By Ted Oberwager
The logic behind developing the world’s mass transit systems is obvious: a smaller carbon footprint, reduced dependence on gasoline, decreased congestion, job creation, and ultimately dollar savings for governments and consumers alike. The ramifications are huge both for the ~9,400 new cities that are expected support global population growth, but also for the many existing metropolises that will need to absorb additional headcount. With the United Nations predicting that cities will absorb the vast majority of the nearly 2.5 billion increase in the global population through 2050, I believe that scalability is the #1 issue facing mass transit today.
The question then becomes – how do we best scale mass transit systems in the cities of the future? Given the magnitude of our transportation needs, the answer cannot be found in any one solution. While many promote the virtues of one form of transit over another, there will not be a ‘silver bullet’ approach. Even the best constructed subway cannot solve a bustling city’s transportation needs in isolation. And creating a scalable system can be an issue of life or death proportions – just consider the news from India today where overcrowding in an Allahabad train station caused panic and stampede leading to the death of at least 37 people.
Thus, I believe the answer must lie in a fully integrated approach across transportation modes. The public sector has many options to address its transportation needs – buses, trains, subways, aerial solutions, and even car sharing – and governments will need to use all of them going forward. The ability to connect and coordinate these alternatives will be the differentiating skill that makes a mass transit system truly scalable. It is not difficult to imagine a world where our smartphones tell us to ride the subway over the bus for our morning commute, or a software program with connection to all modes of mass transit helps city managers dynamically alter transportation prices to help balance loads and improve capacity utilization. We often think of the “smart grid” as an interconnected electrical grid, but that “grid” may soon be expanded beyond the electrical to include an integrated system of roads and rails and tubes.
How and when we realize this vision is unclear. As we saw in our Living PlanIT case, we are very much in the first inning of integrating our cities and making them truly “smart,” but the necessity of these innovations seems clear. And with companies like Cisco and Oracle attacking these issues head on, it can’t be too long before we rethink what it means to have a “smart grid” in the context of our public transportation systems, thereby making our cities truly scalable and efficient.
 Eccles, Edmondson, Thyne, Zuzul. Living PlanIT. HBS Case