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Revolutionising transport amid a pandemic

Travel has reduced significantly during lockdown

Over the last three months, COVID-19, lockdown and social distancing have radically reduced demand for travel and, therefore, the use of transport. Flights from European airports are down 90% on this time last year, road travel has plummeted by 73% (levels not seen since 1955) and overall public transport use has significantly reduced – for example, in the West Midlands, bus, train and tram usage dropped by 86%. Simply put, we’re moving nowhere near as much as we were before.

This has generated some benefits. For example, the reduction in plane, train and car journeys has had an unprecedented impact on reducing pollution. Birmingham City Council has published its findings which suggest an average reduction in pollution concentration (nitrogen dioxide) of approximately 36% since lockdown – something not seen for many decades. Another benefit of the reduction in journeys has been an improved work-life balance for many of those people who’ve been able to work from home as well as saving money on travel. These are benefits that we mustn’t sacrifice as we emerge from lockdown.

But it has also created some challenges. Public transport operators and authorities have seen a major reduction in revenue from tickets putting at risk the public transport services that many key workers rely on to get to their places of work. Citizens have found it challenging to observe social distancing during peak times of travel and in some instances with reduced services owing to staff self-isolating. Since the start of lockdown, car manufacturers and dealers have seen an unprecedented 97% reduction in new car sales, threatening thousands of jobs.

Now we need a more agile transport system as we emerge from lockdown

The transport world is changing into one where we need to consider how to use our infrastructure in a more agile way. The outbreak of COVID-19 has presented unparalleled challenges to all sectors but one of the most notable sufferers has been the transport industry. Due to the enforcement of lengthy lockdowns across the globe, freedom of movement has been significantly reduced and people can no longer travel restriction-free across town, cities, countries and borders.

Redundancies, pay cuts and furloughing have followed – but innovation has shown a force of will to succeed despite the crisis. Our ‘new normal’ world will require an increased responsibility and awareness from customers for their health and its impact on everyone’s safety, something that travellers have never previously considered. As a result, the traditional 9-5, five-day working week may evolve into something much more flexible. For that reason, travel companies need to be investing in trying to understand how their customers’ journeys will now be undertaken. Innovative projects at the bottom of the priority list need to be revisited and reimagined against the sector’s new climate.

We have been presented with a once in a generation chance to change how people travel, delivering benefits for our environment and our health, as part of strategic, long-lasting change.

Social distancing measures will result in reduced capacity on trams, trains and buses as well as in the air and on our roads, while queueing at our bus stops and train stations will need to be reconfigured as we begin to return to reality.

In the West Midlands, TfWM has issued advice for those beginning to use public transport again. We’re being asked to keep a distance, wear protective face coverings, use contactless payments and allow for extra travel time as some routes are still operating a reduced service. For instance, services may not stop and stations may close if passenger numbers exceed the new reduced capacity at any point.

These measures may encourage people to use their own transport methods and prioritise car travel but ultimately we should aim to move away from the ‘right to travel’ and focus on the ‘need to travel’, making informed choices in doing so.

The West Midlands is pioneering transport innovation – including 5G

The West Midlands was chosen as the UK’s first Future Mobility Zone (now called Future of Transport Zones) back in 2018, which saw funding invested into the development of new technology designed to make journeys easier, smarter, greener. This aligns with future travel and transport technology such as Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAV). Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) is involved in a number of these multi-million-pound workstreams, including a collaboration with West Midlands 5G on the impact and benefit 5G technology could have on the transport sector.

Technology and 5G in particular is going to play a key role in utilising transport data in order to predict traveller journeys, network capacity and journey times. The big difference between 4G compared to 5G, is its increased capacity, meaning it can connect more devices together at once –  or in the case of travel, vehicle to vehicle connectivity or vehicle to analytical devices such as traffic count sites. Vehicles themselves, whether a tram or train carriage, bus or car, will be looked at more in terms of software than hardware in the future, opening up a range of new possibilities.

Furthermore, the overriding issue of public health is going to ensure safety on public transport becomes of paramount importance. Personal risk management means that commuters will need more information about their journeys than ever before in order to plan a journey safely and at the most optimum time for them. A 5G-enabled real-time flow of data will help to inform choices for public transport customers, helping them to make key decisions that will affect their livelihood. Where car travel might feel safer and reduce risks, it is unsustainable en masse; many factors such as parking availability/costs and the impact to the environment due to congestion, contribute to the car being an unfavourable option.

