Discover smart infrastructure and transport technology that allows cities to work without losing their soul.
Amsterdam begins and ends with tram number one - from and to the Central Station. For me, at least, it does. Chatty, smiley, multilingual and multiracial, this tram is a microcosm of the Dutch capital itself. The tram’s progress along the narrow streets is so slow that it gives the impression of sliding backwards in space and time - towards the melting pot of medieval Amsterdam, and its passengers get miraculously transformed into diamond-cutters from Antwerp, Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, Huguenots from France and dissenters from England - all of whom found refuge in the most tolerant and accommodating city in the world, the city that I call the people’s capital of Europe.
The purpose of my last visit to Amsterdam was to attend Intertraffic, a biennial international trade fair for infrastructure, traffic management, safety and parking, which this time was devoted to ‘smart mobility solutions’, a rather insipid term to describe modern technologies that constitute the engine, if not the spirit, of a modern city. That was why, during my tram journey from the station to my hotel, I couldn’t help ticking off the new techno features of the all-too-familiar Amsterdam trams: redesigned carriages, all with easy access for disabled passengers and prams; e-ticket validation points at every door; and - in a true Amsterdam fashion and for those not too well-versed in modern technology - a good old ticketing option, with uniformed and duly self-important conductors sitting in state inside transparent cubicles in the middle of the bendy-trams’ salons.
Despite the fact that Amsterdam trams remain slow - largely due to the growing number of cyclists, now responsible for almost 30 per cent of all the city’s commuters and, more often than not, having the right of way - I would not hesitate to call both Amsterdam and its trams ‘smart’, in the humanistic rather than technological sense of the word. That said, the Dutch capital is one of the world leaders in the field of smart transport technologies too, as I was to discover at Intertraffic.
Before taking you there, however, let’s have a short detour to Monte Carlo, where I recently attended the annual eco conference CleanEquity Monaco.
How smart is ‘smart’?
“The physical world is messy, and the battle for the planet will be lost or won in our cities,” Steve Lewis, CEO and founder of Living PlanIT, said in his CleanEquity keynote address. He went on to point out that modern cities generate a lot of data and being ‘smart’ means processing that data.
Simple as it sounds, being smart often proves easier said than done in the transport sector. “The transport industry is currently rather spoiled for choice. There are enormous quantities of rich, varied, pure, beautiful data, but there’s so much of it we just don’t have the capacity to untangle and make sense of it,” write Andrea Toth and Joseph Maria Salanova in their article ‘Big data ... for small traffic’ in the latest issue of Thinking Highways magazine.
There is indeed widespread confusion as to what ‘smart mobility’ actually means. The role of transport in the generally accepted concept of ‘smartness’ appears minuscule. According to the 2015 list of the world’s 50 smartest companies by MIT Technology Review, only one of those 50 - Uber - is directly involved with city transport issues. To make it worse, Uber occupies the last space on the list. One of the reasons for keeping the transport sector so low on the scale of smartness may lie in the frequent over-usage, or ‘abusage’ (pace Eric Partridge), of the word ‘smart’, often reduced to a meaningless soundbite.
And yet, the modern city’s transport scene is resplendent with exciting technological innovations - whether we call them smart or not. Let’s face it, with volumes of traffic and population constantly on the increase, a well-organised ‘intelligent’ transport system, which ensures unrestricted mobility for people and goods, is a cornerstone of urban life.
Cities around the world share common traffic problems, which is why the geography of transport innovation is rather cosmopolitan: from a network of BlipTrack sensors from Denmark-based IT company BLIP Systems, installed by the New Zealand Transport Agency on roads around Auckland International Airport (presented at Amsterdam’s Intertraffic 2016), to the new CEF (Connecting Europe Facility) initiative - a partnership of France, Belgium, the UK and the Netherlands, aimed at upgrading the existing transport infrastructure, reducing traffic queues and coming up with joint new mobility solutions.
According to TNO, the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research, the transport scene of a typical ‘smart city’ (present or future) should include the following components: smart infrastructure using sensors; roads that generate energy; real-time visual insights into traffic flows, noise pollution and greenhouse emissions; truck platooning; smart bikes; electric cars; and automated driving.
Let’s briefly consider some of them.
Components of smartness
Smart Ultimate Lighting, by Netherlands-based company HR Groep, was the winner of the Intertraffic 2016 award in the highly contested Infrastructure category. HR’s product is an easy-to-install light-up road sign that looks rather ordinary at first glance. In actual fact, the sign is made of the same illuminating foil used in mobile phone screens. What’s more, thanks to a transparent layer of photovoltaic cells, its surface doubles as a solar panel, making it self-powering. Smart? You bet.
The Traffic Management award went to SpeedLane, by USA-based Houston Radar. It is a multi-lane side-fire traffic radar, with ultra-low power consumption, that can monitor, count and classify cars in up to eight lanes simultaneously and then immediately transmit the data to a cloud-based server.
