Home based real time travel information drives reduction in car use

David Crawford investigates a new approach to discouraging car use - the 'kitchen as travel centre'. ITS technology working together with UK planning legislation is driving an innovative 'kitchen as travel centre' approach to home design which is boosting public transport as an alternative to car use. The combination is already proving powerful enough to assuage environmentalist opposition to major urban developments. It is also being seen as a way of delivering wider social and community benefits inside an
Air Quality & Weather Systems / January 20, 2012
A Fastrack service.
A Fastrack service. Its route incorporates dedicated bus-only roads and a specially built bridge over the southern approach to the Dartford Crossing

David Crawford investigates a new approach to discouraging car use - the 'kitchen as travel centre'

ITS technology working together with UK planning legislation is driving an innovative 'kitchen as travel centre' approach to home design which is boosting public transport as an alternative to car use. The combination is already proving powerful enough to assuage environmentalist opposition to major urban developments.

It is also being seen as a way of delivering wider social and community benefits inside and outside the transport sphere. Meanwhile, the concept is generating growing interest outside the UK, with the US, mainland Europe and the Asia-Pacific region all showing positive interest for technology developer Vix ACIS.

Home portal

The acisHome portal was the idea of the company's strategic development manager, Julian Humpheson. He suggested enhancing the originally envisaged simple LCD screens giving Real-Time Information (RTI) on bus arrivals in homes at The Bridge development in Dartford, east of London. The result is an interactive colour touchscreen, which can serve as a multi-purpose information portal and debuted there in 2009.

The Bridge is a mixed-use scheme on brownfield land next to the Dartford Crossing, which carries the eastern section of the M25 London Orbital motorway across the River Thames.

Designated as a large-scale major distribution site, with global logistics provider Pro Logis as lead developer, its planning consents from Dartford Council required provision for an initial 1,130 new homes. These were to be supported by modern public transport links to discourage car use for shorter journeys and, ideally, remove the need for a second vehicle, so reducing local traffic congestion and emissions. (UK Department for Transport statistics indicate that 25 per cent of all trips are of less than 3.2km (2 miles)).

 The spine is the Fastrack express bus service, funded by the development partners through a Section 106 planning agreement (see panel) which also covered provision of the portal as a standard piece of equipment in the new homes. Run by global operator Arriva, Fastrack links them with Bluewater, the largest retail and leisure complex in Europe, local commuter railway stations, and Ebbsfleet International on the Eurostar international service between London and Paris/Brussels via the Channel Tunnel.

The portal is an 8.4in TfT screen, boxed to fit flush with the wall in new-build and driven by Power over Ethernet technology, allowing flexible positioning to receive power and data from a router linked to a LAN serving the development. Each unit costs approximately £2,000 (US$3,200), paid for under the section 106 agreement; the annual cost of the electricity consumption needed is around £5 (US$8), paid by the householder.

The typical location is the kitchen/eating area, to encourage breakfast-time journey planning, with the hallway as an alternative.

The concept acknowledges the psychological insight that the most effective time to change people's behaviour (in this case, automatic resort to the car) is at a transition point in their lives - for example, a house move - when new habits can best be instilled.

Information services

The core service gives next Fastrack departures in real time from the nearest stop, derived via a LAN from in-vehicle satellite-based tracking updated every 30 seconds. It also offers news, weather information and an audible 'imminent bus arrival' alert that can be set to suit individual family members' needs. Statistics show an 11 per cent shift from car use to the bus, with 26 per cent of passengers having a car available at home.

Information on connecting rail departures is currently being added. More services, giving details of queue lengths on the nearby motorway network and car parking capacity in Dartford town centre, are available for acquisition by the council; while other potential content could include walking and cycling routes and car club availability,

Further expansion of the concept could see the portal as the first point in a continuous journey planning system. After initially checking the weather and next service arrivals, the user sets off for the bus stop, where an at-stop RTI display confirms the upcoming departure.

