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From Place to Place to Sense of Place

Smart Transit in a Post-Pandemic World

What did we learn about transportation, about movement itself, when we stopped moving? As pandemic-driven global lockdowns slowed transportation to a standstill—with few if any airplane or train trips, and travel by car dramatically reduced—entire industries teetered, while others flourished. Global trade and supply chain transit came under severe pressure. Tourism lost $1.2 trillion in value. People accustomed to frequent motion faced prolonged psychic and economic challenges.  


City map of London showing traffic patterns


Now that we are moving again, we are experiencing a mind shift. It began long before the virus, driven by both environmentalism and technology that gives us location intelligence. We are able to see and measure the world in radically new ways. This is transforming our understanding and experience of sustainable mobility and our management of transportation systems—whether of goods, materials, or ourselves.

In other words, we're learning something about journeys and destinations. So, what happens to transportation when we see the world through this new lens?

Map showing how transportation systems connect in a region
  • We experience a world without unwanted intervals of inactivity. Thanks to location intelligence combined with virtual reality technology, Swiss Rail passengers can point their smartphones at a statue and—using an augmented-reality app that integrates artificial intelligence (AI) with global-positioning data—get a history lesson about the environs and why and when that monument was built. The journey is no longer simply a gap between departure point and destination. The trip becomes a continuous flow of meaningful places.
  • Autonomous vehicles (AVs) take this one step further. In cars, we'll stop being the agents of motion, stop having to constantly keep our eyes on the road. We'll become passengers—and observers. It's understood that AVs will save lives as well as time and money, enabling vehicle sharing and reducing the number of cars on the road and carbon emissions. AVs will also impact human attention.
  • Roads as smart as the cars that drive on them. In New Zealand, the NZ Transport Agency uses geospatial analysis to identify high-risk roads and prioritize safety projects, based on a predictive road engineering process that includes driver behavior models for acceleration on straight roads and deceleration on curves.
  • Frictionless holistic transit systems. ioki, a Deutsche Bahn company, is using location intelligence to enable on-demand public mobility options for non-urban areas of Germany. The company provides a platform to enable booking and payment to passengers not served by scheduled fleets, as well as school children, elderly, and mobility-challenged people. Current estimates from ioki anticipate 12 million households replacing a second, third, or even fourth car with on-demand mobility services will yield tremendous savings and increase sustainable transportation. With cloud-based mobility as a service, smart transit networks enable frictionless payment across a full array of intermodal transport options, taking the guess work out of travel for locals as well as visitors. 
  • Ports become tech hubs. Erwin Rademaker—program manager of the Port of Rotterdam, Europe's biggest, busiest, and smartest marine hub—says, "Our infrastructure will have to communicate with autonomous ships and autonomous trucks. Even the port inspector of the future will be a sensor. Through a digital twin, we are literally transforming the physical port into a digital port."
  • Some infrastructure is built, some repurposed. Geodesign—where location intelligence, landscape architecture, building architecture, engineering, and construction come together—is evolving. Geospatial systems are being integrated with computer-aided design (CAD), building information modeling (BIM), and 3D visualization into digital twins, to design smart, context-aware structures in harmony with their environs. Canal & River Trust in the UK has repurposed the country’s obsolete canals as a network of recreational and cultural facilities bringing people back to public spaces which were not previously welcoming or accessible.
  • The city is relocalized—and reimagined. For the past century, modernization of cities meant accommodating automobiles. Today, bicycles have the right-of-way in the major cities of Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands. These and many other societies are bringing life back into the city and business back into the core. In the process, they are relocalizing their communities and re-envisioning megacities at a human scale. The concept of a 15-minute city advocating urban redesign to accentuate proximity, equity, and sustainable mobility is taking hold in Paris and other cities around the world.
Busy highway with some cars highlighted, showing the distance between them


In the world envisioned by Yi-Fu Tuan, the father of humanistic geography, place is opposed to space—the intimate versus the distant, the grounded versus the expansive. Space is the empty universe, the unmarked, the unknown. Place, in contrast, is created by the human mind, by the social processes of imagining, understanding, planning, and conceiving. So maybe the issue isn't what we learn about motion when we stop moving. Maybe it's what we learn about place when every place, including those we're moving through, becomes infused with meaning and value. 

By Ian Koeppel, a cultural geographer and France-based international expert in the transportation industry for Esri.

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