The future of sustainable transport in cities

Addressing urban mobility is a key challenge facing cities in the coming decade. According to the UNEP, transport is responsible for nearly a quarter of global energy-related CO2, giving rise to congestion, pollution and reduced quality of life. And as cities face growing populations, rising car ownership and inefficient transport systems, these problems will only worsen.

Bicycles are increasingly used as a sustainable means to move around a city
Image by Stefano Ferrario from Pixabay

In 2020, as result of the global lockdown measures put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, mobility declined at an unprecedented scale. The IEA reports that road transport in regions with lockdown measures in place dropped between 50% and 75%, while the global average of road transport activity fell nearly 50% of the 2019 level as of the end of March 2020. Yet, global carbon dioxide emissions have rebounded, with emissions levels 2% higher in December 2020 compared with December 2019.

Finding a ‘new normal’

For many, the pandemic can serve as an opportunity to further progress towards green solutions and sustainability. During the height of the lockdown period in Europe, city governments, from Bucharest to Helsinki, introduced new biking infrastructure with 2 300 km of bike lanes rolled out and more than €1 billion spent on cycling-related infrastructure.

Simultaneously, however, the pandemic has caused a drop in the use of public transportation with some cities experiencing up to one third fewer passengers as residents worked from home or avoided mass transit. Instead, car traffic has exceeded pre-pandemic levels in some parts of the world. Compared to the previous year, road traffic has increased 20% in greater London while traffic levels in Perth, Australia have increased by 18%.

Disruptive innovation

Transport is recognized as essential for ensuring development. Sustainable transport is embedded within the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), most notably in SDG 11, which calls for making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts were underway to find new ways to make travel less onerous on the environment. Recent advances in technology provide potential opportunities.

New technologies such as AI, IoT and cloud computing can bring intelligence to the transport sector. With intelligent transport systems (ITS), cities can leverage the benefits of these new technologies to help reduce traffic congestion and pollution, reduce fuel and electricity consumption, and optimize travel times. For public transit, availability could be adapted based on travel demand and information made available to passengers to help plan their journeys.

This will require the integration of these technologies into a city-wide infrastructure that can monitor and manage traffic conditions as well as develop forecasting models to predict possible congestion. Communications will be necessary between vehicles and the infrastructure, which can lead to concerns around privacy and security.

Many of these new technologies rely upon standards developed by the IEC and ISO Joint Technical Committee for information technology (ISO/IEC JTC 1). This includes areas such as software engineering, artificial intelligence, IoT, biometrics and privacy.

The electrification of transport

The sales of electric vehicles worldwide continue to progress despite a dip due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Deloitte, the pattern of continued growth is anticipated to last throughout the decade. Focused on improving air quality, a number of cities such as Helsinki, Santiago de Chile and Kolkata have adopted electric buses. In 2019, a record number of electric trucks were sold worldwide and new research on dynamic charging concepts has expanded the range of long-haul trucking.

Battery costs are also expected to decrease. New battery technologies are also accelerating the uptake of electrification. For example, in early January 2021, an Israeli company announced that it had produced batteries capable of fully charging in five minutes. Other companies around the world are also developing similar batteries and it is expected that this technology could be available to the mass market within five years.

The move towards the electrification of transport relies upon the standardization work of a number of IEC technical committees including TC 9: Electrical equipment and systems for railways, TC 21: Secondary cells and batteries, TC 23: Electrical accessories, TC 69: Electrical power/energy transfer systems for electrically propelled road vehicles and industrial trucks and TC 125: Personal e-Transporters.

Feeding into the smart grid

Integrating the transport system into the electricity grid is the next step for sustainable transport. The electricity grid is in the process of introducing smart technologies as well as integrating renewable energies within the network. This will enable electric vehicles to access electricity from clean energy sources, consequently leading to further reducing pollution.

Exploratory work is also underway to potentially use electric vehicles to help with electricity load management of the grid. For example, according to the IEA, energy can be stored in electric vehicle batteries and thus provide energy to the grid at suitable times via vehicle-to-grid solutions (V2G).

The IEC Systems Committee for Smart Energy coordinates the work of several TCs working to publish standards relating to the digitalization, automation and modernization of the grid, including grid edge devices and systems.

In addition, IEC TC 57: Power systems management and associated information exchange has developed the IEC 61850 series, which is considered to be the foundational standards for digital technologies relating to smart energy. These standards address the integration of renewable energies and distributed energy resources (DERs) within the electrical network. TC 57 also supports the smart charging of EVs through joint work with IEC TC 69.

Role of standards

Standards are essential in the development of the next generation of sustainable mobility. They will ensure the interoperability, performance and safety in areas such as security, communication protocols, batteries, smart grids and charging stations.

The IEC has taken a systems approach to smart cities with the aim of providing a holistic approach to address complex situations. The IEC Systems Committee for Smart cities is active in coordinating the standards work of various IEC committees as well as other groups with the aim of promoting the development of standards to assist in the integration, interoperability and effectiveness of city systems.

In 2019, the IEC set up a Standardization Evaluation Group , SEG 11, with the aim of developing case-studies and a gap analysis to determine the requirements for the future of sustainable transport. SEG 11 is expected to issue a report with its recommendations in June 2021.