The world has changed
COVID-19 restrictions are under constant review. As and when restrictions are eased, how do transport networks meet the new demands placed on them and facilitate the revival of economies? We believe Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) technology has a key role to play.
The COVID-19 post lockdown effect
Once traffic eventually finds its way back to peak levels, we estimate there will be more vehicles than ever on roads, largely due to the dramatic reduction in public transport use. Data from one of our ClearWay radars, which already demonstrates more traffic on the road than before lockdown, suggests this is likely to be the case (see Graph 1 below).
Rather than a short-lived phenomenon, we believe this pattern will reflect a long-term shift in behaviour where people are more reluctant to use public transport and turn to alternatives. Organisations will increasingly look for remote working solutions, but unfortunately the reduction in use of public transport will almost certainly result in a net increase in traffic.
Before COVID-19, governments were already investing huge sums in road infrastructure projects to increase capacity. Finding that extra capacity fast, and ideally with the same infrastructure, will be imperative to get our economies moving, as highway building projects are costly and can take years to deliver.
Technology-enabled solutions can increase SRN capacity
Around the world, we are already seeing countries using technology-enabled solutions, to increase their Strategic Road Network (SRN) capacity. In Perth, the road authority, Main Roads Western Australia, is about to switch on the first smart highway in Western Australia.
Commissioned before the onset of COVID-19, its combination of over 800 devices will work in unison — including several Navtech Radar sensors networked to the highway authority’s secure data centres — to keep traffic flowing and cut 10 minutes off the commuter journey. Automated detection of accidents and stopped vehicles, which can then be attended to and cleared quickly, as well as optimal management of traffic flow are two of the main features of the system.
We anticipate the use of technology to maximise existing road capacity, will be an increasing trend in the future.
"[This project] is the way of the future. This is about using your existing lanes better ... and knowing [that] we can't continually just widen [the freeway]. The Smart Freeway Project itself is expected to save time and create a smoother drive for motorists from Roe Highway to the Narrows Bridge. [We are] certain this system will be rolled out very soon across the rest of the freeway network”.
Rita Saffioti, Western Australia’s Transport Minister
Keeping cities moving
As well as the need to increase capacity on strategic road networks quickly, cities will need to keep moving. With a changing urban environment, now with more cyclists, pedestrians and traffic, a heady combination is emerging. This will undoubtably lead to an increased number of safety related incidents and will require solutions to improve safety and minimise journey times to create a positive experience for all these types of road user.
A scientific study, carried out in 2018, found that people were happy to commute up to 45 minutes, if it means living in a good area or reaching a desirable job, but not longer. So, if journey times increase and become more troublesome, it will negatively influence the prosperity of cities, at a time when they most need it.
The power of data
Real-time data about traffic flows on all sections of roads, including hard shoulders and safety areas, is becoming ever more important. Stinson ITS, in Canada, are looking at the importance of data and recently conducted research with those working in the transport sector. 81% of respondents asked about the importance of traffic counting data to their roles, mentioned them as very important or moderately important.
We believe delivering real-time information to road planners and operators, so they can make data-based decisions in an agile way, would have a transformative impact. Such data would give accurate insights into the changing transport patterns as they are emerging, such as in Graph 2 (below) which shows, on the UK motorway where it was collated, that post full-lockdown people are staggering their morning commute, however traffic levels are peaking at approximately p.m. on the way home.
The capability to plan new infrastructure based on real data, not assumptions, in an unpredictable world would be one outcome. Better live management of traffic flow within the city, is another. Prioritising signals for particular users, such as cyclists, minimising queues, predicting traffic flows at junctions and the effects of road works, could be features of such a system.
Integrating this data about your road network into other IT systems, for modelling purposes or into consumer facing apps, are other possible uses of such data. This could provide the road users with more detailed information, so they can make more informed decisions about their journeys.
Cities that adopt such technology solutions, will be positioning themselves well for the future. Rich data about your road network, matched with further advances in technology, will bring more opportunities. Maximising traffic flow with features such as dynamic routing and information shared directly into cars can become a reality. This is the first of many steps towards a world where cars are becoming increasingly both autonomous and connected.