Driving urban transformation and shaping future mobility in London
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Posted: 22 February 2023 | Theo Blackwell - Greater London Authority | No comments yet
Transport for London has continuously been at the forefront of implementing new technologies city-wide, transforming how people travel. With 2023 marking the 20th anniversary of the Congestion Charge, as well as the expansion of the world-leading Ultra Low Emission Zone to further tackle air pollution, Theo Blackwell MBE, Chief Digital Officer at the Greater London Authority, has taken the opportunity to showcase TfL’s trusted global innovation leadership.
The 20th anniversary of the Congestion Charge is a reminder of how Transport for London (TfL) sets the pace globally in developing world-leading technology. And – as the Mayor of London prepares to expand the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) London-wide to tackle air pollution – I think it’s time to showcase how trusted TfL is globally as an innovator, which is maybe something that we need to celebrate more at home.
Back in 2003, the Congestion Charge was the first of its kind – a smart city well before the term was first coined in 2008. Since then, TfL has been implementing new technologies city-wide, transforming how people travel. It’s not difficult to imagine everyday life without this track-record – just go outside of London or visit other cities internationally.
These other cities look to TfL for advice on ticketing, a journey that started with the Oyster card and then with contactless, which recently celebrated 10 years on the bus network. In 2016, TfL signed an agreement allowing our queue-busting contactless systems to be exported to cities around the world, including New York, Boston and Sydney.
TfL set the standard for cities when it first published over 80 open data feeds from across the transport network. This data now powers apps that millions of people use to choose their journeys around the city and save time. It is as central to travelling as Open Banking is to everyday finance. Everyday services like Google Maps or Apple Maps, Citymapper and TfL Go, or a start-up like BusTimes are all powered by – and rely on – TfL data. It also supports tech for good, like the award-winning Go Jauntly app, which brings the station-to-station Walking Tube Map to people’s phones, making it easier for people to walk as part of their everyday journey. At its peak, we saw over 700 apps being used by 42% of Londoners that had been powered by TfL data.
Collaborating with members of the industry
We also work with the industry to optimise our public transport networks and enhance active travel. On our roads, we work with Siemens to adjust timings across 6,000 traffic lights in order to minimise traffic delays, give priority to buses – especially when they are detected as running late – and give extra time to cyclists using segregated lanes when numbers are high. In busy pedestrian locations, they also extend the green cross signal. Like contactless technology, TfL then shared this knowledge with other cities across the globe.
In addition, a partnership with Mercedes-Benz prototyped a Road Safety Dashboard, which uses individual alerts from the car’s custom driver assistance system to identify higher risk locations prior to a hazardous collision taking place with other cars or cyclists. This concept is now being explored with other vehicle types, highlighting how TfL not only works with industry to improve our network, but also how it has enabled London to be a sandbox, where new technologies designed to tackle problems that the city faces can be safely trialled with private enterprise and investment.
At a neighbourhood level, TfL sets innovation challenges – or problem statements about issues that the city is facing – to the tech sector. For example, a challenge to understand is how pollution moves through Brixton high street; once this had been understood, it resulted in better co-ordinated traffic signalling, which reduced air quality locally and is now scaled London-wide.
Under outgoing Open Innovation lead Rikesh Shah, TfL also recently transformed its buying rules so that it can connect with London and international innovators better, and the Roadlab challenge sets open calls to artificial intelligence (AI) firms to reduce congestion caused by roadworks.
TfL also uses sensors and cameras to collect better data to ensure that investments are made in the right place: for example, using Vivacity Labs’ digital cameras to count differing types of mobility more accurately. The world-leading ULEZ relies on an extensive network of automatic number plate recognition cameras for its enforcement. So far, it has already reduced toxic NO2 concentrations by 46% in central London, and the expansion later in 2023 will bring cleaner air to five million more people living in the city’s outer boroughs.
TfL also shapes government legislation in this space: e-scooters are being trialled in 13 boroughs, with data from the three operators providing vital learnings for the Department of Transport (DfT); and the Smart Mobility Living Lab in Woolwich helps TfL and DfT to understand connected autonomous vehicles (AVs), and the technologies that go into them, in real-world settings.
Looking forwards, the radical 20-year partnership with BAI Communications is currently laying high-capacity fibre optics in Underground tunnels, bringing 4G and 5G connectivity to passengers over the coming 18 months. This is the most modern network of its kind in the world. And it’s also giving London’s economy a lift by using the extra capacity carried by this new spine to connect hyperfast broadband to public buildings, homes and businesses in neighbourhood underserved by the market. This network also can be used to power new sensors, better CCTV and many other smart city uses in the future.
So, forgive my boosterism: this 20-year track record shows that TfL deserves to be viewed as central to London’s exciting tech ecosystem just as much as our vaunted fintech scale-ups, life sciences powerhouses and creative industry champions.
Theo Blackwell MBE had been appointed as London’s first Chief Digital Officer in 2017. Blackwell leads on London-wide digital transformation, data and smart city initiatives at City Hall. His role involves strategic leadership on the digital transformation agenda for the capital’s public services, across the Greater London Authority group and the wider public sector. It also involves convening on behalf of the Mayor, across London’s local government to support the take-up of innovative, technology and data-led approaches to service delivery and public engagement. Furthermore, Blackwell also develops and promotes partnership between the public, private and community sectors to enable and support the development of new public service-oriented technology and innovation.
5G & Transport Communications, Air Quality, Artificial Intelligence, Connected & Autonomous Vehicles, Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS), Traffic Management, Travel & Passenger Information
BAI Communications, Department for Transport (DfT), Greater London Authority, Mercedes-Benz, Siemens, Smart Mobility Living Lab (SMLL), Transport for London (TfL), Vivacity Labs