As cities continue to fight against COVID-19, citizens are changing their commuting preferences to adjust to a new way of life. Cities across the globe have experienced significant increases in the number of pedestrians, cyclists, and private cars on the roads as a result of public transport restrictions and social distancing requirements. This has created many new challenges, as cities previously dependent on public transport must now adapt to accommodate more vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians and cyclists.
Cities in Australia such as Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane are responding to large increases in active transport by developing extensive new cycle ways. In Melbourne, public transport patronage fell by more than 80 percent in July, while some bike routes have seen increases of more than 300 percent. In Amsterdam, the City has removed over 10,000 parking spaces and converted more roads to cycle lanes. In North America, New York City and Austin, Texas have both implemented measures to increase the use of segregated lanes for cyclists.
While the embracing of a cleaner, more active lifestyle by traveling on bike or foot is one of the few positives stemming from this global pandemic, increased levels of congestion as a result of lowered levels of public transport usage poses additional safety risks for vulnerable road users. Before COVID-19, the World Health Organisation reported that more than 270,000 pedestrians lose their lives on the world’s roads each year. With more people moving off public transport and into cars because of the global pandemic, this number could increase.
Governments, education providers, city planners, transport operators, and technology providers must work together to ensure that road users are kept safe despite the changes in traffic patterns. Luckily, new developments in smart city technologies are providing us with the right tools to do this. By harnessing the power of data analytics and machine learning, we can help to ensure that the future of our cities is a bright one.
The Problem Pre-COVID
Intersection accidents make up a large percentage of annual fatalities globally. A 2017 study by the Road Safety Commission found that crashes at intersections account for 20% of deaths in Australia every year. It also found that dangerous behaviours such as speeding, drunk driving, or not wearing a helmet accounted for only 23% of accidents at intersections where people were killed or seriously injured, compared to 77% due to a lapse in concentration, distraction, fatigue or an error in judgement. In the USA there were 33,654 fatal motor vehicle crashes in 2018 in which 36,560 deaths occurred. This resulted in 11.2 deaths per 100,000 people and 1.13 deaths per 100 million miles travelled.
While educating road users on these issues remains critical, technology applications that collect real-time data and sensor information can also allow cities to better respond to traffic flow. Using these technologies, cities can adjust traffic flows to allow the proper amount of green-light time for cyclists and pedestrians based on their real-time actions. With data now an increasingly valuable currency, we need to make the most of it to improve traffic flow and save lives.
Mobility Choices During COVID
The University of Sydney (UoS) recently published a research paper comparing how different modes of transport have been affected by the pandemic. The paper opens by stating that COVID-19 has “created disruption to travel and activities unlike anything seen since perhaps the Second World War.” To gain more insight on how COVID-19 has impacted travel, UoS distributed a survey in late March 2020 to respondents in Australia’s major cities. This survey produced more than 1037 responses by mid-April, when the virus was at its peak and social distancing measures were in full effect.
The study found that use of private vehicles remained relatively stable, at around 70% of all Australian household trips per week before or after the arrival of COVID‐19. Public transport journeys dropped an average of 8% per household within any given week, while active transport usage increased from 14% to 20% of household weekly trips.
The paper speculated that “as people return to work, the attractiveness of the private vehicle may create worse congestion than before COVID‐19.” To reduce congestion, continue practicing safe social distancing, and lower our carbon footprints, walking or cycling are viable options. However, governments should work with transport planners and education providers to ensure that safety is kept at the heart of new plans to accommodate for these road users.
Using Technology to Plan for a Better Future
A number of new technologies can accommodate these abrupt changes in traffic patterns, while protecting road users and improving traffic flow. One example is Cubic’s GRIDSMART technology, now being installed as part of an innovative new project with the University of Melbourne, which will see seven GRIDSMART cameras installed in the AIMES ecosystem at intersections along Rathdowne street.
GRIDSMART is a real-time computer vision product that works with traffic controllers to mediate intersections for cars, bikes, and pedestrians. This technology, which combines hardware and software, provides a valuable cross section of data about traffic flows at intersections.
The system uses a fisheye Bell Camera along with real-time vision tracking and data analytics to track and distinguish bicyclists and pedestrians from other road users as they pass into and through intersections. The system provides improved safety for cyclists while simultaneously improving intersection efficiency for multimodal traffic.
The GRIDSAMRT system is already widely used within the U.S. and covers over 8,000 intersections. The City of Surprise in Arizona reduced delays by 20% on weekdays and 43% on weekends using the GRIDSMART System. The hope is to use this proven technology to help both traffic congestion and safety elsewhere in the world, such as Melbourne. Professor Majid Sarvi, Director of the AIMES project at the University of Melbourne said GRIDSMART provides “the capability to see what is happening at an intersection as if a human was sitting there. For the first time we will have the powerful combination of both intelligence and eyes.”
The cameras will be fully installed and operational by September 2020, and they’ll allow traffic system operators to assess traffic flows, and pedestrian and cyclist activity, and respond accordingly. The program is supported by both the Department of Transport and the Transport Accident Commission.
Cubic’s Transport Management Platform (TMP) is already installed in the AIMES ecosystem. It uses sensors within the testbed to gather data from public, private, and active transport; data which can be used to reduce congestion and improve traffic patterns.
Cubic is proud to have launched our Project Rebound initiative, which aims to restart cities in the wake of the pandemic, and we’re playing a key role in this process for cities around the world. Our latest Roadmap to Resilience whitepaper outlines the projects we are involved in. We recognise that we have a responsibility to work with our global partners to continue developing solutions that can keep people safe, improve efficiencies, and help our customers plan for the challenges that lie ahead.