Web Development by SUSTAINABLE

The capital’s agnostic traffic system: an interview with Transport for London

4 min

c. Kiran SRK, Flickr

The capital is getting smarter in managing its systems for all modes of transport. A new optimisation technology will use a confluence of data banks to reduce congestion, improve air quality, and ultimately make getting around London easier for its residents. Quadrant Transport sits down with Irfan Shaffi, operational control manager, TfL, to find out more about the system!

TfL’s latest smart traffic management system being tested in the south-east of the capital will be “completely agnostic” in managing differing users of the road networks, a project lead has told Quadrant Transport.

In a recent interview, Irfan Shaffi, operational control manager and part of the team responsible for Intelligent Transport System (ITS) solutions for TfL, said the new Real Time Optimiser (RTO) system developed with Siemens will harness the existing 6,300 sets of signals at London’s traffic lights to deliver more efficient and effective traffic timings for network users.

Irfan Shaffi, operational control manager, TfL

The RTO system and Sitraffic FUSION algorithm, which will make data-driven decisions about which traffic signals should be placed on green – and for how long – has been the result of several years of work behind the scenes, Irfan said. Currently, the majority of London’s traffic lights have utilised information from inductive loops buried in the road to count passing motor vehicles and optimised timings on the data returned.

“Several things catalysed this [testbed],” Irfan told Quadrant. “We started working on this not long after the Olympic Games in 2012.

“Transport for the Games was very well delivered, that was universally accepted. But for the Games we were basically conning an existing traffic light system that only understood ‘Metal Boxes on Wheels’, to tell it that we were trying to do different things to what it wanted to do.”

In conning the system, as Irfan puts it, transport planners for the Games in TfL’s Network Management Control Centre had to use a much more rigid management system to allow for priority for buses, or bikes, for example.

Irfan said the FUSION algorithm will now replace the current dated traffic management software, and allow transport planners to make much smarter decisions by acknowledging varying modes of transport, including private car, pedestrian, and emerging technologies like Connected Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs).

The ultimate goal for the new technology is to potentially cut waiting times for pedestrians crossing the roads at certain times of day, or allow a longer green phase for cyclists in certain cycle lanes. The data-driven decisions are hoped to cut congestion and improve air quality around the capital, as well as encouraging active travel.

London’s cyclists could benefit from shorter waiting times from the technology c. Jayanth Vincent, Flickr

“Our challenge was, if we’re going to make a new system, it’s got to be able to reuse the 20,000 old detection systems across London, so we don’t have to throw away tens of millions of pounds’ worth of stuff, just because we’re upgrading software,” he explained.

“The new system is developed to make use of that existing data, in exactly the same format as it is received now into the computers. But at the same time, it can absolutely consume many new forms of data.

If we can supply data, then it will be able to optimise around it

“For example, detections from connected vehicles, or data input from mobile phones. It’s completely agnostic of the type of data that’s coming in.”

Irfan said he “can’t overemphasise” the openness to consume data with the new system. In particular, the system will be able to take in contrasting levels of air quality around the city and optimise traffic light stop, wait, and go phases based on these.

“If we can supply data, then it will be able to optimise around it,” Irfan said.

“Whereas the previous system had one big lever, entitled Metal Boxes on Wheels. Now, we’ve got a lot of levers, and whatever policy TfL and the Mayor’s Office need to follow, with this system, we’ll be able to move towards that.”

The test site in an area of London’s south-eastern roadways has been chosen because it is “relatively isolated” from more congested parts of the capital, Irfan said. If all goes to plan and the RTO technology improves upon the current system, it will be rolled out across the capital by 2023.

Irfan said that the project is taking the interest of local government borough leaders who are want the technology to be rolled out to their local areas. “That’s amazing – and the bit of London he’s asking about is not insignificant, so we need to be ready for that.”