Lights turning green for mobility tech in LATAM

Urban mobility is a key point when evaluating the quality of life in large cities. And in Brazil, where half of the 206M population lives in 25 urban conglomerates, that discussion is so intense that it largely dominated debates in municipal elections that took place early October.

In São Paulo, the country’s largest city, people spend 45 days a year stuck in traffic, according to a recent poll commissioned by Rede Nossa São Paulo, a group that discusses and proposes improvements to city issues. Time spent driving to and from one’s main activity, either work or school, rose 17 minutes from 2015.

Brazil has a dynamic population that carries different cultures, origins, social status and income. There’s a balanced mix of young and senior inhabitants. And a long list of demands to cover. Public transportation services are historically bad but, with expanding car fleets, there’s a growing belief that it’s necessary to have a connected and integrated system that helps people reach their destiny faster and even better if they are taking advantage of that time to accomplish a task, such as clearing its emails.

“City halls need to deliver more, with less. Technology help us offer a better public service with no spending,” says Ciro Biderman, director of São Paulo Negocios, a business and investment promotion agency. “There’s people becoming millionaires by finding niches of use of information and the public sector is not surfing that wave,” he adds. 

Biderman is also head of Mobilab, an urban mobility and start-up laboratory run by the city administration. In there, start-ups have been developing applications that help drivers and commuters from finding a parking spot to rating a bus line. The projects became real in 2013, when mobile phones apps that tracked users GPS released information to the local administration. Less than six months later, 180 companies and people were using the free database. “By making data available, we are fostering transparency and accountability but we are also seeking ways to boost efficiency,” says Biderman. His goal is to put all players on a path to improve the system.

Specialists always cite integration and synergy as key points for the success of urban mobility projects. They are also where opportunities arise.    When developers at Mobilab launched an app to track transportation quality, they also offered a service to credit bus passes. Parknet, another app, was launched as a tool to help people find parking spots. It then realised elderly and disabled drivers needed even more help to find specific spots, so it expanded its services.

In Goiania, a city in central-western Brazil, Swedish bus maker Volvo and Ericsson teamed up to offer a solution for buses. The ITS4Mobility system allows users to access real time information on buses through totems, phone apps or instant messages.

“All vehicle markers are investing in additional tech services and it’s a strategy to remain in the market,” Vinicius Gaensly, manager for Volvo Bus connected services in Latin America, told TU-Autotomotive. “We are helping clients make the better management of their fleets, improve services and increase gains.” The biggest obstacle for the projects is financial resources. Brazil’s economy has run out of steam in the past years. Latin America’s largest GDP contracted almost 4% in 2015, and economists forecast a 3% drop this year, a Central Bank research shows. With low income and high inflation, city, state and federal budgets are tight. 

Stenio Franco, IT and digitalisation advisor for the UITP Commission, says that the whole work depends on processing data and having the trained personnel to generate value from that. There’s need for skilled professionals to analyse data, operate the systems and gather different stakeholders to jointly work on the architecture for the connected urban development. “That’s the biggest bottleneck. That’s where investment is needed but it’s still much less than building a bridge over the river,” Franco comments. Technology could reduce costs of ownership and operation by 30%, he estimates.

Mobilab also hires start-ups for some projects. In a recent public tender, it intended to attract developers of an operating system that could be installed in any electronic board of traffic lights – traffic lights are currently closed systems that cost BRL20,000 (£4,720) each. By doing that, the administration could buy any board and install the system for just BRL1,000. The BRL840,000 contract can pay off with 44 traffic lights while São Paulo has 55,000 installed.

Yet, they chose the bidder that offered the most innovative plan. And the winner also offered to develop a system that would connect traffic lights, simplifying and integrating traffic management. Also, because traffic lights spend a lot of time just holding the light green or red, it could also be used for IoT. 

“We have to offer the best possible experience for the citizen on average,” UITP’s Franco says. “And integrated is better than connected.” 

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