In-trip, s/he will be able to use a mobile internet-enabled smartphone to plan later journeys and set SMS reminder alerts using the system back office. In the event of any stop on the way not having a display, s/he can text its ID number to the back office to receive the necessary information.

Vix ACIS is already working in partnership with transport industry services provider 86 Logica on the development of an 'empowered personal travel' service platform. With £8 million (US$13 million) of funding from the UK Technology Strategy Board, the two plan to design, develop and demonstrate a multimodal, personalised, context-aware online 'virtual travel assistant' service for travellers before and throughout their journeys.

Environmental and social

In the second portal deployment to date, at Leighton Buzzard in the English South Midlands, the availability of the technology to support new bus services has helped to overcome objections by Friends of the Earth (FoE) to large-scale developments. The £7 million (US$11.2 million) Dash Direct bus links 1,300 equipped new homes in the south of the town with its centre and railway station.

The service started running in April 2010 after six years of negotiations between local authorities, Arriva and developer Arnold White Estates. Support from central government came in the form of a £1 million (US$1.6 million) grant.

On the strength of this experience, FoE has controversially reversed its previous opposition to plans for larger residential developments to the east of the town. It is demanding the installation of a similar transport scheme linked with the assurance of high environmental standards of house design.

Section 106

Section 106 of the UK Town and Country Planning Act 1990 enables a local planning authority to require a landowner or developer to deliver specified community benefits as a condition of granting planning permission within a legally binding agreement. Section 106 agreements, which have to be directly related, and fairly and reasonably appropriate, to the proposed development, are typically used to gain financial support for the provision of services and infrastructure, such as new roads, affordable housing and health, educational or leisure amenities. Their use to support transport technology represents a pioneering approach by Dartford Council. The political driving force is a UK Government requirement for local authorities to create green travel plans to minimise the impact of car travel on the environment.
Elsewhere in the UK, Vix ACIS will be installing demonstration portals in show homes in new housing developments in the rural county of Cornwall and the historic university city of Oxford. Both are highly environmentally sensitive locations.

The company has already completed the concept design of a retrofit version of the portal for use in existing homes, with most of the technology tested. It is, however, currently holding back until it has a clearer picture of the specific market opportunities that it wants to target.

In addition to the portal's core role of encouraging greater public use, Humpheson sees improved social cohesion as a potential growth area. He envisages it delivering 'social consciousness' incentives allowing, for example, for users to calculate the carbon savings and calorie burning of walking and cycling as encouragement to use these options.

They could also use the LAN to monitor their energy consumption on a comparative basis, achieved by the aggregation of anonymous readings from all homes with, say, a common postcode.

At the same time, local authorities and social housing providers are expressing interest in using the system to disseminate information to residents and also to poll them. Says Humpheson: "Because it is simple to navigate, always accessible and lacks the distractions of the Internet at large, people can reach key information much more easily."

Supporting local businesses

Again, one of the problems with new developments is that local businesses, often set up to serve them, fail because they struggle to make the arriving occupiers aware of their existence. One idea is to use the acisHome portal as a directory of local firms, who can advertise and promote their offers - and their accessibility - where it is easy for residents to find them.

Installation in non-residential buildings is another possibility, with Vix ACIS already providing large TfT RTI displays and having the capability to provide information for company intranets. (The UK's internationally recognised Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) rewards public transport-friendly designs).

Meanwhile, scope for exporting the concept has gained from the recent acquisition of UK-based ACIS (Advanced Communication and Information Systems), which originated it, by the Australia-headquartered 647 Vix Technology group.

Humpheson: "We have already had interest from overseas, for example from two US States - Colorado, where planned new developments will rely largely on public transport for both residents and skiing season visitors, and Utah."

The portal is also benefiting from its new role as a VIX Technology product, with presentations to its French and Northern Europeans regions in January 2010 and the Asia-Pacific in February. Through its Vix ERG subsidiary, the group is already a major actor in the public transport smartcard payment sector. Prospects for synergies are strong, says Humpheson.

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