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How Covid-19 has made smart cities smarter than ever

Covid-19 is speeding up the changes to our transport networks, writes Mark Nicholson, CEO of Vivacity Labs


Artificial intelligence is paving the way for cities to transform into smarter and more efficient places to work and live. Triggered by the pandemic, cities are now undergoing a, some might say long overdue, revolution in the way they are structured, managed and maneuvered. From socially distanced walkways to decreased public transport use, city life is adapting to a new normal. Commuters are changing the way and time they go to work, buses are reducing their capacity and service, and more cyclists are taking to the road.


Technology driving the revolution


In order for cities to manage these changes, technology is key. A smart city requires a huge range of technologies working in tandem with one another in order to stay interconnected and communicate problems and solutions. The evolution of the smart city, with regards to travel specifically, revolves around three key areas: better data about roads, real-time control systems for existing infrastructure, and the future intersection of vehicle and fleet technologies with infrastructure.

“Covid-19 has also seen travel patterns become less predictable”

A notable example to emerge during the Covid-19 crisis in London has been the Uber boat – you can now book the service through their app and travel via river and road, using shared electric vehicles, to create a more seamless, sustainable and environmentally friendly journey, while helping to maintain social distancing. This requires using several technologies including the IoT, cloud, sensors and AI.


Covid-19 has also seen travel patterns become less predictable, and with the end of rush hour potentially becoming a reality, AI sensors can help to control traffic signals, monitor traffic flow, and provide anonymous numerical data in assessing active travel routes for cyclists and pedestrians. A fully functioning ‘smart junction’ does all these things in one. This will be aided by a new 5G network, which will be pivotal to the next stage of the smart city and IoT, enabling more connected sensors and faster processing of bigger datasets to the cloud.


The Covid-19 effect around the world


This data is helping councils to assess where interventions are needed and react to changing travel patterns. Sensors are now being used to monitor travel demand, looking at peaks and modes of travel, and congestion - data that is used to reassess how authorities operate their roads, transport and public spaces. In Oxford, for example, sensors have helped to evaluate changing commuting patterns and cycling habits, helping authorities to adjust transport services and prioritise cyclists.


This desire to promote active travel and develop flexible, multi-modal and sustainable ways of urban mobility has become a global ambition. During lockdown, Paris and Bogotá announced roll-outs of temporary pop up ‘corona cycleways’, of 50km and 35km respectively, using pre-existing car lanes, with numerous other cities adopting similar strategies. South Korea’s established Data Hub meant it was well prepared to enable contract tracing and avoid a full lockdown.


On this point, we need to decide as a society on the balance of privacy versus data access for these purposes, as we can see in the early arguments about the NHS Trace-and-Trace app (personally, my view has always been that privacy must win that fight, every time). The city of Seoul continues its lead in spearheading ‘smart green mobility’ mechanisms such as implementing driverless cars and delivering goods by robots. And in Rotterdam, the city has worked with its transport authority (RET) to provide bikes, electric bikes and e-scooters as alternative modes of travel, accompanied by an app that tells users their quickest and easiest way to complete a journey. These examples just scratch the surface on the innovations and changes happening worldwide.


The future is happening now


Painting the picture of, what would once seem, a futuristic journey, is very much happening now. Envisage a trip using some of the tech we’ve mentioned: you step out of your house and enter a new ‘low traffic zone’, which prioritises pedestrians and cyclists, with wide, leafy pavements, and enjoy a safe walk with cleaner air. Reaching the newly installed bike/e-scooter station, you map out your route using geospatial technology, communicating via the cloud to let you know both the best route to take and which bike stations have free spaces.


You now cycle down the newly installed cycle highway that exists due to AI-controlled smart sensors that have provided anonymous data to authorities about where there is latent demand for cycle pathways. Reaching the dock, you book a boat via an app, which connects you to a subsequent electric connected autonomous vehicle, picking you up on the other side.


Smart junctions allow you to flow more seamlessly through the city, using AI sensors and the 5G network to communicate and assess traffic flow, congestion, and safety, flagging alerts for autonomous vehicles for accident precursors such as pedestrians crossing the road at blind corners. In addition, the sensors pull power from the street furniture, which receives its energy from solar panels and wind farms.


You arrive in the centre of town and walk through a flexible, pedestrian-only-after-5pm zone, opened up after anonymous sensors detect an increase in crowd flow, and arrive with ease, and carbon-free, at your destination. While some of this vision remains more distant, a lot of these concepts, and many more not mentioned, are being implemented as we speak.

“The future is arriving more quickly and technology is providing the means with which to shape it”

There’s no doubt that Covid-19 is proving to be a catalyst for change. The future is arriving more quickly and technology is providing the means with which to shape it. We can expect journeys to become greener, more interconnected, and with less waiting time and more seamless traffic flow. City infrastructure that caters for active travel, with flexible pedestrian-only zones and cycling routes, and public transport services that can adapt to changing peaks of crowd flows.


Using AI and other technology, cities are now becoming instantly reactive to the movement around them, working towards a holistic and anonymous ecosystem of technology and city zones, helping all modes of transport and movement to negotiate their way through the ever-changing metropolis.


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