Why Microsimulation Matters

Fourteen years ago, I had just concluded my consulting stint with Segway (the original company) when I had been working on urban mobility solutions for them.

Fourteen years ago, I had just concluded my consulting stint with Segway (the original company) when I had been working on urban mobility solutions for them. I had learned about microsimulation, a computer analytical tool to evaluate the traffic flow in a city, and scheduled a meeting with Steer Davies Gleave, a leading transportation planning firm in London that was out in front in this area. Arriving at the meeting, I was certain the firm had explored how new micromobility vehicles like the Segway could be game changers when applied to city traffic. I nearly fell out of my chair when I learned they had never even considered it. For all the promise small urban-scale mobility vehicles offer, why would this not be studied?

I remain in shock, as I am not aware of any leading transportation planning firm in the world today actively studying this.

As a car designer, we mainly style automotive vehicles. Yes, there is a design aspect, but the look and styling of cars remains the main job. As we move to become mobility designers, I think we need to be looking at the performance of an entire city’s mobility system, and how we can FLOW much better. Microsimulation is an essential new tool to this work.

Let’s consider the growing list of European cities planning to reduce the number of cars in their city centers. Politically, this is a challenging task. Proposing new ways to move is hard enough, but in these car-reduced city centers there are many businesses, and many of them are small and their owners depend on their customer’s ability to access them easily. Requiring all conventional cars to stay at the city edge often generates substantial concerns for these business owners. They really need to see a microsimulation model on how things will get better for them, to even think they will support these major mobility restructuring efforts.

MIT proposed a car-free zone for Florence, Italy, in 2005. The design had massive car parking stations on the city’s periphery. New light and local modes of mobility were proposed for the center. To create a microsimulation of this model to start, inputs to the simulation model included the user’s car parking time, time to transfer to internal mode, and the performance of the internal modes. In theory, a resident in the city’s suburbs could make this intermodal switch and still reach businesses earlier than today’s traffic clogged model. (Remember, over 30 percent of our cars in cities are looking for a place to park, so a new intermodal model can perform much better).

Microsimulation (from microanalytic simulation) is defined on Wikipedia “as a category of computerized analytical tools that perform highly detailed analysis of activities such as highway traffic flowing through an intersection.” An urban mobility definition has yet to be added.

Microsimulation in the mobility space is used today to evaluate new road/freeway designs for conventional cars and trucks. If a city was to build a new sports arena, the local neighborhood would ask for a simulation of the new traffic impacts.

Even companies like Disney will use microsimulation to evaluate a new ride or even a restaurant design in their parks. How many people can they serve in the fewest hours for lunch? All aspects of the restaurant’s floorplan are studied for greatest output.

I expect we will see microsimulation become essential to the new urban mobility field. Rather than a company like Ford introducing a new bike-share service in a city, with no idea how it will actually alter/improve traffic flow, microsimulation allows a new solution to be seen in action and evaluated, with the end goal of dramatically improving a city’s mobility system and allowing their millions of residents to live far better lives.

Had I actually created a model for Florence using a shared Segway scheme, working with the modelers, we would need to enter the small vehicle’s footprint, its top speed, the rate of acceleration and braking would need to be estimated. All aspects of how the user would control the vehicle would be needed.

The European cities are out in front on serious car reduction strategies. I believe microsimulations of proposed new systems will assist this transformation in a very meaningful way.