Focusing on the individual

nmmagazine-2014-1-individu

Urban roads are getting busier and busier – and this despite the economic crisis. In previous editions we addressed the possibilities that traditional traffic management has to offer, and this approach retains its validity. But are there other paths that we could take to ensure that cities remain accessible and liveable? What opportunities does in-car technology have to offer? And is it not time in any case to stop thinking (exclusively) in terms of traffic flows and to start focusing on individuals?

Article from NM-Magazine, March 2014 – also available in PDF (Dutch only)

Many demographic changes are about to take place in the Netherlands – and they are going to affect the development of mobility. In areas where the population is already declining, such as Southern Limburg, Zeeuws-Vlaanderen and parts of Groningen and Drenthe, the number of inhabitants will continue to drop. This will put even greater pressure on public transport. At the same time, according to KiM (Netherlands Institute for Traffic Policy Analysis) in its report ‘Krimp en mobiliteit’ (2010), areas with demographic contraction will see an increase in car mobility because their inhabitants will be traveling more.
Other areas in the Netherlands will have demographic growth, particularly urban areas. Statistics Netherlands (Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek) and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving) have observed that Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht have developed from slow growth areas into fast growth areas over the last decade. They are predicting a population growth for the Netherlands of some 650,000 people for the period 2012-2015, with a third of this increase occurring in the four big cities. Urban growth offers interesting opportunities for public transport providers. But public transport will only be able to absorb some of the increased demand for mobility: car mobility in urban areas will also grow (strongly) over the coming years, according to KiM in the report just quoted.

Bottlenecks

So this means that Dutch roads are about to get busier, particularly in urban environments. The economic crisis may currently be causing a dip in car use, but all short and long term trends indicate that this will not last long. Recent studies in Arnhem, Nijmegen and Rotterdam confirm this. What are the consequences of increased car mobility, specifically for cities? Many cities are already struggling to absorb incoming traffic – and this will only become more difficult. Rush hour will last longer, and so will traffic jams. Journey times and the unpredictability of journey times in urban areas will increase, with long delays especially on roads in and out of the inner cities. Roads with limited capacity due to bridges and tunnels will become little ‘time bombs’: every time the volume of traffic becomes too high, there will be further congestion. Parking will also become more difficult, and queues outside car parks are a likely scenario. Of course each city is unique and it is therefore necessary to have specific research to determine what each city’s most likely bottlenecks are – see the text box ‘Foto’s van de stad’ in the PDF. But the general rule is likely to be that places that are already busy will become even busier over the coming few years if policy doesn’t change.

Bottom-up

NM Magazine 2013 #3 carried an article about the capacity of urban traffic management to remedy bottlenecks. In ‘Verkeersmanagement als oplossing voor binnenstedelijke problemen’ (‘Traffic management as a solution for inner city problems’) the authors addressed the possibilities that existing solutions offer. They wrote mainly about influencing traffic flows using traffic control installations, roundabout metering signals and information display panels, and stressed the importance of deploying measures in a coordinated way (control scenarios). Regulating traffic in an intelligent way using traffic control instruments will remain necessary and useful. If only to achieve better flow of traffic; something that is possible by maintaining traffic control systems properly, as the report ‘Kosteneffectiviteit van verkeerskundig beheer van verkeersregelinstallaties’ (‘Cost-effectivity of traffic science maintenance of traffic control systems’) has recently demonstrated. In this issue, however, we are taking a different approach to the urban problem by looking at the matter from the point of view of the individual. Or, to put it differently: it’s necessary not only to carry out top-down interventions in traffic flows, but also to think and work from the individual road user’s perspective, i.e. bottom-up. Is the shift that is being proposed here from ‘influencing the collective’ to a balanced mix of ‘providing individual services where possible and influencing the collective where necessary’ viable and realistic? It is at any rate compliant with new action programs such as ‘Beter geïnformeerd op weg’ (‘Better informed on the road’), which was discussed in the main article in NM Magazine 2013 #4. It also fits in with PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency’s forecasts about future urban developments, such as in its ‘De energieke samenleving’ (‘The energetic society’) report (2011, Prof Maarten Hajer), which affords a central role to individuals. We are talking about such concepts as ‘bottum-up urban engagement’, ‘crowd sourcing’ and similar terms. But above all the individual approach is interesting – and therefore promising – because it is compatible with the way people behave and move through cities.

