception of climate change. But we may also be at a tipping point in terms of how cities manage transportation and services to reduce the emissions that affect climate change. With Inflation Reduction Act funding for emissions reduction and greater resilience, and advanced hardware providing tools to pursue those goals, U.S. cities in particular have an opportunity to become smarter, safer, and more sustainable. These developments also represent an opportunity for companies that develop hardware and data analytics solutions.

Smarter city technology and planning resources

Technologies like 5G and UWB (ultra-wideband radio), along with roadside units that support existing intelligent transportation systems, can help city planners streamline public transit and fleet operations, help reduce pollution, and improve commuter safety as part of the connected city transformation.

UWB in particular supports real-time location tracking with low latency wireless connection between devices. That makes it possible for city operations teams to track buses and other vehicle locations, current and historical traffic patterns, detours, and other data for optimizing routes and timing. As data collection and analysis evolve into something like location-as-a-service, it will be possible, for example, to alert commuters to bus arrivals and connections based on real-time conditions. That can boost ridership by giving commuters more confidence in the public transit system. Jakarta, Indonesia, an early integrator of transit management technologies and rider payment systems, more than doubled ridership on its rapid bus system before the pandemic, while cutting emissions and traffic congestion.

Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and networks can increase efficiency, reduce traffic, and reduce emissions. Sensors installed in trash bins, for example, are already helping cities like New York optimize garbage collection for up to 80% more efficiency. Emptying smart bins only when they’re full also reduces the amount of time trucks spend creating polluting exhaust on the road.

IoT technology can also help cities reduce fleet maintenance costs and unplanned downtime through predictive maintenance (PdM). By collecting data from individual vehicles and combining it with known maintenance histories for similar vehicles, it’s possible to determine when service is needed based on each vehicle’s performance rather than using a calendar- or mileage-based maintenance schedule. This can eliminate unnecessary maintenance and improve reliability.

Safer city transportation

Technology-driven efficiency improvements can also make cities safer and more pleasant for residents and visitors to navigate. For example, roadside units that gather traffic data can help inform smarter road designs and traffic flows to protect pedestrians and cyclists. Sensors on city buses and other fleet vehicles have the potential to reduce accidents by detecting pedestrians and other vehicles.

Vehicle-to-network and vehicle-to-vehicle data sharing can also deliver information about real-time road conditions and suggest detours to avoid traffic jams. Already, some cities and other organizations with fleets are using vehicle data to ensure driver compliance with road safety rules and best practices. We’re also starting to see the potential to use vehicle and road condition data to help event planners optimize traffic flows exiting major sporting events, concerts, and other planned events.

Efficiency automation can also make streets safer for pedestrians. In Dijon, France, plans are in place to manage all of the city’s street lights based on pedestrian traffic. This project is forecast to reduce the cost of powering those lights by 65% over 12 years, while still providing safe visibility for walkers and cyclists. A similar program in San Diego is expected to save the city $2.5 million per year by optimizing streetlight operations.

Traffic flow data from city systems can help residents to plan optimal routes on their phones using the latest data to see where it’s safest to walk, cycle, ride the bus, or drive a car. This information can help prevent accidents by guiding residents away from unsafe intersections, construction zones, and areas impacted by severe weather.

Greener, more sustainable cities

In cities that are designed for cars, improving walkability, cycling safety and bus ridership may seem like small improvements. Making these modes of transportation safer and more convenient also makes life on the road safer and easier for people in cars – by reducing collision risks and by making walking, cycling, and buses more attractive alternatives to driving. These optimizations can lead to cities with healthier populations that are less stressed and more active. Cities can reinvest their efficiency-related savings in more sustainability projects and services to increase the overall quality of life for residents.

Current and emerging technologies are driving these trends, and we’re only at the start of what’s possible. By thinking creatively about what’s possible now, even companies that aren’t developing technologies specifically for urban sustainability may find applications for their products to capture, analyze, and leverage data for smarter, safer, more sustainable cities.

Alison Thurber is executive vice president of Intelligent Industry North America at Capgemini Invent. Alison is a hardware product development veteran with deep experience defining, engineering, and manufacturing integrated hardware and software solutions across industries.