Getting smart with public transport

Cities around the world are putting their money,energy, and technological talent into developing algorithms that give reliable information on public transport. It is time for India to catch up

March 15, 2016 01:35 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:03 pm IST



India’s urban mobility options have a notorious blind spot: reliable information. Cities are a maze to navigate, especially if you use public transport. But what if a traveller could see on her mobile phone when the next bus on a given route will arrive? Would it change her preference for the mode of travel? In other words, would she be ready to leave her car behind? The evidence from several global cities shows that such a shift is possible. Smart mobility is what people want.

The switch is also inevitable, as urbanisation puts pressure on governments to reduce congestion and pollution while improving mobility. India has also committed in its climate change pledge to the United Nations to make a ‘clean’ transition and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Need for real-time information

Technology will make that possible. Research on commuter behaviour shows that the era of networks and information is pushing smart mobility. Global cities are putting their money, energy and technological talent into the quest to develop the best computer algorithms that will give transport an edge.

Travellers today are customers who want reliability, simplicity and legibility. Cities don’t just manage trains and buses, they manage people’s time.

It is no longer futuristic to expect real-time information. In many cities, it takes only a glance at a phone app to see that a taxicab ride is “5 minutes away” — these services have established themselves in record time. The app helps track the cab further, until it arrives at the pick-up address. Rides are shared in vans or even by two-wheeler taxis; service expectations have soared so fast that State governments are unable to keep pace and introduce regulation.

Such a break with the past contrasts with government-run transport corporations that have been plodding on with ancient systems, and gradually have lost their share in the transport market. They have been embarrassingly slow to harness technologies like automatic vehicle location, Global Positioning Systems and mobile apps to serve the passenger. There are, for instance, over 13.2 million urban workers regularly using buses to commute everyday for employment as per Census 2011. Consider that statistic along with the decline in the share of buses among all vehicles in India, from 11 per cent in 1951 to 1.1 per cent in 2011. Investment in both buses and modern intelligent transport systems would make a big difference to such users.

The Indian Institute of Technology-Madras offers a solution built with support from the Union Ministry of Urban Development, which is spearheading the smart cities plan. What has emerged from a long trial at IIT-Madras is a system that could be optimised for use in various cities. The Ministry has virtually put together an off-the-shelf utility that would give the smart cities idea its first big boost.

It works like this. Buses are fitted with a GPS device, which provides the data on the vehicle’s location for a given period of the day. Analysis of this data helps determine the actual travel time for a bus, and the distance between consecutive locations. Using the data on how long the bus takes to cover two subsections of a route, the IIT-Madras algorithm forecasts how much time it would take to traverse the next subsection. This gives a predicted time of arrival at a stop, which is what the passenger needs.

The research team consisting of graduate students and faculty members from the Centre of Excellence in Urban Transport at IIT-Madras reported last year in the journal Transportation Research Record that their results showed an accuracy level of plus or minus 5 minutes for the arrival of the next bus, which is consistent with other algorithms used in the more advanced Western cities. The IIT-Madras study was conducted on buses of Chennai’s Metropolitan Transport Corporation and used a Kalman filtering algorithm for prediction, a popular choice that has been used widely including on the Apollo space mission.

Algorithms and challenges

Developing an algorithm that helps predict the arrival of the next bus is particularly challenging in India, because of its “heterogeneous” traffic pattern — at least a dozen different kinds of vehicles compete for road space without any set rules, such as lane discipline. The problem of incorporating the uncertainty of such a diverse range of road users moving randomly has, however, been overcome with the calculations optimised to factor in the pattern of operations, such as same time of the bus the previous day, and same day in the previous week for a trip on that route.

Getting such an Intelligent Transport System in place would open up the market for development of smartphone applications and Web-based portals to provide the information to passengers. This area has been steadily attracting IT firms in the West. It would depend, of course, on whether the service operator is ready to give developers an interface to Open Data on which they can build real-time information system applications.

Equally, there is recurring need for standardisation of onboard IT architecture. The International Association of Public Transport (better known as UITP), together with Founding Members, have set up an ITxPT Association to support the deployment of “plug & play” open IT architecture. Guidelines and specifications proposed by ITxPT Association are the outcomes of European Bus System of the Future and related projects coordinated by UITP.

To give an idea of what could be achieved with ITS, the city of London provides real-time information to passengers for 9,000 vehicles, covering 19,000 bus stops. Some 80 smartphone apps have been produced by the IT community using free and open access data.

The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission had specified on-board ITS as one of the requirements for funding. That programme has been rechristened the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT). The Ministry of Urban Development, which has funded institutions like IIT-Madras to develop advanced systems, should now implement the solution.

Considering the ‘open’ nature of the technology developed through IIT-Madras, it should be easy to scale up the implementation under the smart cities programme. Disappointingly, many of India’s smaller cities lack even a formal transport system, and make do with vans and assorted vehicles that do not have even a predictable schedule. Others with a more defined network do not have electronic timetables that can be read by computers to produce software that can work for passengers. This is a problem that can be solved easily: they only have to put out their schedules and service updates using a standard format, known in the IT spheres as the General Transit Feed Specification supported by companies like Google.

Persuading commuters to move away from personal vehicles will also depend on other smart moves such as improving the quality of travel. As of 2012 there were about 3,35,000 buses in the ‘transport’ category, which serve India’s cities. Most of these are not designed for comfortable travel and are just outmoded trucks rigged up with seats. The Centre has its own bus standards code to change that, but has never pressed for its implementation. It has to do that under AMRUT. If Metro trains are of world standard, there is no reason India’s buses cannot match that.

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