Data sources

In order to work from an individual perspective, it is essential to provide the individual with all relevant information, so that he or she can come to considered decisions. The approach therefore starts with collecting, organizing and combining data. But what are the available data sources? Floating object data, collected from the traces left by mobile phones and navigation systems, provide good insight into the patterns people use to negotiate the city – on foot, by bike, by car or by public transport. Not only as a day average, but on very specific days or even moments of the day, and starting from specific origins. Floating object data can be supplemented by traffic data collected by road managers themselves: through induction loops, cameras and Bluetooth boxes for instance. Details such as road closures or diversions as a result of road works, events and incidents are also relevant.
Service providers, both public and commercial, can enhance the live ‘road map’ that is created in this way by adding their urban information. For instance information about public transport (including current departure and arrival times), about available park and ride spaces and other parking facilities (including occupancy rate and price), about rental bike schemes and bicycle parking stations etc. But information such as the location, opening hours and booking possibilities of city halls, police stations, libraries, restaurants, cinemas, museums, supermarkets etc. also adds value.
A further step is to enable people to share experiences of the city and its accommodation and travel options. This is already happening on social media: what’s the best place for lunch? Where’s the best place to park? An interesting traffic-related example is Berlin’s Dynamic Connections Map, which allows cyclists in Berlin to indicate which cycle routes they are taking in the city and to give their verdict on the quality of these cycle routes. This has created an interesting picture of the bicycle network in Berlin and its quality as it is experienced by cyclists – see Figure 1 in the PDF. Similar initiatives are also possible for other road users. Some years ago, Enschede offered its citizens the opportunity to indicate on a map where they thought road safety needed to be improved. The purpose was to collect input for a new road safety policy plan. But why not collect this kind of feedback on an ongoing basis?

Live map

Many more sources are conceivable besides the ones described above. But the argument is clear: a lot of urban data that is relevant for travelers is already available or can be made available. If we integrate and combine all this information, we will have created a live map of the city with interesting possibilities. Road managers can use the purely traffic-related information, including the experiences shared by road users, to make policy (such as putting the right road safety measures in place) and to evaluate it. Moreover, up-to-date traffic information about the entire road network, and not just the traffic light queues, enable road managers to manage the traffic in a targeted way, and to make use of the road network’s spare capacity. They could, for instance, adapt traffic control measures to the way in which the road infrastructure is actually being used.
Businesses, retailers and transport companies will benefit from having this information, because it allows them to plan their deliveries of supplies to the city in a smart way, so that the flow of goods and the flow of persons cause minimal disruption to each other. But a live map would primarily be useful for the individual approach to travel that is being advocated here. The more traffic-related and urban information (the latter category includes restaurants, cinemas etc.) is available, the more service providers will be able to combine this in a smart and targeted way with the traveler’s personal data: his destination, desired arrival time, the theater show he wants to attend or the details of the business relation he is visiting, his preferences, information about his car, such as fuel level et cetera. Service providers can then provide personal information and recommendations to travelers prior to their journey via their smartphone and during the journey via an in-car system. Examples of what might be displayed in the car could be: “Bridge open. I will guide you to an alternative route and will inform your destination that you are going to be 5 minutes late”, “Your battery is nearly empty. I am reserving a charging station near your destination” or “Tip: park your car at P+R Arena and switch to line 54 in the direction of the city center. To confirm, press ‘yes’, and I will pay and bring you there”. Of course, countless commercial messages are also imaginable, depending on the preferences, location and route of the user: free Coke included in the menu at the hamburger restaurant along the road, extra AirMiles if you fill up at service station X et cetera.
If travelers receive personal service in this way, and if the information that they receive also proves to be reliable, is it not reasonable to expect that the rate of advice actually followed will be high, including recommendations concerning choosing the right route? This will lead to the self-regulation of traffic in an optimal form, with the traffic distributing itself evenly across the network, making good use of the spare capacity.
Road managers can then limit themselves to facilitating this process; they will only need to intervene if there is a risk that the network is going to become overburdened.

A lot of interest

The good news is that much of the bottom-up approach that has just been described – with a live map including services – is not rocket science anymore: the technology is already there. A number of initiatives is currently underway in relation to the idea of approaching bottlenecks in traffic and mobility from the viewpoint of individual journeys – and there has been lots of interest in it. Thus a meeting in Amersfoort in December 2013 about the ‘Beter Benutten’ program ‘Multimodale Reisinformatie’ (‘Multimodal Travel Information’), which is seeing parties cooperate to develop high-quality travel information, easily attracted many hundreds of participants. It helps that this kind of development can count on state funding, for instance through the ITS In-Car Information Services contest under the ‘Beter Benutten’ program. Five consortiums were chosen as winner and, with government support, are now bringing services to the market that provide multimodal advice to motorists.

