B.23 – The Digitalization of Mobility

Author: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue

The digitalization of mobility involves a modification, a substitution, or a generation of a movement. It is contingent upon the socioeconomic and geographical context in which mobility occurs.

1. Transport Substitution

The rapid proliferation of ICT, such as mobile phones, intranets, and teleconferencing, promotes new forms of mobility and the possibility of substituting mobility. Reducing vehicle use is one of the expected primary benefits of ICT, as it is assumed that substitution will take place or those vehicle assets will be used more efficiently. Yet, substitution remains relatively marginal for the physical mobility of people, and ICT has permitted additional forms of non-physical interactions.

The most important substitution effect has been on postal services, where online methods of communication and tele-consumption have been associated with a substantial decline in physical mail volumes and their associated transportation activities. While there were in 1990, about 268 billion mail items carried in the United States, and this figure dropped to 127 billion in 2022, despite ongoing population growth. Another important form of transport substitution concerns e-commerce, where for an online transaction, in-store purchases have been substituted by home deliveries.

2. Navigation and Tracking

While navigation devices have been available for a while, the combination of global positioning systems, wireless communication technology to access the Internet, and mobile computing devices enabled advanced dynamic navigation and tracking forms. Navigation assistance and real-time information about traffic conditions provide accurate estimates of travel times and offer the possibility of alternate routes in case of disruptive events. It is estimated that one billion drivers worldwide are using navigation apps. This has enabled notable time and fuel savings by road users at the aggregate level for passengers and freight transport. Assisted navigation also creates challenges such as allocating vehicles on local streets, exacerbating local congestion, and dealing with disruptions such as school opening hours.

It is now possible to track the location of vehicles and consignments, enabling them to estimate better arrival times or delivery or improve fuel consumption. For temperature-sensitive goods, it becomes possible to monitor the condition of their transport. As an inventory management strategy, tracking also allows for more flexible use of transportation since a consignment can be differed or re-routed if demand changes. Industry standards such as Track and Trace (T&T) are being introduced for containers. It defines processes, data, and interface standards that allow stakeholders such as carriers, shippers, and third-party logistics services providers to interact and track containers and their shipments across several modes.

A forthcoming change concerns self-driving vehicles that are only commercially implementable if provided substantial real-time information about the environment they navigate through onboard sensors and information feeds supported by ICT. The large diffusion of self-driving vehicles would have substantial impacts on the transport system, reducing the number of vehicles required to meet the existing demand, enhancing the mobility of those that may have physical or financial impairments, reducing the risks of accidents, and improving the time and cost performance of passenger and freight flows alike.

3. Mobility as Service Markets

Conventionally, many transportation markets could only have been booked through intermediaries such as travel agents or freight forwarders. The development of the Internet has enabled users to book transportation services such as air, train, and bus travel directly, commonly referred to as mobility as a service. These changes have been substantial for the airline industry, promoting competition and the convenience of air travel with the possibility to check in online and even use a mobile device to carry a virtual boarding pass. A similar trend has taken place with rail services, particularly high-speed rail, but this is also entering the mass transit market, including bike rental services. An indirect benefit is a drop in the consumption of resources and energy for issuing travel documents such as tickets, boarding passes, or bills of lading. This also reduces the time passengers spend at terminals queuing.

More recently, the diffusion of ride-sharing services (e.g. Uber, Lyft, Didi) and car rental services has opened an entirely new array of opportunities, expanding the capacity to connect suppliers of transport services and customers. These services have been highly disruptive for the conventional taxi industry since they compete directly with them. For public transit, ride-sharing appears to be both competing and complementary. Online commercial platforms are also developing opportunities for the freight sector, enabling providers of freight transport services, such as shipping lines or trucking companies, to auction services or bid for an offered transport demand. In 2019, the giant e-commerce retailer Amazon started a digital freight brokerage platform, which reduced spot market prices by at least 25%. On a smaller scale, it is also possible for individuals to offer services like ride-sharing, but concerning the deliveries of packages, groceries, and even meals.

4. Transport Asset Management

Transportation remains a resource with limited capacity and availability. ICT-supported transportation services such as ride-sharing result in better management of vehicles, routes, and assets (higher load factor, more trips per vehicle, fewer vehicles for the same capacity, etc.). This is particularly the case with freight distribution, with the application of logistics supporting better levels of inventory management and more reliable deliveries. There are numerous applications of ICT in transportation asset management. One concerns appointment systems for terminals (ports and rail yards) and distribution centers. Users can use an online platform to reserve an access time slot to the facility, improving the efficiency of both the terminal and the vehicle assets.

Just-in-time inventory management, which reduces inventory requirements, would not be possible without significant ICT support, including the ongoing automation of modes, terminals, and distribution facilities. Blockchains can support the complexity of intermodal transportation systems by allowing better synchronization of modes and terminals. Yield management and congestion pricing are also common to better manage available capacity in conditions of high demand, but this requires accurate real-time information about demand and supply characteristics. For instance, in the case of yield management, an airline can dynamically change the pricing of its seats and even request booked customers to delay their travel in exchange for compensation.

Although mobility has not changed, since it remains passengers or freight flows, ICT has impacted mobility in various ways, often making it more efficient. It is increasingly able to offer a form of substitution to the mobility of passengers and freight, navigate in a changing environment (e.g. variations in the level of congestion), and track and manage transportation assets. However, ICT can also have unintended negative consequences. Since 2010, an increase in pedestrian fatalities has been observed, particularly in the United States. The main factor for this increase was attributed to distractions from using portable devices while walking. A similar observation applies where mobile devices provide a hazardous distraction to drivers trying to use them while operating their vehicles.

Related Topics