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Towards the future of shared mobilityThe NEXT modular system
“[…] Citizens gain in many different ways. They no longer need to factor in congestion. Almost all of their trips are direct, without need for transfers. Mobility is much cheaper thanks to the highly efficient use of capacity; prices for journeys in the city could be 50% or less of today even without subsidy. Huge amounts of space previously dedicated to parking can be converted to uses that increase livability, from public parks to broader sidewalks, and more and better bicycle lanes. […]””
The study Shared mobility. Innovation for liveable cities developed by the International Transport Forum in 2016 imagined urban mobility scenarios strongly oriented, we could say ‘unbalanced’, towards shared mobility. A form of mobility which, by its features, offers flexibility in space and time, affordability, especially in terms of investment, with specific reference to ‘urban shapes’ of low and medium density, where urban sprawl and the growing lack of method in movement makes the public transport system increasingly less effective and efficient.
That model, for that matter in some way pre-empted by the so-called informal transport services typical of the new South American, Asian and African megalopoles, provides plenty of food for thought on the legislative, regulatory and organisational contest and integration with the supporting transport system. It also poses tactically and strategically challenging questions on transport planning.
Is it realistic to attribute urban mobility to mainly shared transport services? How much is the technological reference context orienting mobility services towards more flexible solutions? How realistic is it to suppose a radical amendment to the system in the short-medium term?
A system that goes beyond
The system is called NEXT, but it’s actually BEYOND many of the aspects of the literature and consolidated analysis techniques in the transport service design field. Its challenge can perhaps be summarised in the creation of a ‘travelling interchange’, a ‘place’, a moving ‘function’, a service of flexible, scalable, shared, autonomous and green mobility. Innovative.
Each module is a cube of 2.5 metres, slightly inclined so that it can easily accommodate 6 people seated plus 4 standing (in the standard passenger version) yet, at the same time, also be more aerodynamic. The height and width, or nearly, of a bus, and the length like that of a 2-seater Smart.
“There is no comparable means of transport in terms of shape. We’re looking at a vehicle two and a half metres long that can transport 10 people.”
Each ‘NEXT module’ is independent, a unit complete with propulsion engines, steering, batteries and dashboard. It can be driven by a human or moves in self-driving mode where this is legal.
Each module can be joined to other modules, even when moving, using alignment technology and mechanical coupling between vehicles, just like the famous rendezvous of space vehicles in orbit. And just as the space shuttles connect up to the orbiting space station, NEXT vehicles also join up, i.e. to exchange crew members, instrumentation, provisions and fuel.
And so here’s the ‘travelling interchange’ – several vehicles from different areas of the city with occupancy rates typical of a private vehicle (low) come together, unite and continue joined for common sections of their routes. The passengers ‘migrate’, the vehicle detaches and continues its route with a higher, more efficient, occupancy rate. The other modules can go towards new, diversified uses.
The classic ‘feeder’ model to ‘supporting’ transport services has been created with the same vehicle, without infrastructure and interchanges, from one origin to one destination seamlessly.
It’s clear that NEXT asks relevant ‘entrance’ questions in the transport market. Once the legislative ‘barriers’ that ensure the ‘on the road’ feasibility have been overcome, and the opportunities offered by its intrinsic flexibility and natural tendency to occupy the ‘top floors’ of a theoretical innovation classification in the transport system have been glimpsed, it leaves open topics on which the planners, designers, transport economy technicians and government bodies can get to grips with in the short term.
An innovative project open to experiment
The system has a scalability that assists the hierarchy concepts of the public transport network. The unification of several modules gives it variable capacity, crossing the fields of application of the taxi, bus and upwards to the tram.
The system has a flexibility that goes beyond the concept of car-sharing, potentially becoming a shared service depending on the requirement but returning to provide services more similar to public transport, whether commercial or not, where there are consistent categories of demand.
The system hosts functions, interpreting the physical ‘place’, where actions can be performed and opportunities arise, while moving.
So the system mutates, and by mutating, it falls outside the classic categories we normally use to define ‘the spheres of efficiency and effectiveness’ of a service – which operator? What fare? What integration? Or what ‘replacement’ of the traditionally understood public transport system?
In conclusion, the system offers an incredible opportunity for reflection and a ‘workshop’ where experiments can be performed with planners, regulators and technicians to find those spheres of efficiency and effectiveness that ensure its sustainability. A chance to conceive technically feasible solutions, given the reference context.