You can feel the energy fizzing all around you when you walk in the center of London. The city is a vibrant, seething mass of innovation and industry. You can taste possibility in the air. People have been flocking to London from all parts of the world for centuries for exactly this reason. The urban center has sprawled outwards over the years. Its transport tentacles have stretched out further and further, engulfing villages once surrounded by pastureland. All this countryside is now seen as suburbs of the city.
In the past century, London city roads have become pollution-filled and choked with cars. This lowers the quality of life, and reduces life expectancy of London’s inhabitants. In 2013, plans for transforming London into a more liveable city by using smart technology were launched. However, it was not until Sadiq Kahn was elected Mayor of London in 2016 that the smart city program really took off. A large commitment of resources and money has been poured into a multitude of smart projects around the city. This has helped London to become the smartest city in the world 2020. So, how is London reaching its goal to make its urban area a people-centric place to live and work?
Let’s concentrate on the most vital part of the city: its transport system. Without smoothly running public transport, the hustle and bustle of London grinds to a halt. Anybody who has ever tried to move around in London during a Tube workers strike can agree with that!
Traveling in London: above ground and below in the Smartest City in the World 2020
Blue Sky Thinking
As London is an old city, many of the roads are narrow. Foot traffic and horse-drawn carts shaped the size and direction of the streets before motorized vehicles were even a glint in their inventors’ eyes. Smart technology deployed all over the central city is reducing traffic. This has many advantages for the population. Fewer vehicles on the roads mean reduced travel frustration. Public transport works more efficiently. Most importantly, pollution spewed out into the urban environment day and night is far lower. To achieve this, a number of initiatives have been set up.
Smart on Air Quality
Siemens has put pollution measuring sensors in place in over 100 locations around London which connect to an intelligent hub. This smart network has learnt to predict air quality changes a few days in advance with 90% accuracy. Using these forecasts, the local government can alter the type of vehicles allowed in certain areas at certain times. It sends alerts to inhabitants of the danger of higher pollution days before they actually occur.
To make air quality data easily accessible to the general public, a team named “Breathe London” started setting up sensors in a variety of places in January 2019. They put them on Google Streetview cars, in high traffic volume areas, and even as wearable sensors on children to analyse how much pollution they are exposed to on their way to school. The project discovered that dangerous nitrogen dioxide levels hit illegal levels on a regular basis at 40% of their locations.
These results have spurred the local government into expanding the project. Starting this year, residents will be able to be part of the push for better air. Cheap sensors will be available to buy and set up in places of choice. Locals can see the collected data, to make them more aware of pollution levels in their neighborhoods. Getting the public involved in improving their local air quality positively helps the community spirit in the various neighborhoods, and helps the city to become greener and cleaner. It’s a win-win situation!
Smartest City in the World 2020: Smart on Traffic
To promote the use of electric vehicles in the city centre, 1300 charging stations have been put in place on lampposts. This is a remarkably clever idea as it uses the existing lighting infrastructure. On one street in the heart of London, aptly named Electric Avenue, you can now plug your electric car into smart sockets located on 24 different lampposts. These ubiquitous charging stations allow apartment-dwellers, comprising the large majority of Londoners, to own electric vehicle. Moreover, it makes it much easier to be part of a car-share scheme. As a result, convenient access to vehicles encourages drivers to use the system.
Every day iconic London buses take on average 50% more people on them than the Underground system does. We have all seen either in person or in photos, the long queues of red double-decker buses inching along the London streets. In fact, each one of these idling buses emits noxious fumes. To change this, the City has pledged to transform all its buses to electric or hydrogen-fuel celled by 2035. As a result, the air will be far cleaner, and the streets quieter, but a trial has been started to use the buses parked at the depot to produce energy that can be pumped back into the city grid when they are not out transporting people around the city.
Tired of waiting for public transport? Now with London’s smart technology there is no need. Using data collected from all the public buses, you can now either look at a screen at the bus-stop, at your computer, or at an app on your own mobile phone to see in real time exactly where the bus you want to catch is. Think of that extra time you can spend in bed, or sipping your morning coffee. This is much better than standing in the cold, waiting and hoping that your bus might be arriving soon.