Ultimately, so many factors are accelerating the need for transformation, innovation and change and this is our chance to embrace them for the greater good and to revolutionise the transport industry.

Tracy Westall, Non-Executive Director at West Midlands 5G, said: “It’s clear that we’ll be living with the effects of the virus for some time. We know that transport is key to a successful economy and the ability to access real-time, valuable information is something we take for granted when travelling. It seems reasonable that those data demands will increase and change as people adapt to new ways of travelling and 5G is a core pillar in achieving this.”

West Midlands 5G has recently been exploring how 5G can maximise the kerbside usage and availability, allowing people, goods and cities to move, while minimising search and park times. In Birmingham, we have teamed up with parking technology provider AppyWay to trial road-user monitoring and vehicle behaviour.

Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, typically a third of all vehicles in West Midlands city centres were searching for available parking at once. A new development by AppyWay explores a road user’s ability to view parking availability thanks to live hi-resolution footage passing through a 5G network. This data is converted into available kerbside parking alerts in real-time through a smartphone app.

In turn, this will shorten journeys, ease congestion and reduce pollution. Further down the line, we hope that 5G’s ability to process high-volumes of data in real-time, will allow 5G-enabled vehicles of the future to dynamically choose the most efficient route to a parking spot close to their destination.

5G is also proving to be an enabler on public transport. We’ve been working with GoMedia – a leading infotainment provider – on some more practical solutions for the region’s tram network. By plugging CCTV systems into a 5G network, hi-resolution video footage can be monitored in real-time far more efficiently. In a world of social distancing, this can help transport operators determined the effectiveness of public safety measures on their services. Here 5G is enabling an intervention without the need for draconian measures to ensure public health and safety.  The footage is captured and monitored at secure locations, protecting not only the safety of the network’s passengers but also their privacy. The same principles can be replicated outside of the carriage and at our stops and stations, enabling safeguarding at a safe, social distance and controlling the number of passengers.

West Midlands 5G is also working with TfWM to procure a partner to deliver its sensor network trial on the region’s road network. The trial is all about enabling better journeys from A to B and will involve the installation of 5G-enabled sensors covering many of the key junctions in the West Midlands, providing a rich data set for analysis. This will allow for improved traffic management and allow TfWM to spot trends and behaviours following everyone’s return to work after lockdown, which will prove valuable in informing future transport strategy.

Furthermore, just a fortnight ago, entries to West Midlands 5G’s latest funding competition closed. Opened prior to lockdown, UK businesses were able to apply for a share of up to £2.5 million to support the development of 5G-enabled transport innovations in the West Midlands. All submissions will propose an innovation that improves road or rail operational efficiency, better-connected transport or an improved traveller experience. We are expecting to fund up to five winning entries and projects will begin from August 2020, ending no later than March 2022.

We are looking forward to showcasing some of these trials as part of our upcoming programme of activity and highlighting how 5G offers a significant enhancement compared to current mobile networks such as 4G and how it will open opportunities for new applications and services.

Chris Holmes, Programme Director – Mobility at West Midlands 5G, said: “Our competition, run in collaboration with Innovate UK, focusses on road and rail transport and how 5G enables new products or services. The scope covers efficiency of operation, connection between transport modes and the traveller experience. All proposed trials with depend on a highly capable 5G network, with data being the enabler. We are very excited by the possibilities this offers and the interest and discussions we have had to-date”.

Post lockdown, E-scooters are set to be trialled in Birmingham and Coventry in an attempt to get the West Midlands moving following the COVID-19 pandemic. As with the UK’s first region-wide 5G testbed, the Government has selected the West Midlands to be one of the first regions to trial the technology. If successful, the plans could revolutionise the way people travel and provide a significant and positive environmental impact. You can read more on this, here.

Over the coming months, West Midlands 5G will be providing the opportunity for organisations to experiment and drive further transport innovation using its new 5G application accelerators, known as 5PRING.

5PRING is here to accelerate 5G innovation and provide a place for organisations of all kinds to innovate, grow and thrive with 5G.

Organisations looking to test, prove and scale new 5G services – or those who would benefit from an introduction to 5G technology – should register their interest with 5PRING.

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