Challenges

Needless to say, there are still a few obstacles that have to be scaled in order to realize the bottom-up approach that has been sketched here. The biggest one, without a doubt, is the fact that we don’t yet have enough traffic data to be able to include the current traffic situation in the live map envisaged. An assessment carried out by the NDW in 2012 showed that there is still much we don’t know, particularly in the urban environment. Traditional monitoring systems will not be able to supply enough data and the question is whether the data they can supply actually reflects the dynamic nature of the city. Data based on phone use and on moving around with different means of transport does provide that insight. This requires the development of new algorithms.
Also, by no means all of the data that is already there is actually widely available. Open data is crucially important in this respect. The Cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam are working hard on this issue, and other municipal authorities are following the good example they are setting. This means that society is stimulating innovation. When this data is released, creative minds will, almost automatically, apply themselves to finding smart applications. One example is the website Bestwelsnel.nl, which recently made national news headlines. This website is limited to the national highways, and it is possible to question the validity of the top speeds it shows, but it is nevertheless a clear example of the fact that open data leads to all kinds of apps and applications that can’t even be imagined at the moment.
Another data challenge is that travel information is usually at its worst during moments of unexpected crisis: a power supply failure that brings all traffic lights in the city down, a sudden storm, a major incident et cetera. The result is that information is missing at the very moment that it’s most needed. It’s precisely in this respect that communication between people through their mobile phones and through social media can play a role: this releases a wealth of data that can help to interpret the event and the way in which people are reacting to it. This still requires adjustments to planners, virtual travel assistants and navigation systems: how can this kind of data be processed and translated into the right travel advice?

There are also a few things that need to be resolved in the field of traffic engineering. How much space in and around cities is there to distribute traffic properly? Is any spare capacity located on unsafe roads? It’s well-known that where motorists are driving makes a big difference in terms of road safety: achieving shorter travel times by directing more traffic along dangerous roads is not the kind of improvement we are looking for. The more general question is: does a more efficient flow of traffic lead to more safety or less safety? The social costs of road safety problems are much higher than the costs of accessibility problems. A last point is financial. We have already said that the government is stimulating developments by organizing contests and by giving other financial stimuli – and this is helping to increase the pace. But ultimately the services discussed above will have to pay for themselves. Many possible business cases are thinkable, especially if there are commercial parties involved (the car parks, the hamburger restaurant etc.). But it’s also government policy to cut back on spending: this is the ‘more with less’ goal of the ‘Goed Geïnformeerd op Weg’ program, for instance. The question is whether the bottom-up approach is capable of bringing road managers’ budgets down. Can in-car services, for instance, help to make DRIPs unnecessary? Perhaps the dynamic green wave signs along the roadside are no longer needed? This could be an (additional) reason for municipal authorities to take a serious look at the individual approach.

To conclude

The challenges described here do not seem to be insurmountable obstacles. A necessary condition of course is that there is a desire to give this bottom-up approach to accessibility a real chance. That depends not so much on policy – that’s there already, as programs such as ‘Beter Geïnformeerd op Weg’ show – but more on whether action is taken. Part of the job is to come up with a coordinated approach, for instance to create a blueprint for the live map. But for a lot of other initiatives, there is no reason for cities to wait for regulation from ‘above’ (i.e. by the national government through yet another subsidy scheme); they could start working on it themselves. It’s important in this context that accessibility trials and initiatives are not restricted to the four large cities, but that they are also carried out elsewhere, in the fifty largest municipalities for instance. The ‘Eitje van Utrecht’ case shows that it’s not complicated and that it can be extremely useful. It should also be viable for most municipal authorities to make open data available.

In this way, we are slowly changing course from making solutions ourselves and implementing them on a top-down basis to “adapting to the experience of citizens and using society’s entrepreneurial spirit and learning capacity”, as the ‘De energieke samenleving’ (‘The energetic society’) report that was quoted above aptly puts it. The thought that car mobility is about to surge can be a sobering reminder that finding ways of releasing this energy is an idea well worth considering.

About the authors

Paul van Beek is a consultant with Goudappel Coffeng.

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