Ghent on its way to TMaaS

Since early 2018, the city of Ghent has been working with a number of industrial and academic partners on a modular and multimodal cloud platform for TMaaS, Traffic Management as a Service. In the first phase of the European project, the partners conducted extensive research among users. A report.

The Ghent-based TMaaS project is co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund through the Urban Innovative Actions programme. This is a European Union initiative that offers urban areas across Europe the means to work on new, innovative solutions to tackle urban challenges.

And we can safely call the TMaaS project innovative. The cloud platform we are working on will be fed with data from and across different modalities. All data is automatically analysed – operators and travellers will automatically receive a message when something exciting happens.

The platform will also be scalable. From 2019, selected cities will be able to join the pilot as a replicator city. The intention is that ultimately all large, medium-sized and small cities will be able to easily purchase services for monitoring, traffic management and communication with road users.

Dual approach

It is not that far yet. For the first phase of the TMaaS project, as project partners – Be-Mobile, Mintlab, Ghent University and the European Passengers’ Federation – we are currently mainly conducting research. This should form a solid basis for the later implementation of the tool.

The research has two lines. The first line, a ‘top down’ process that is mainly drawn by the technical partners and the authorities, is analysing the market. This involves the very practical question: which solutions and products are available and technically feasible? The second line of our research is a bottom-up process that aims to map the needs and requirements of end users (professionals at road authorities, but also travellers) and stakeholders (employers, students, etc.).

This twofold approach gives us a thorough insight into the desired functionalities and makes it clear how we can meet them with existing solutions and technologies.

In the following we highlight the most important research results to date.

Residents and visitors

The TMaaS platform is designed according to a human-centered methodology. This certainly also applies to the part of the platform that is intended for the inhabitants and visitors of the city. In order to be able to put this target group at the heart of the design process, we investigated the travel behaviour of the citizen. Part of this research was a survey among travellers with different profiles. This showed that the availability of parking spaces, real-time information about public transport and information about bicycle safety and cycling comfort are common information needs. Based on these insights, we will soon organise co-creation workshops. Citizens can actively participate in devising useful functionalities for the platform. The results are input for the technical partners and are also intended to further refine the scope of the project.

Professionals

We identify the expectations and needs of professional users in special ‘audits’: interviews with representatives of cities, including traffic planners and traffic managers. A wide selection of cities, of various sizes, from different regions and with different degrees of traffic management has been chosen. These interviews cover, among other things, the current use of traffic data, the plans and expectations for the future use of data and the obstacles experienced.

Experience so far has shown that many cities still rely on traditional sources – detection loops, parking garage occupancy, accident data. As a result, they are automatically strongly car-oriented.

Local stakeholders

In the first phase we also asked representatives of various local stakeholder groups to give their opinion on the plans for a platform. We approached shopkeepers, self-employed people, employers, mobility experts, student representatives and local transport companies, among others. Using a few examples, we explained the concept of the TMaaS platform and asked them what they think are its strengths and weaknesses. The answers showed that especially the integration and visualization of all (multimodal) mobility information in one platform can offer added value. Most existing online mobility services do not integrate solutions for the first and last kilometres, such as shared car and bicycle systems and ride-sharing services. As a result, the information provided is often incomplete.

Another advantage that emerged from the interviews is the two-way communication: the possibility for users to report failures or incidents within the network is really appreciated. This allows the users to contribute to the optimisation of the information themselves.

 

Consultation moments

The intention is to involve the stakeholders in the continuation of the project as well. During the construction, testing, implementation and evaluation phase, we will regularly organise consultation moments to monitor and evaluate the quality of the TMaaS activities and products. The feedback obtained is passed on to the industrial partners, so that the product can be adapted to the wishes of the end users where necessary and remains in line with the market.

Challenges

The various studies also revealed some interesting challenges.

An important limitation for professional users is the available staff and budget. Many (local) authorities lack the manpower to develop their own traffic centre and their own expertise in the field of traffic data, data processing and hardware requirements is often limited.

Another problem is the limited powers of a city. A city can normally only intervene on its own urban road network, while many mobility problems transcend municipal boundaries. A real solution is then only possible if the city acts together with the ‘neighbouring road administrators’. However, these (national, regional) authorities have different interests and sometimes different visions, which makes it difficult to arrive at a joint strategy.

Cities are not always convinced of the usefulness of real-time traffic information either, due to the experience that navigation systems sometimes lead traffic to undesirable shortcuts. There is a feeling that improved traffic information will exacerbate this problem.

In addition, the availability of the right data to answer a certain question is a challenge, as the research showed. It is rare to have a complete overview of which data is or is not available, which means that certain sources or applications remain (or are likely to remain) unused. Often available data is limited to specific locations, times or modes of transport. Even existing data often remain unused, because it is not shared (for example because of privacy sensitivity, lack of clarity about ownership arrangements) or because it is spread over different providers (with different formats). Estimating the quality and reliability of data sources is also often difficult for non-experts.

 

Citizens indicate that the information they receive must be sufficiently personalized (and therefore relevant). If this is not the case, there is a risk that they will drop out.

Another challenge lies in processing the feedback that citizens give. In the best case, this may result in an extra data source, but if citizens do not know whether anything happens with their input and if so what is being done with it, this can also cause dissatisfaction.

Furthermore, it will be important to ensure that the data of the various players are of a high quality and real-time, especially in the event of unexpected events such as an accident, a strike or heavy snowfall. These are the moments when citizens are most in need of correct and reliable information.

In summary, we can state that cities and their inhabitants are certainly interested in making more and better use of traffic data. At the same time we are not there yet: there are still many obstacles to overcome!

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The authors
Evert Gellynck is Traffic Engineer at Be-Mobile.
Kevin Sanders is a researcher at Mintlab, KU Leuven and Imec.
Dominique Gillis is a researcher at Ghent University.
Evelien Marlier is Project Officer at the European Passengers’ Federation, EPF.

(this article was originally published in NM magazine #3 in Dutch, read the article here)

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