Somerville, a Urban Lab for Mobility

Over the past few weeks we have been exposed to endless news about the Volkswagen group’s emissions scandal. As dark as that tale has been, Audi, the luxury brand of the VW group, has been working on a project to help cities. It’s called Urban Future Initiative and tries to find solutions to cities’ unique mobility problems.

In a special presentation during the Smart City Expo in Barcelona this week, Audi’s CEO, Rupert Stadler, gave a global overview of the Initiative, and the three main projects that it is currently funding.

The first is in Somerville, Massachusetts, where Audi is working in partnership with the city and the Federal Realty Investment Trust, a developer, to build the infrastructure to test two new technologies.

One of the pilot projects uses Car-to-X technologies to help improve the traffic flow through Union Square, while at the same time using automated parking to optimize parking space and free up premium road space for other uses, such as bike lanes and sidewalks.

The second pilot in Somerville involves the new construction project at Assembly Row where Audi and Federal Realty are combining the benefits of automated parking with smart fleet management.

The third pilot is in Mexico where Audi is partnering with Santa Fe, one of the leading business districts in Mexico City. Here Audi is searching for ways to end permanent traffic congestion.

During the presentation, Professor Stadler shared his view about the role of cars in the city of the future: “I know some people don’t consider cars to be a smart solution in cities anymore – causing traffic jams and costing precious time,” he said. “You won’t be surprised to hear that I have a different point of view. In fact, with our new urban solutions the car will reach a totally new level of being ‘smart’.”

In the case of Somerville, the project at Assembly Row will combine a fleet of “smart” self-parking cars, which can be rented on demand, with intelligent management that can significantly reduce parking space and the number of cars needed by residents.

“Providing parking spots [is a] legal duty that takes up valuable space,” Stadler said. “About one out of three dollars invested has no significant return. With piloted parking we could reduce parking space by about 60 percent.”

Current market demand in Somerville, plus municipal regulations, require developers to equip new buildings with a fixed number of parking spaces per unit, both for residential and office use. Which means every parking space costs $25,000 on average. Not only can this break the profitability of a development project, but it can also encourage people to bring more cars into the city.

After the presentation, I had the opportunity to chat with Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, who shared with me his vision of the city as an urban lab for mobility innovation. He says that people in Somerville will continue to use cars for a long time, but alternative modes of transportation are already growing fast, including better public transit, more bicycling infrastructure and better pedestrian sidewalks.

Somerville, a Urban Lab for Mobility
Audi’s CEO Prof. Rupert Stadler and Mayor of Somerville Joseph Curtatone

“The car will always be part of our mobility,” the mayor said at the presentation. “At the same time, due to congestion and parking problems, today it shows us the limits to mobility. With technologies from Audi we expect to be able to use the available urban space more efficiently. This enhances the quality of urban life.”

Being part of the Boston metro area is a mixed blessing for Somerville. While the city enjoys a privileged location and can share the success of Boston and Cambridge as innovation hubs, it also gets a fair share of the traffic and transportation problems of the big metro area.

Audi’s Urban Future Initiative can help alleviate some of the traffic and parking problems in Somerville in the short term, but ultimately a more sustainable solution has to be found. That might include such things as eliminating minimum parking requirements, increasing public transportation, dedicating separate bike lanes, favoring on-demand zero-emission car-sharing solutions, and simply encouraging people to walk more.

Somerville, a Urban Lab for Mobility