A new information management system for the part of Transport for London that controls all non-Underground traffic movement in the UK capital uses real-time data visualisation to tackle congestion and speed up response to problems. It will soon also be a key part of a wider plan by the city's government to cut emissions, encourage more walking, cycling, and improve air quality.
Transport for London (TfL) is the main public transport provider in London. While many people know the famous London Underground, what is less well known is that the organisation - through its Surface Management subsidiary - also has responsibility for managing nearly 600 kilometres of the capital's busiest roads, as well as managing a few other transport assets, such as London's 6,000 traffic lights, road tunnels and some of its bridges.
The control room started to be built in 2019 as the outcome of a tender from TfL to find a better way to compile congestion, bus performance, weather and road works data, to make it easier to respond quickly to incidents and to keep London moving. The idea is to present a single, unified view of everything happening on the network, including up-to-the minute details of all known incidents and the actions being taken.
The control room contract was won by supplier Sopra Steria, but other elements of the programme, such as a real-time traffic signal updating system, are being delivered by other vendors.
Once fully operational and with all elements of the system in place, the claim is that Londoners and visitors will benefit from at least one minute per journey saved, reduced delays and better management of greener, active travel, like cycling.
Intelligence on the state of the road network
The control centre is the main nerve centre of a division of TfL Surface Transport, called Network Management. This is staffed every single day of the year 24 x7 and works to keep traffic moving around every incident - Royal Wedding, or Olympics - as need be. The organisation's Operational Control Manager Irfan Shaffi explained:
In that room, there's a heroic number of boys and girls working very hard to keep London moving. This is a constant challenge both in terms of scale and change - not of geography, but of the constantly changing asset base we have to use.
And they use a significant number of tools and systems to do that: they are often looking at anything from six to eight to 10 screens, each with many different applications, and those applications are producing lots of data and information for them to consume to process and assimilate into intelligence on the state of the road network. We needed to make that easier for them.
That is being done by a new dashboard named COV IMS, the Common Operational View Incident Management System. Co-developed by TfL and the supplier. It removes the need for controllers to check multiple screens, as well as delivers a new incident management system that will smooth out the process of detecting and sharing news of road incidents.
COV IMS will enable us to manage the transport network in a manner responding to the requirements of poor air quality areas, tackle congestion and improve incident response. It has definitely been moving us forward in the direction that we planned.
So far, he stated, the main benefit of the dashboard has been time saved by analysts. It has also improved Network Management's overall resilience, as some of the systems and data streams COV IMS is replacing were approaching end of life and/or were running as extended proofs of concept that never actually got fully upgraded into production systems.
So, this is giving us an immense amount of peace of mind, because we suddenly have a resilient, stable platform that has a full-service model behind it. Plus, as everybody understands how it works, if it breaks there is a plan to get it fixed within X minutes.
‘I needed something that was going to work'
It is important to note that Shaffi and his team do not see this as anything like a ‘smart' system, and in fact resist it being characterised that way:
People are very excited about things like AI and machine learning, but actually in terms of real-life capability and experience of people landing this sort of stuff, it's a little bit thin on the ground.
But I needed something that was going to work; I can't go out on a wing and a prayer and spend 20 million quid and not end up with the tool that I need. This is more advanced analytics tools, databases, to give us very high levels of accuracy in terms of incident detection. That's more the direction we're going.
The next problem that needs to be tackled is moving to automatic detection of incidents. This will be a major step, as it will stop TfL analysts being able to move beyond trying to spot problems by constantly checking their CCTV feeds, or a bus driver radioing in, but instead be detected by abnormal activity on the system that needs to be evaluated. Shaffi said:
That's really the COV IMS ‘Holy Grail' and where all the benefits come. There are so many things going on in London on the roads, but we can't have hundreds and hundreds of traffic coordinators and operators constantly scanning the network - we don't have the space, we don't have the money, and so on.
If we can create a tool that does that for us, that will be really helpful for everyone.