Take the Sting out of the Charge13 August 2008
Catherine Lafferty looks at how London will use technology to help administer its newest congestion zone.
It was all change at City Hall this year when former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone was replaced by Boris Johnson. But Livingstone's flagship transport policies, controversial in some quarters but hailed as a brave step forward by others, were always going to outlive him. The congestion charge and low-emission-zone schemes are here to stay, a fact underlined when business systems giant IBM, secured the contract with Transport for London (TfL) to provide the congestion charge and low-emission-zone services.
The hotly anticipated announcement followed a careful 12-month competitive tendering procurement process which saw IBM beat rivals Capita Group and Thales Alliance in securing the contract. The contract has an estimated value of £200m.
Together with its consortium partner NCP Services, from November 2009, IBM will be in charge of the congestion charge and low-emission-zone schemes including the technology that will underpin payments and all customer contact channels for the next five years, with TfL having an option to extend the deal for a further five years.
Intelligent transport systems
A key feature of IBM's management of the two policy areas will be in its use of 'intelligent transport systems' (ITS) which favour cutting-edge technologies, rather than traditional infrastructure developments, the better to juggle the competing demands of vehicles, loads, safety, fuel consumption and time efficiency.
Colin Lim, intelligent transport systems business executive at IBM explained the importance of ITS for contemporary transport policy: "Transport Authorities across the world can no longer depend solely on the traditional approach of building more infrastructure as this requires significant financial commitment as well as complex regulatory and environmental planning processes. Instead they are turning to making better use of what they already have, by using technology to provide them with improved 'intelligence'."
As many cities have particular issues to address and are at different stages of development, the applications of ITS inevitably vary according to the needs of a particular client. But in general ITS can be applied to strategic planning, normal operations and real-time intervention. Thus at a strategic level, ITS can be used to provide the backbone of an integrated transportation system, provide performance measurement across the entire system or even entice travellers to use more than one mode of transportation as part of their journey.
A lot of this can sound complex and daunting to the lay person but IBM emphasises that ITS offers real benefits to ordinary members of the travelling public, extending consumer choice in terms of payment methods and fare adjustments.
"At an operational level ITS can be used to gather data in real time – so as to be able to inform the travelling public and offer alternative routes, it can be used to offer a variety of payment methods – for example fare cards, mobile phones, the internet. Also, integrated fares such as we already see in London where travellers can buy tickets that include both train and tube – but imagine extending that concept to include trams, buses and cars. ITS can even be used to adjust fares according to the time of day or mode of transport," Lim said.
Transport is a necessity for commuting Londoners but congestion is its disease. But as Lim explained, real-time intervention offers the tantalising prospect of solving this persistent problem by fine tuning traffic operations according to the most up-to-the-minute information on commuter density.
"Putting in systems to gather data is one thing, but extracting useful information for the operators that can be used to intelligently modify travelling behaviour is something else – and a major advantage. Systems can be built so as to accurately predict where congestion will take place – imagine - before it has actually happened. Traffic light sequencing can be modified according to predicted traffic levels, road lane usage could vary according to the direction of traffic flows at different times of day.
The breakthroughs in technology that have enabled these systems to be developed have been many and varied. Of critical importance is 'service-orientated architecture', which is an architectural approach to designing computer systems. "This type of approach is well proven to deliver benefits across many areas that have typically employed heavy use of technology," Lim said. "For complex transportation systems it means being able to develop systems quickly, that are flexible and scalable. It's important that future integration and interoperability between transportation systems are not impeded because of static, or expensive-to-change IT systems.
"The second technological advance is open and common standards. Many areas have benefited tremendously by IT systems agreeing to speak a common language, and by providing connections to one another.
"Black boxes are fast becoming a thing of the past. It's an inextricable truth that no one computer is best suited to all uses – you wouldn't pop to your local supermarket in a juggernaut and similarly a haulage firm wouldn't use a fleet of family compact cars for its international distribution business – and so it is in IT.
Many different IT systems are employed by different transport operators, they vary in size, they vary in the software that they run, some like sensor systems you wouldn't even recognise as computers – but now many can and do interconnect."
In addition, the ongoing improvements in data collection, location and communications technologies such as radio-frequency identification technology (RFID), GPS and WiMAX, provide significant foundations for ITS.
IBM is already responsible for the delivery and operation of the Stockholm Congestion Project. It also provides the backend for Singapore's automatic fare collection system and has worked with Singapore on a number of other ITS projects. It has also provided the UK Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency's (DVLA) electronic vehicle licensing system.
IBM's operations in Singapore in particular offer a vision of the future of public transport in London. It runs a 'traffic prediction pilot'. A traffic model has been built and using historical data and real-time traffic input from Singapore's Land Transport Authority (LTA) it is able to predict traffic flows over preset durations ranging from ten minutes to an hour into the future, and to an accuracy in excess of the target set at 85%.
Graeme Craig, interim director of congestion charging at TfL, stressed that IBM won the contract because it best met TfL's operational and technical requirements. "It was also the most economically advantageous, which is important as net proceeds from congestion charging are invested in transport within London," he said.
Looking to the future, Lim thinks that the number of cities using ITS is bound to grow. As payment, travel information and efficient traffic routing across the entire transport system become the norm, a single, consolidated experience for travellers using a variety of transport modes will be provided, he said.
Longer term, Lim predicts that public transport will be increasingly personalised to meet the needs of individual commuters. "The trains and buses you ride will send updates to your mobile phone, letting you know the number of seats available, when the next train or bus will arrive, and how long it will take you to get from where you are now to where you want to be, even suggesting the best method that will get you there faster," he said.
Perhaps most attractive of all is that these same systems will allow schedulers to make real-time route corrections. In other words, 'bus bunching' will be a thing of the past.