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Smarter transport remains key to smart cities

First publishedin ITS International
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Shell's Visualisation
Shell's Visualisation of how future 'fuel'stations could look.

Colin Sowman looks at some of the challenges and solutions that will provide enhanced transport efficiency in tomorrow’s smarter cities.  

However you define a ‘smart city’, one of the key ingredients will be an efficient transport system. As most governments and city authorities face financial constraints, incremental improvements in the existing systems is the most likely way forward.

In London, new trains and signalling are improving the capacity of the Underground but that then reveals previously dormant bottlenecks in passenger tunnels and ticket halls, at the barriers and even when boarding and leaving the trains.

At its London Innovation Centre, Cubic is evaluating some solutions, including a self-configuring ticket barrier which automatically reverses direction depending on which way most people are moving at the time. So instead of having underused gates for travellers heading in the ‘wrong’ direction, the new gates use real-time data to dictate the gateline configuration.

The system counts the size of the crowd using paired infra-red sensors with top-down location awareness to evaluate the balance between those entering and exiting a station and automatically reconfigures the gates to relieve any crowd build-up.

Similar technology is being developed to evaluate the number of people boarding and alighting from underground trains to identify which carriages have more space for people to board. Sending that information ahead to the next station enables travellers on the platform to congregate in areas corresponding to the emptier carriages and to board faster.

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Cubic's  Bluetooth low-energy
Cubic's Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) system being tested at Paddington Station.

The movement of people through common areas is a major factor in transport hub efficiency. Factors such as people stopping to read the destination boards or where flows of people needing to cross each other’s paths can slow progress and cause queues. To observe this in a live environment, Cubic is using facial recognition and other technologies to track people through the monitored area. The anonymised data is collected and aggregated to analyse the flow of people and detect anything that inhibits that flow.

One of the biggest obstructions is the need to present a ticket at a barrier. To overcome this Cubic is developing a Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) system to identify approaching travellers and grant entry with minimal delay. A back-office system retrospectively calculates journey fares for account-based billing.

Currently being piloted at one of the UK’s busiest rail stations, Paddington, not only does this improve passenger throughput, it also expands data aggregation and planning.

Ultimately the company believes physical gates will be largely eliminated which will double passenger throughput from 25/min to 50/min per gate. Its experimental FasTrak system uses a 3-D stereoscopic scanner for facial recognition, Bluetooth and RFID wireless technologies for activation, and a biometric database for high-speed dataset lookup.

Passage would only be denied entry if facial recognition determines that an individual has not registered for the service.

The system logs incidents where the face is purposely obstructed and not recognisable to create an intelligent report that shows the days, times and places of these occurrences. As the database grows, evaders’ routines can be mapped to allow transport operators to predictively arrange enforcement and once the individual(s) are identified, penalties or prosecution can be actioned to recoup losses.

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Cubic is exploring gateless
Cubic is exploring a gateless gateline

London Underground, like other transport systems, offers many options to get from A to B and research reveals that travellers will use them all – even the slower and convoluted routes. To help London’s travellers (even regular users) find the fastest route, Cubic is testing an interactive underground map with a 65inch touchscreen. Users select their destination and the map provides concise directions for the quickest route and produces a QR code which loads the directions onto the user’s smart phone.

Buses are central to most cities’ public transport systems. However, most are diesel-powered which contribute to urban air quality problems and this is exacerbated by the stop-start nature of bus operations, and congestion, which sees the exhaust emission control cool down resulting in a drastic loss of efficiency.

Electric buses are a solution but their limited operating range has been restrictive. To counter this ABB has introduced an opportunity charging system called OppCharge which can recharge the batteries in Volvo’s latest 7900e electric bus on-route in less than six minutes. This regular topping up of the part-charged batteries allows the bus to run for up to 30km.

As the bus approaches the mast, a Wi-Fi connection confirms that it is safe for the pantograph to descend and a smart controller automatically drops the pantograph onto charging rails on the roof.

Transport for Greater Manchester in the UK, is trialling an electric-powered Volvo bus and an OppCharge on its circular Metroshuttle 2 route which is around 11.5km long and takes about 45 minutes. The free-use service runs 12 hours a day and uses a single OppCharge point while a similar arrangement is being tried in Malmö, Sweden, on a 14.7km route.

Volvo calculates the socio-economic road noise cost of the electric bus is 90% lower than a diesel-powered counterpart. 

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ABB's OppCharge  is being trialled in Manchester
ABB's OppCharge is being trialled in Manchester and other large cities.

Lower noise could be a significant benefit of Tesla’s newly-announced electric truck – especially for night-time urban deliveries. The company says its truck will be 20% cheaper to own and run than a diesel equivalent and will have a fully-laden range of 800km (500-mile) at motorway speeds, although details of available payload and load volumes have yet to emerge.

If a smart city’s transport system is to succeed, it needs to be smart 24/7/365 - even when it is undergoing changes and redevelopment - and Singapore’s bus system is a case in point. The country’s third largest bus interchange, serving 400,000 passengers per day in the Woodlands region, needs a major three-year rebuild so to maintain services during the redevelopment, a temporary bus interchange has been introduced.

While a temporary interchange (with spaces for 51 articulated and 10 rigid buses) will never be ideal, it still must be efficient. This includes a need to minimise delays in finding a parking bay so the authority has installed Nedap’s Sensit smart parking platform to provide live bay occupancy information and parking guidance for bus drivers.

A large electronic panel shows the number of available parking spaces as the buses enter the interchange which can save bus drivers up to three minutes in finding an empty bay.

Other features include cameras placed above queue berths to alert interchange operators to crowds, so they can adjust bus arrivals accordingly.