“We designed the SpeedLane with the user in mind and are excited to share this revolutionary product with the international community,” Houston Radar co-founder and CEO Vipin Malik told me.
I have to say that, with lots of innovative ‘solutions’ to getting around a modern city on display, Intertraffic itself - with its 12 halls harbouring 800 exhibitors from over 50 countries - was next to impossible to navigate without a powerful satnav device. The signage left much to be desired and the stand numbering was sporadic and often illogical. Even if locating a desired exhibitor had been easy, I wouldn’t have been able to find much on AVs (autonomous vehicles), simply because that important (according to TNO) aspect of the smart city was grossly under-represented. So I had to rely on other sources.
The rise of AVs seems unstoppable, but not everyone believes in their ultimate benefits. In his new book ‘Street Smart: the rise of cities and the the fall of cars’, Samuel Schwartz, one of the world’s leading transportation engineers, argues that AVs were originally conceived as part of a system where they only travelled on dedicated roads or tracks, and therefore are not suitable for driving in existing streets where they will always be in danger of a collision.
One such system of dedicated tracks, known as PRT (personal rapid transport) is currently under construction in Masdar City, UAE. Schwartz’s caution is shared by Dave Marples of Technolution BV, who - troubled by the recent YouTube video footage of AVs on the open road - asserts in the latest issue of ITS (Intelligent Transport Systems) magazine: “It is incongruous that some drivers should be able to take to the open road without any specific training using autonomous driving software ... These people are ... putting the safety of others at heightened risk.”
The above views, however, are disputed by Matthias Wissman, former German Minister of Transport and a champion of self-driving cars, particularly trucks. “Computer-controlled vehicles do not get tired or distracted,” he argues.
And Melanie Schultz van Haegen-Mass Geesteranus, Dutch Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment, believes that self-driving cars will be much more economical than conventional ones.
Incidentally, Schultz van Haegen was behind the recent European Truck Platooning Challenge, which became one of the highlights of Intertraffic 2016 and of a parallel meeting of EU transport ministers.
On my way to the fair every morning, I had to walk past a long chain of trucks from several manufacturers - DAF, Daimler, Iveco, Scania and Volvo - parked in front of the oblong RAI Congress Centre building next to each other. They represented truck convoys that took part in the Challenge and had ended up in Amsterdam in time for Intertraffic after a joint ride along country and city roads of Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Belgium.
Only the lead truck in each convoy had a driver, the rest were computer-controlled and synchronised to the point that if the lead truck braked, this would result in all of the following vehicles stopping immediately and with zero reaction time.
Truck platooning appears a safe and economic option, for it lowers fuel consumption and reduces CO2 emissions. It also helps the traffic flow by reducing congestion and tailbacks. So, the smart city of the future is likely to see platoons of heavy lorries snaking through its suburban streets and along its ring-roads smoothly and without delays.
Parking problems solved
All those cars, buses and lorries - whether automated or traditionally driven, fuel-propelled or electric - criss-crossing the smart city of the future in all directions, make parking a pressing problem. No wonder it was one of Intertraffic’s three main topics. Here, too, the Netherlands was in the lead.
At one of the previous Intertraffics several years ago, I learned of the then-new smart technology allowing the parking enforcement officers of Amsterdam to scan parked vehicles from their moving cars or scooters at a rate of 1,250 scans per hour. The scan would be promptly processed by the Scanman System to confirm parking permit validity and other data, which would be then forwarded to the on-street parking attendants, armed with Sigamax hand-held computers, to issue enforcement notices on the spot. At this year’s event I discovered that the ‘smart’ parking enforcement was now practised not just in Amsterdam, but also in Haarlem, Utrecht and the Hague.
A parking-anxious motorist myself, however, I very much preferred the RinGO Parking Prediction App - the winner of the Intertraffic award in the Parking category. And not just because the app is now being trialled in London (its parent company, Parkmobile, is Dutch), but also on account of the fact that they “always try to put the motorist first”, as RinGO’s commercial director Harry Clarke told me.
Parking Prediction uses a unique company-developed algorithm to calculate the likely proportion of free spaces in this or that car park by linking historical and real-time data feeds provided by sensors.
I also liked another invention produced in cooperation by Parkmobile and BMW. ParkNow is claimed to be the world’s first app that allows the driver to reserve a parking space and pay for it without leaving their vehicle, straight from the car’s dashboard.
All those Dutch (and, no doubt, smart) parking technologies bring us back to Amsterdam, where tram number one, overtaken by cars, cyclists and some disabled pedestrians in wheelchairs, is rattling along unhurriedly across the city centre. I hope very much that there will be space for that legendary tram - a slow-moving mechanical wrinkle on the beautiful face of Amsterdam - in the smart city of the future.
It is important not to lose our cities’ souls in the never-ending technology race. A soul-less city, just like a soul-less human, can never be considered truly ‘smart’.