Smarter Transport in a Smarter city
A successful, sustainable London will need to have a sustainable transportation system. It is estimated that over 4,000 Londoners die early every year from air pollution, primarily due to traffic. Congestion is estimated to cost Londoners over £5 billion in wasted time, increased energy use and lost productivity. We cannot continue as we are, adding to the toll of unnecessary deaths, the congestion and the waste.
A sustainable transportation system is, by necessity, based on a strategy to lower emissions and lower congestion. We lower emissions by reducing the number of “combustion engines” and reducing the number and length of their journeys. Congestion occurs when our transportation system becomes saturated. Bottlenecks can be addressed by either better matching supply with demand or by providing more efficient throughput.
There are many well-recognised methods of managing supply and demand. Where a system has over-capacity, incentives need to be created to improve utilisation; where there is under-capacity (a system under stress) alternatives need to be encouraged. Price, time, convenience are all variables at the disposal of operators.
But this is all much easier said than done. How do we turn strategies into reality? At the heart of the answer lies data.
In today's highly instrumented and inter-connected world, travellers, transport providers and regulators can harness the data that technology creates and enables. Data is the common element that binds sustainable transport solutions together. From data we derive intelligence and the insight that can help London to sustainably move both people and goods.
As transportation and traveller data is collected, distributed, analysed and acted upon, it becomes a new data value chain of trusted Intelligent Information. Participants are not only travellers and operators but third parties too - who add value and create new business models for themselves. In such a scenario all parties are simultaneously providing and consuming (or reacting) to the same trusted information.
A key plank of a sustainable transportation policy is to move travellers out of their cars and onto alternative viable “transport outcomes”. This can be realised not just through a shift to public transportation (which is generally considered more sustainable) but potentially to walking, cycling or even not travelling at all. It is access to Intelligent Information that enables smarter, more sustainable transport outcomes.
Although London is already blessed with great public transport, the ideal system is fully multi-modal. This is one in which the interchange between transport modes (train, car, bus etc) is seamless and the balance between available supply and demand is efficiently met. One way to achieve this goal is through the provision of a trusted and real-time integrated journey planner used by both travellers and transport providers.
A personalised journey planner would advise travellers of their optimum multi-modal travel arrangements based on criteria such as time available to complete a journey, current location, destination, the expected efficiency and comfort of the journey, carbon impact and even price! It would be fed by real-time information on the availability of transport options as well as taking into account what other travellers are predicted to do.
Smartphones are the catalyst that are driving personalised journey planners. In addition to GPS information, they enable a rich data experience and provide a platform for the increasingly useful new forms of 'apps'. Furthermore since the smartphone can be a wallet and a translator too, a person could potentially now travel unimpeded by traditional barriers, and with an unprecedented quality of information. One can easily imagine a tourist in London provided with access to all of the information needed to navigate around the city - in their local language and using the same e-ticket benefits that Londoners enjoy.
The technology behind IBM's Watson computer, might soon help make the daily commute a whole lot easier - and safer. Watson represents a tremendous breakthrough in the ability of computers to understand natural human language. It can digest the equivalent of hundreds of millions of pages of material from books, reports and articles. In three seconds or less, it can pluck the correct answer from an ocean of unstructured data.
So, what does all that mean for the London commute? London already collects massive amounts of traffic data from sensors embedded in the road, traffic cameras, taxis and buses equipped with GPS devices. Using Watson technology, drivers and travellers could receive personalised answers to a broad range of travel-related questions, such as: “What's the best route to work if I leave now?” or “Will it be better if I wait 15 minutes?”
The ability to seamlessly coordinate multi-modal transportation is a tough balancing act between many factors including, for example, schedules and the number of potential passengers. Watson-like capabilities would see patterns in the traffic and real-time information based on current passenger demand . Transport operators could pose questions such as: “What happens if we delay this train for a minute or two because the bus that most of our passengers use to get to this station is running late and the next train isn’t for 20 minutes?”
When it comes to traffic, even real-time information is often not fast enough, predicting the future is much better. For example when you hear about a major traffic jam over the radio, it’s often too late to do anything to avoid it. If you’re lucky, you’re far enough away from the problem that you can take an alternate route or use public transportation. Predicting the hold up before it has happened and then correcting the outcome so as to lessen the impact on as many travellers as possible is now achievable using sophisticated traffic prediction modelling.
Recent IBM research has highlighted that London's drivers spend, on average, nearly 20 minutes looking for a parking space. Quite apart from the inconvenience, the additional driving simply adds to the congestion. Worldwide experts estimate that this causes 30 percent of urban traffic congestion. However, Smart technology is already in operation in some US cities, which removes the hassle of finding a parking space. What's more, linking such schemes to revenue collection and demand management policies allows operators to offer flexible pricing according to circumstances.
Smarter Transport is not just about people but freight too. The movement of freight, and in particular bulky freight, is being impacted by the Low Emissions Zone in London. Initiatives, such as the increasing use of the River Thames to move bulky goods that are not time critical, have been successful and are growing in number. For example, shifting freight off the road and into rail/road modal transfer sites could deliver significant improvements in sustainable freight transport. However these modern versions of the once popular freight yards, require new investment to establish the sites, and so is realistically still some way away.
New technology could offer other alternatives. We could use enhanced data analytics to help bring goods to you more efficiently, by matching where you are to where the goods have come from. For example your Amazon order could be handed to you as you step off the platform at Waterloo station because the delivery driver for the logistics company is aware you are close by. Technology could also provide a mechanism to enable logistics companies to share free space in delivery vans. By encouraging the use and sharing of data many more opportunities will be created to achieve smarter, more sustainable outcomes.
Smarter transport is therefore about getting the best from the existing transport infrastructure and using data to make sustainable choices. After all, we cannot build many more new highways across London, nor add more lanes to existing roads. More and better use of the data we already gather is more cost-effective and our best hope towards improved sustainability. It will involve operators, travellers and third parties being active members of the data value chain and embracing new technology.
I believe that Londoners and London will lead by example. The evidence is already there: the open data available from the Digital Store and the Congestion Charge Scheme - which was ahead of its time. Furthermore, embracing the new or setting a global trend has never been an issue for Londoners. Together we can lower emissions and lower congestion. Let's make London smarter and sustainable.
IBM Smarter Cities Architect