Urban Transformation

Up, down and across: how growing cities can cope with moving millions more people

City workers cross the Millennium footbridge at dawn in front of the Shard skyscraper, in the financial district of London, Britain January 7, 2016. Britain's finance minister George Osborne said on Thursday that Britain's economy was not immune from a "dangerous cocktail" of threats from abroad, and urged against complacency after two years of solid growth. Osborne -- whom Prime Minister David Cameron has named as a possible successor -- said in a new year's message that Britain faced headwinds from slower growth in China, Brazil and Russia as well as tensions in the Middle East.  REUTERS/Toby Melville

Cities are laced together by a complex web of vertical and horizontal transportation systems. Image: REUTERS/Toby Melville

Andrea Connor
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Western Sydney University
Donald McNeill
Professor of Urban and Cultural Geography, Western Sydney University
Share:
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Urban Transformation?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Data Science is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Data Science

Cities worldwide face the problems and possibilities of “volume”: the stacking and moving of people and things within booming central business districts. We see this especially around mass public transport hubs.

As cities grow, they also become more vertical. They are expanding underground through rail corridors and above ground into the tall buildings that shape city skylines. Cities are deep as well as wide.

The urban geographer Stephen Graham describes cities as both “vertically stacked” and “vertically sprawled”, laced together by vertical and horizontal transport systems.

People flow in large cities is not only about how people move horizontally on rail and road networks into and out of city centres. It also includes vertical transport systems. These are the elevators, escalators and moving sidewalks that commuters use every day to get from the underground to the surface street level.

Major transport hubs are where many vertical and horizontal transport systems converge. It’s here that people flows are most dense.

But many large cities face the twin challenges of ageing infrastructure and increased volumes of people flowing through transport hubs. Problems of congestion, overcrowding, delays and even lockouts are becoming more common.

Governments are increasingly looking for ways to squeeze more capacity out of existing infrastructure networks.

Can we increase capacity by changing behaviour?

For the last three years, Transport for London (TfL) has been running standing-only escalator trials. The aim is to see if changing commuter behaviour might increase “throughput” of people and reduce delays.

London has some of the deepest underground stations in the world. This means the Tube system is heavily reliant on vertical transport such as escalators. But a long-standing convention means people only stand on the right side and allow others to walk up on the left.

In a trial at Holborn Station, one of London’s deepest at 23 metres, commuters were asked to stand on both sides during morning rush hour.

The results of the trials showed that changing commuter behaviour could improve throughput by increasing capacity by as much as 30% at peak times. But this works only in Tube stations with very tall escalators. At stations with escalators less than 18 metres high, like Canary Wharf, the trials found the opposite – standing would only increase congestion across the network.

By standing only, 30% more people could fit on an escalator in the trial at Holborn Station. Image: The Conversation

The difference is down to human behaviour. People are simply less willing to walk up very tall escalators. This means a standing-only policy across the network won’t improve people flow uniformly and could even make congestion worse.

Is people movement data a solution?

With the introduction of ticketless transport cards it’s now possible to gather more data about people flow through busy transport hubs as we tap on and off.

Tracking commuters’ in-station journeys through their Wi-Fi enabled devices, such as smart phones, can also offer a detailed picture of movement between platforms, congestion and delays.

Transport for London has already conducted its first Wi-Fi tracking trial in the London Underground.

Issues of privacy loom large in harvesting mobile data from individual devices. Still, there’s enormous potential to use this data to resolve issues of overcrowding and inform commuters about delays and congestion en route.

Loading...

London’s transport authority hopes the data from tracking users’ phones will help ease congestion, plan better timetables and improve station designs.

Governments are also increasingly turning to consultancy firms that specialise in simulation modelling of people flow. That’s everything from check-in queues and processing at terminals, to route tracking and passenger flow on escalators.

Using data analytics, people movement specialists identify movement patterns, count footfall and analyse commuter behaviour. In existing infrastructure, they look to achieve “efficiencies” through changes to scheduling and routing, and assessing the directional flow of commuters.

Construction and engineering companies are also beginning to employ people movement specialists during the design phase of large infrastructure projects.

Beijing’s Daxing airport, due for completion in 2020, will be the largest transport hub in China. It’s also the first major infrastructure project to use crowd simulation and analysis software during the design process to test anticipated volume against capacity.

The advice of people movement specialists can have significant impacts on physical infrastructure. This involves aspects such as the width of platforms, number and placement of gates, and the layout and positioning of vertical transport, such as escalators.

Movement analytics is becoming big business

People movement analytics is becoming big business, especially where financialisation of public assets is increasing. This means infrastructure is being developed through complex public-private partnership models. As a result, transport hubs are now also commercial spaces for retail, leisure and business activities.

Commuters are no longer only in transit when they make their way through these spaces. They are potential consumers as they move through the retail concourse in many of these developments.

Have you read?

In an era of “digital disruption”, which is particularly affecting the retail sector, information about commuter mobility has potential commercial value. The application of data analytics to people flow and its use by the people movement industry to achieve “efficiencies” needs careful scrutiny to ensure benefits beyond commercial gain.

At the same time, mobility data may well help our increasingly vertical cities to keep flowing up, down and across.

Loading...
Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Urban TransformationEconomic Growth
Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

How cities can contribute to a more inclusive and equitable future for everyone

Andras Szorenyi

July 14, 2024

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Sign in
  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum