Intelligent Transport Systems

Both describe the use of computerised communication technology applied to improving the conditions on our roads. A system is programmed to achieve a particular set of goals, according to brief, further goals can be added, in the future, but need to be programmed into the system.

Any difference, therefore, lies in details of software programming and its application. Where traffic-related ITS deals mainly with traffic enforcement and toll collection, transport-related ITS aims to provide more pleasant and effective travel to those using public transport and help traffic to run more smoothly. The eThekwini Transport Authority has incorporated ITS into its plans for the future.

The eThekwini Transport Authority

In January 2004, the eThekwini Transport Authority (ETA) was established to take responsibility for all transport-related issues within the Municipality. Its particular mandates are public transport and the reduction of traffic congestion. It therefore hopes to encourage the people who presently indulge their use of private transport, to see the benefit of swapping to public transport.

In the Durban area, this includes buses, mini-bus taxis and trains, none of which presently operate very efficiently. Some services are duplicated, under-utilised and over-subsidised while others, that by virtue of their popularity should receive subsidies, do not.

Buses and trains are subsidised to the tune of R400 million a year, but taxi commuters -historically the poorer people of our society – are required to cover the entire cost of the service.
13% of Durban’s residents (roughly 400 000 people) have no access, or cannot afford to access public transport, in any form. The eThekwini Transport Authority’s current initiatives aim to apply technical intelligence to change and improve the status quo.

The ‘recap’ and EMS

The average distance of a public-transport trip is 20km and takes roughly 48 minutes from start to finish. Taxis are often (at best) uncomfortably crowded and (at worst) in a frightful condition, putting the lives of commuters at great risk.

Taxi ‘recapitalisation’ goes far beyond exchanging hard cash for beaten up vehicles and dedicated, regulated, route monitoring. An Electronic Management System (EMS), which operates far beyond fare payment issues, is an important feature of the R7.7 billion x 7-year programme.

This “total operating solution” will monitor such things as vehicle speeds, where and when stops are made, vehicle-maintenance management and the automatic provision of medical and funeral insurance cover for passengers (in the event of injury or death). It will, in fact, control and totally revolutionise an industry that caters to 68% of the country’s daily commuters.

Incentives for change

“Positive discrimination” incentives that will hopefully cause motorists to change willingly to public transport, include priority right-of-way (dedicated) bus lanes enforced (to keep other vehicles out) with the help of CCTV number plate and facial recognition systems, which will allow for automatic prosecution of offenders.

Dedicated bus lanes increase the speed of buses while decreasing the speed of all other vehicles. Electronic transponders, fitted to buses, can further ensure that the buses encounter green signals at robots.

All well and good; but the Durban Municipality may need then, to double the staff in its traffic camera office. As a nation, we are known for our lawlessness on the roads; citizens regularly ignore the regulations. As for taxis: does one exist, that could resist an empty lane? A huge increase in number-plate violation and the skipping of red robots can be expected as a result of this initiative.

More importantly, you cannot catch a bus that does not function in your area. Perhaps pre-emptive lanes, reserved for buses and taxis, would leave motorists to travel in comparative safety, even if more slowly!

A fair fare system

Due to the low value, but high volume of public transport fares, ticketing systems have traditionally been deemed the most acceptable proof of payment. Cash presentation either wastes the time of the driver, who must provide correct change, or incurs the need for an extra person, a conductor/ticket seller, either inside the vehicle or in an alternate office.

Integrating and preloading a ticket for use across various forms of transport (taxi, bus or rail) would offer an opportunity for seamless travel between the various transport modes and make the fare-collection process faster and more efficient. It would also reduce opportunities for fare collector fraud and would bring all public transport operators within the SARS (tax) net.

Previously, this solution was not considered viable because the organisation that would hold any central float of pre-paid funds (and thus benefit from its interest) could not be decided amicably. Any involved transport operators would have benefited enormously from having a few billion Rand to their credit.

Electronic or e-payment systems allow for bank-issued smart cards, linked to the bank accounts of individuals, so trip costs can now be deducted from personal bank accounts and paid directly to the relevant operators. This recent development is likely to change the face of public transport.

Information systems

The ‘talking trains’ in London are fascinating. Not only are passengers warned, by digital carriage displays, of distances between stations and stops, but an electronic voice, in anticipation of the next station, also kindly suggests when it would be appropriate to gather your luggage and head for an exit.

Trip information is vital to those commuting in unfamiliar places and, if managed competently and available 24 hours a day, causes far less consternation and stress to travellers. The London Underground now also sends SMS messages to regular passengers to reassure them that their services are running normally.

Presently, individual South African commuters are at the mercy of an imperfect system (though, to expect absolute perfection of any system, is not realistic). Our high road accident rate regularly causes havoc on our roads. Traffic reports, now featured on radio, during peak traffic hours, help to reduce congestion, but buses and taxis are unable to change their routes due to waiting commuters at pre-ordained stops.

People like to feel in control of their own movements and those who have used their own transport to travel to and from work, in South Africa, are unlikely to take kindly to any system that does not disseminate whatever information it can, to them, the road users.

Individual Benefits

Intelligent Transport Systems will, in the future, monitor any incidents of abnormal traffic congestion on the feeder arterials, even showing the causes for delay. They will relay this information to the eThekwini Emergency Response Centre. While Metro Police close the main arterials affected, the Freeway Management System will automatically send appropriate warning messages to message signs posted at key (driver) decision points on the route/s affected, diverting traffic onto less congested routes.

Automatic Vehicle Location and Real Time Passenger Information systems will operate from a central Public-Transport Call Centre, where reports received about delayed public transport vehicles will then be relayed to bus and taxi stops along the revised and initial routes. The data can also be posted on digital displays within public-transport vehicles.

Passenger Information Signs within a 20km radius of any delays will thus inform commuters, allowing them to decide whether to make alternative plans, warn others of delay on their cell phones or utilise a different mode of public transport. Commuters subscribing to a new ‘Buspass’ payment system will be able to receive this information, by SMS, on their cell phones.

If, for instance, a would-be passenger has not yet left the office for his evening trip home, he might prefer to work late, or use the train, rather than stand for an extra hour at a bus stop. The system, in fact, will present viable options to passengers, depending on their destinations and time restraints.

Integrated ticketing

The concept of integrated ticketing also allows for unlimited possibilities. In London, for instance, vehicles are recognised by CCTV camera systems, as they pass certain points. Toll fees are charged to the vehicle owners accordingly. Accounts are paid on presentation, at regular intervals.

Your municipal rates/electricity/water account might, for instance, carry an extra charge, according to how many toll cameras your vehicle had passed during the preceding month. Obviously, this could prove a problem in a country where people allow their service accounts to accumulate and then demand everything ‘free’ after several months.

Whether tickets are paper, smart cards, pre-paid cards or even cell-phone link-ups, the intention is to allow one form of payment for any and every trip. In case of a MetroRail strike, passengers would be able to use buses for the duration, without incurring extra costs – essential in a country where many families are on so tight a budget that finding several extra Rand mid-month can leave them without food until payday.

Once again, London provides the best idea I have yet seen. Monthly underground rail cards can be kept inside a purse or wallet and yet are still activated as commuters pass through the checkpoints. There is no need for searching of pockets or handbags for inoffensive little pieces of plastic or paper. Just as metal (very often bra under-wiring) activates x-ray machines at airports, so technology at the checkpoints can recognise a hidden ticket: an ‘extra-smart’ card.

Only people who travel regularly would probably use such an advanced, pre-paid option. A facility to allow once-off passengers to buy their tickets at bus stops would probably also be necessary and could be similar to the parking payment machines inside airports. When the ease with which South Africans buy cell-phone airtime at outlets on practically every street corner, is considered, this should prove no problem – you see: it can all be far easier than we at first think!

Ticketing procedures like this would do away with queues, the need to carry cash, the need to make special trips to ticket outlets, the need for fare collectors and inspectors and the need for drivers to count change while at the wheel. They would allow subsidies to be distributed exactly according to mode usage, after the fact, rather than, in advance.

The facility doesn’t need to be limited only to fare payment, though. The intention is to facilitate a programme for the 2010 World Cup that will allow soccer fans to pre-load electronically formatted entrance tickets for combined transport, refreshment and memorabilia usage – a ‘one card pays all’ system. The possibilities of this format are endless and depend more on the ability of service/supply organisations to co-operate within centralised visions, than anything else.

Safety

With one of its prime objectives being the attraction of private motorists to public transport usage, reluctance to give up comfort and convenience has been cited by Darryll Thomas, Manager of the Urban Traffic Control Branch (eThekwini) and President: SASITS (SA Society for ITS) as a main disadvantage.

I find it difficult to believe that public transport authorities will ever be able to supplement ‘own travel’ with an improved alternative, in South Africa; where presently, options do not exist, they would need to be provided, regularised through a 24/7 cycle and operated in a holistically safe environment.

Not only would the mode of transport need to be 100% safe, but vehicles parked preparatory to public-transport trips, would also need to be safe, while parked. On their return, commuters would again need to feel safe as they claimed their vehicles. For most to consider public transport a worthwhile option, pedestrian commuters would also need to feel considerably safer walking between destination and their choice of public transport.

Mr Thomas agrees that: “If the public are frightened to use the services, inevitably the policy is doomed to failure” and believes that it is the safety aspect that deters many commuters from swapping from own transport to public transport, despite the fact that attacks on passengers are rare.

He agrees that vandalism and criminal attacks need to be curbed, and claims they can be, with the help of technology. He also believes that visible CCTV surveillance could nullify this fear; that public education would alert us to “video analysis techniques that can alert staff automatically to suspicious behaviour on stations, trains and buses”.

His intention to educate the public about all the technological measures that would be employed to combat crime, on public transport, is laudable. He insists that, “should something untoward occur”, help will be “very close at hand” and acknowledges that “vandalism and attacks on public and staff are an evil curse that, as a civilised society, we need to attack with all the technologies we have at our disposal”.
Consumer safety priorities

I sense that, from his positions with SASITS and in the municipality, he is considering public safety only as it relates to public transport usage. Personally, I am less frightened of using the service than getting from my home to the service point, from the service point to my destination and then reversing the process later in the day.

Every commuter is likely to be a pedestrian at either end of his/her public transport usage and it is as much during this point in their journeys, as actually while on public transport, that safety is a huge concern to most people, who may need to carry laptop computers, cell phones and even their public-transport tickets, in whatever format, through city streets.

The pertinent question: does the Municipality intend to position CCTV cameras at every point along every journey, even the pedestrian ones? If so, well and good, but this would require immense financial investment (though probably slightly less, long-term, than installing the same number of Metro policemen in those positions, 24/7.

Mugging and petty thievery, on the streets, cannot be left out of the safety equation! I personally believe that safety is the crux of this issue and is generally hopelessly oversimplified. Another important concern is the number of people who are expected to use their ‘business’ vehicles for work purposes during the working day.

In some areas where options already exist, taxi strikers have stoned commuters who choose to travel by bus or train. Some commuters find it safer just to remain at home, instead of trying to get to work. It seems clear that the ‘grip’ that striking workers in any industry have, over others, has been allowed to get out of hand. This, too, should be classified as a public-transport safety issue. Most Durban motorists approached, insisted that the Municipality would need to pay them handsomely to use public transport on a regular basis. The reason? Always the safety issue…

Co-operation

Thomas, ultimately, agrees that: “as long as the perceived inconvenience of public transport persists, the majority of motorists will prefer to use their car regardless of any penalty imposed”.

Improving the quantity and quality of public transport vehicles, he concedes, is necessary and will involve a far larger investment than has been presently budgeted. It is not only the mindset of the public that needs to undergo change, but that of transport planners throughout the country.

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