Future road transport will use a multitude of fuels (diesel, petrol, hydrogen fuel cells, electricity, gas and possibly more) with urban transport favouring the cleanest solutions while fossil fuel will retain a stronger foothold in rural areas and on longer distances.

This poses energy companies like Shell (which has some 43,000 fuel stations in 80 countries) with a conundrum - which fuel to provide in which location? Stuart Blyde, its lead for connected car and connected stores of tomorrow says, “this is an energy and a digital transformation combined.

“There won’t be one solution but a mix. We will keep close to the market and the OEMs and adapt our retail portfolio as necessary.”

This will probably require new forecourt layouts and places for people to get a coffee while their electric vehicle is charging or even separate stations dedicated to different fuels. His recipe is: “Try everything, some will fail, others will succeed but the ability to ‘fail fast’ is vital because if you keep on for too long and something then fails, you can be left miles away from your overall objective.”

Shell is trying new services such as Tap-Up in the Netherlands where the company sends out a truck to fuel up vehicles rather than the vehicles coming to the station. “We will test it and if it works we will think about scaling it up.”

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 Hyperloop-style system
TransPod says its Hyperloop-style system can be built at a lower cost than traditional high-speed rail.

Electric fast charging points are being installed in many of the company’s stations but local needs and business models vary from place to place and from country to country. “We are willing to try out new energy mixes. We have some emobility in London and in Germany we are collaborating with the government and other companies to build a network of 400 hydrogen refilling stations. Half of the energy for those stations must be from renewable sources.”

Its Fill up and Go connected car scheme aims to simplify refuelling by geo-locating the vehicle, meaning the driver only needs to enter the pump number and their pin code for their account to be automatically debited. As well as being quicker, he says parents like the scheme as they do not have to leave their children in the car while they visit the kiosk to pay.

Looking ahead to an era of shared mobility, he sees account flexibility as particularly important because the driver may not own the vehicle or be an employee of the owner and may be unwilling or unable to pay for fuel or a recharge out of their own pocket. Already, a EuroShell card can be used to pay for other goods and services, including tolls, and this will be taken forward, and expanded into its digital offerings.  Blyde says: “This is not just about deciding the products we want to sell but the platforms we want to use. Fleet owners want everything bundled together in one account so it is hassle free for their drivers - and digital is great for that.”

Inter-urban travel will remain an important factor in future transport and recently the ‘Hyperloop’ concept, which uses magnetically elevating trains running through evacuated tubes, has gained significant momentum. A Canadian study of a high-speed link between Toronto and Windsor (opposite Detroit) using a local Hyperloop-style system called TransPod, provides an interesting insight. The trains comprise of a number of 27 people/ 10 – 15tonne pods and are capable of speeds in excess of 1,200km/h (745mph). This would make the 370km (230 mile) trip from Toronto to Windsor 45 minutes which TransPod director Thierry Boitier says will be “as quick as short-hop inter-city flights”.

Such high-speed trains work best on longer, inter-urban distances but the idea is that they will run city centre to city centre and ‘points’ or ‘junctions’ can be made for diverging and converging networks. The trains can run at 80 second intervals, meaning the twin-tube system can transport up to 45 trains per hour in each direction – equating to 14m people per year.

A government of Ontario study for the Toronto and Windsor project estimated the cost for building a ‘traditional’ high speed rail line at C$149m/km (US$117m/km) for 300km/h service or C$55m/km (US$43m/km) with a 250km/h system.

In its Order of Magnitude Analysis, TransPod identifies its preliminary capital costs as C$29m/km (US$23m/km) – including constructing a service road. As the 4m diameter steel tubes in which the trains run sit on 5m high pillars spaced 25m apart, the track can span many obstructions without additional infrastructure.

Boitier says a 14km radius is required to keep passengers “comfortable at full speed” with tighter curves negotiated at lower speed. The current design is limited to a gradient of 3.5% (not dissimilar to high-speed rail) and the pillars can be varied in height to help achieve this while minimising groundwork.

Existing roads can be utilised as the service road for construction and maintenance purposes and the 1.5m (min) diameter pillars could even be positioned between carriageways. Four emergency exits (two on each side) are required every 1.2km with an electricity substation every 5km.

TransPod says the system is carbon negative with the solar panels on top of the tubes feeding electricity into the utility supply and over a year they would generate as much, or more, electricity than the trains consume.

Wireless transmission

Smart cities will increase demand for communications - not only for transport and ITS sectors, but increasingly for the Internet of Things (IoT) including smart meters, healthcare monitoring, home security systems, remote lighting … the list goes on.

However, every additional device takes up some bandwidth and expanding a fibre optic cable network is prohibitively expensive – especially because of the distributive nature of systems like, for instance, parking sensors. According to the International WiSun Alliance, the answer is a combination of edge processing and distributed node wireless communications.

The Alliance promotes the adoption of open industry standards. Its chairman, Phil Beecher, says that at around one megabit per second, distributed node wireless mesh networks are much faster than the low power wide area networks used for high latency applications such as monitoring recycling bins. Distributed node wireless mesh networks are designed to work with edge computing and to share that information locally, making them applicable to the transport and ITS sector.

“A distributed node network is not as fast as fibre but good enough for passing large amounts of numerical data between nodes as peer-to-peer communication, although not for streaming live video. So as long as you have power you can use edge computing to analyse the information and transmit only relevant data wirelessly without the need to trench.”

He gives the example of remote activation of streetlights and says the node attached to the light “can also be used as a relay for other communication and an ingress point for parking sensors, pedestrian and cycle detection, average speed, sequencing traffic lights or other instrumentation.”

• Further guidance on selecting wireless networks is available on the WiSun website.

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