Additionally, buses fitted with special intelligent sensors also detect pedestrians and cyclists who may come in close proximity to the buses when they are on the road. The software then alerts the driver of the danger. Using this technology they avoid collisions and serious injuries, which are a major problem on London’s streets.
Smart on Walking and Cycling
The City is heavily promoting walking and cycling. Even traffic lights are getting smarter to help both pedestrians and cyclist navigate more safely on the crowded city streets of the smartest city in the world 2020. Accordingly, an intelligent pedestrian crossing system, aptly named SCOOT, is helping a maximum number of pedestrians cross roads in safety. When the sensors calculate that there are a larger number of people waiting than usual, the timing of the cross phase is extended. This prevents people from losing patience (often in short supply when living in a city), and crossing dangerously on a red light.
Bicycle riders are not being left out either. Transport for London has opened access to data collected from tracking movements of cyclists to app developers. Consequently, the developers can produce accurate smart apps that make route planning accessible in real time. Dangerously high volumes of traffic on one street? The apps can give the biker an alternative, more cycle-friendly road to follow. Also, construction of cycling infrastructure has appeared all over London to help cyclists get around more safely and easily. In addition, cyclists get a safe edge at junctions. Smart lights indicate that cyclists can start moving before motorized vehicles do.
Lurking Below the Surface
The Unseen Part of the City
Below the surface of London, a whole world of movement is going on. Tunnels snaking every which way funnel people to where they want to go, facilitating an average of 4.8 million journeys each day.
The underground metro system, affectionately known as “the Tube”, was constructed in 1863 to cope with the burgeoning population of London. People moved from the countryside to the city to work in never-before-seen industries precipitated by the Industrial Revolution and needed ways to commute. The dirty and dust-filled Underground system made travel around London extremely efficient. In the 1990’s, a day travelling around London on the Underground would find you blowing black dust out of your nose.
The grime in the tunnels came from a combination of poor ventilation, dust caused by the friction of the trains moving on the rails, and from particles of skin from all the travelers using the system every day. Not only that, but over-crowded trains at peak travel times often faced delays. Moreover, any necessary maintenance meant that the whole system was affected, since the lines were being used at full capacity.
Smart on Efficiency
Change came with the advent of smart technology throughout the subway system. Sensors placed all through the underground system monitor activity such as escalator vibrations, and temperature increases on station platforms. Throughout the tube system, sensors that measure air quality are in action.
All the collected data from these sensors, including those that track maintenance requirements and equipment breakdowns, heads to a central control centre. From there, air conditioners are activated if needed, repair teams are sent out quickly, and air filters are set into action. The air filters, fitted with nano-carbon filters, suck in polluted air, and pump out clean air. This removes 90% of polluting microparticles. All these factors contribute to a cleaner, more efficient metropolitan system.
Smart on Payment and Crow Control
In 2003, the introduction of contactless prepaid credit cards called Oyster cards altered travel, streamlining the process of taking public transport. Commuters touch in at the beginning of their trip on the Tube, buses, and trains, and out when they finish. Processing the millions of points of data gathered from these cards helps Transport for London, the authority that runs the system, smooth travel so that there are far fewer delays and better service.
Recently, Transport for London started using data gathered from travellers using the free Wi-Fi offered underground to exactly track the movements of people. The data shows where passengers get on and off, and also which stations they may walk between, or platforms they prefer to catch trains from. This knowledge aids the system enormously. TfL use the data to warn commuters of stations that are over-crowded, or to suggest alternatives to make the commute easier.
Just Scratching the Surface
All the technologies mentioned here are just the beginning of London’s evolution into an even smarter thank it already is as the smartest city in the world 2020 in the future. New projects and trials to make travel in London more efficient are on the imminent horizon. Self-driving electric-powered cars to ferry people around parts of the city are not a fantasy at all. This year certain parts of the city will be trying them out. Self-driving trains will become commonplace on the busiest Underground lines, speeding up the commute and easing congestion. All these technologies are changing the face of one of the busiest cities in the world. London is becoming greener, cleaner, and more people-centric.
Through the eyes of Londoners we can see a glimpse of the city of the future. A place made for its inhabitants rather than gas-guzzling vehicles.
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