Mega Events in mega cities: When Mobility meets its match

572,961. That’s the official number of foreign visitors who flocked to Brazil in August 2016 to catch the excitement of the Summer Olympics. And that’s not counting the athletes and their entourage plus the millions of locals who watched the competitions in and around Rio, a sprawling megacity of roughly ten million people.

To get around, they didn’t only battle clogged streets but also relied on the city’s fairly young subway network that was updated just in time for the games. It moves a modest 240 million people every year (which is, for statistics buffs, not nearly half as many riders as Berlin’s U-Bahn).

If you study a topic as complex as “future, life, mobility” for a living as I do for Daimler, then large sports events such as the Olympic Games and the World Cup can serve an important purpose.

They are a live stress test for the transportation infrastructure of a metropolis.

5 worst traffic jams in history

5 worst traffic jams in history, length in miles

Take millions of daily commuters, add fans and athletes, sprinkle with some unforeseen events like weather or power outages — and watch what happens to roadways and public transit systems. Everything flows until it doesn’t, and then the head scratching begins and accusatory headlines of planning mistakes start to fly.

Often, the picture is not pretty. And it’s not for lack of trying to make mobility in large metro regions work more smoothly. Plenty of politicians, urban planners, engineers and academics have for decades been thinking about and tinkering with possible solutions to get millions of people from A to B faster, safer and more comfortably.

They run simulations, propagate park & ride schemes, run shuttle busses and create special lanes. Rio’s mayor back in 2016 even declared four additional holidays to ease the impending congestion.

Instant gratification as the vision and the curse

Whether it’s Rio, London or the Rhine Ruhr region in Germany that wants to host the 2032 Summer Olympics: our world is getting more crowded while our demands for mobility keep increasing. On-demand options and the ease with which digital bits stream into our devices have created great expectations. Instant gratification is the vision — or the curse — mobility planners are doing battle with.

The three biggest mega-cities in the world, population by millions

The three biggest mega-cities in the world, population by millions

The stress doesn’t subside after the stress test, though. Big cities are great engines of creativity and drivers of economic innovation long after a mega event has passed.

So there are plenty of good reasons why urbanists and futurists like me should look at metro regions before, during and after a major event.

Having the Olympics come to town is better than any computer model, and it can teach us a thing or two for everyday operations.

It’s no coincidence that Daimler is a proud sponsor and active participant in the Metropolitan Cities Congress  taking place in Aachen on 19th and 20th of July. The event focuses on “designing ecosystems for innovation” and brings together bright minds from private industry, academia and the public sphere.

It will dedicate two days to exploring how the Rhine Ruhr region, one of the world’s large megaregions, can best prepare for hosting the Olympics in 2032. For that purpose, the state has fleshed out a comprehensive vision called “Rhine Ruhr City 2032″.

We at Daimler wholeheartedly support this bid because we’ve always believed that the Olympic idea promotes an ongoing intercultural dialog and provides an awesome world stage for top athletes.

Getting to peak performance is also our mantra when it comes to finding and building mobility solutions. For me as a futurist, there’s nothing more intriguing and more fun than to think about how we can sketch out future scenarios for a thriving metro area like Rhine Ruhr.

It’s a large region that encompasses big cities like Cologne, Düsseldorf, Dortmund and Wuppertal, and many mid-size towns in between. Their residents and future visitors need mobility ideas that make sense from an economic and environmental point of view. It’s vital for businesses in the region to keep moving, too, since a company like Daimler has plants and offices in the Region.

Taking it beyond Rhine Ruhr

What we come up with for Rhine Ruhr can serve as a model for other large metros such as Los Angeles. Sounds weird? I know, with Southern California is more than 9,000 kilometers away. But with close to ten million people, its intricate network of towns and cities and its notorious traffic jams, LA is really not that different from what Germans call the “Ruhrpott”.

Five metropolitans with the worst traffic in the world, average extra travel time during rush hours

Four metropolitans with the worst traffic in the world, average extra travel time during rush hours

We all suffer from the same mobility challenges. Urbanization is on the rise. More and more cars — approaching 1.5 billion and headed toward 2 billion by 2035  or so — will clog a limited number of roads. And it won’t get better as the global population keeps growing and more consumers become wealthy enough to afford a vehicle.

You could argue that very soon, any large city will be in traffic hell as if the Olympics were on, every single day.

What does that mean from a mobility researcher’s perspective? We have to start thinking and planning now! I take it as my job to get my colleagues at Daimler and beyond excited about shaping the future. I see a few big trend lines that can guide us.

Residents are rightfully taking back their cities

Cities of tomorrow won’t be shaped by the demands of cars anymore, but the demands of people. Residents are rightfully taking back their cities. That doesn’t mean we’ll kick cars out of urban life. But we’re learning to share space, consider shared or pooled alternatives underground, on the ground and even above ground.

There are many ways to get from A to B, and we need to explore and experiment with as many as possible.

The much-hyped smart city can only work if all parties talk to each other and work together.

Let’s start an ongoing conversation about mobility. That’s my hope for the Metropolitan Cities event in Aachen. The Rhine Ruhr region has the luxury of having a full 14 years to get ready for the Olympics. And the event’s organizers are smart enough to make this conference a yearly thing. It’s the best way to pick up signals of change, surface fresh ideas and to make sure we come up with a future of mobility that feels good for all involved and is sustainable.

Believe me, thinking about change and shaping it as a team effort is almost an Olympic discipline!

Marianne Reeb is a futurologist who heads the Future, Life, Mobility team. This team studies the social and technical changes that will occur in urban spaces in the future and it contributes its findings to strategic projects at the Daimler Group. The research focuses less on issues of technical feasibility than on the needs of cities and their residents. Other focal points include the interaction with smart machines and with artificial intelligence.