Transport for West Midlands to innovate road traffic networks with 5G smart sensors

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In the UK, Transport for West Midlands is harnessing the power of 5G technology to cut traffic congestion on some of the region’s busiest roads. Vivacity Labs, a London-based AI tech and transport scale-up, has provided the network of 5G sensors, which will relay live traffic information to local authorities. As queues build up, swift action can be taken, such as diverting buses, implementing diversions and issuing instant warnings to motorists.

West Midlands 5G (WM5G) and Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) have joined forces to work on the project to demonstrate how 5G technology can make a major impact on our road network. Vivacity Labs provides AI powered sensors that gather detailed and anonymous data 24/7 on travel patterns, transport flow and different modes of transport to support strategic decisions on urban infrastructure.

The project centers around the key route network, a set of A and B roads equivalent to 7% of the available network, but which carry over half of all traffic within the region. This has resulted in congestion hotspots affecting drivers and bus passengers alike, something that the Road Sensor Networks project hopes to alleviate. In its first phase, the project aims to capture a more granular picture of traffic flow through the deployment of various 5G enabled sensors, radar and cameras across the key route network.

“Our partnership with Vivacity Labs and the accurate data from its technology will go a long way in reinvigorating existing traffic networks in the region,” says Mike Waters, director of policy, strategy and innovation for TfWM. “The project will also enable us to develop better traffic models or ‘digital twins’, providing improved understanding of changes in travel behavior as the region comes out of lockdown. These models also enable us to prioritise road improvements and support new developments, key to ‘building back better’.

“The Road Sensor Network project is a great example of how deliberate application of connected technologies can provide the insights necessary to solve some of our biggest transport problems,” adds Chris Holmes, transport programme director for WM5G. “The anonymised, GDPR-compliant information captured during the project will be sufficient to start improving the flow of traffic across the West Midlands’ key route network and improve access to the region. Better connected roads will ultimately support local financial growth, as it will be quicker and easier to travel for business, leisure, or academia.”

To date, the West Midlands has relied on manual surveys of traffic flows using pneumatic tubes or limited coverage of CCTV and automatic Licence plate recognition (ALPR) cameras to gauge the number of vehicles and journeys being undertaken on the region’s roads. This approach is limited in terms of the data and information it provides, making it difficult to accurately predict or model transport activity on the road network.

“We’re passionate about making our cities smarter, safer and more sustainable,” says Mark Nicholson, CEO and co-founder at Vivacity Labs. “We’re really looking forward to seeing the positive benefits that our data will provide to the West Midlands, particularly as the region emerges from lockdown this summer. The pandemic has seen a significant shift in travel trends, and, as well as live insights, data provides the ability to both analyse where to implement changes and evaluate the effectiveness of schemes in place.”

Sensor intelligence

The Road Sensor Network will also deploy environmental sensors to gain greater insight into noise levels, particulates, CO and CO2 counts, as well as weather and humidity data. This information will support the TfWM in meeting air quality objectives and help the region reduce its emissions footprint, which in turn will improve the health and wellbeing of local citizens and road users.

5G’s high speed and low latency (the time from action to reaction) enables the data captured to be anonymised and transferred to the RTCC in near-real time, building a more accurate simulation model of anticipated traffic and improving congestion management. It also supports the collection of a much richer set of data including pedestrian, cycle movements and supports evaluation of Future Transport Zone initiatives, such as demand-responsive transport and E-Scooters.

The next stage of the £5.8m (US$8m) Road Sensor Network Project will see around 280 sensors provided by Vivacity and Vaisala deployed across the seven constituent authorities of the West Midlands Combined Authority area, before its conclusion in March 2022. It is hoped the findings will support other regions in developing similar networks to ease congestion hotspots and more intuitively manage traffic flow.

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Lauren is acting associate editor for Traffic Technology International and freelance journalist. Over the past 15 years, she has worked on a wide variety of B2B publications and websites, including a stint as deputy editor of Traffic Technology International from 2014-2016. She has a degree in English from the University of Exeter. Lauren is mum two busy little girls. She is always in demand!