Command and control: How Transport for London is watching you

At many junctions TfL uses monitoring tools, including magnetic coils buried in the road, to record traffic volumes and optimise traffic light sequencing (the centre’s operators can also control 80% of the capital’s 6300 sets of lights remotely). Elsewhere, it’s trialling radar at major pedestrian crossing points to gauge the size of crowds and automatically trigger and extend ‘green man’ lights, while on a section of the M2 and A2 it’s testing traffic light prediction software in cars.

These advances are part of TfL’s new Surface Intelligent Transport Systems (SITS) programme. Last August, it announced it is developing a new control system to capture more data on congestion (for example, from radar, sensors and anonymised mobile phone data), bus performance, weather and roadworks to provide a more unified view and improve response times.

“The point of all this new tech is to enable earlier incident intervention and more effective management of our roads,” says Owen. “The fact is, we have finite road space and demand for it exceeds supply. For example, while we’re seeing 13,500 fewer older polluting vehicles entering the congestion zone, the number of all vehicle types circulating within it has increased, maintaining pressure on road space.

“During the day, cyclists and pedestrians are the most efficient use of that space and we prioritise them. But at night, there’s less need to, which is why drivers find it easier to move around.”

Technology, including the 5500 CCTV cameras to which it has access, helps TfL manage congestion more effectively, but Owen’s most important sensors are, and will remain, the capital’s bus drivers.

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“They’re especially valuable because they’re the only road users who must follow a schedule,” explains Owen. “The second a driver’s journey is interrupted by an incident – for example, a crash or road works – they tell us.”

He indicates a screen showing bus routes, some of them in red where services are delayed.

“Red routes spell trouble but show us where to look and what needs managing,” says Owen.

By now, the experts from São Paulo have seen enough and are shuffling out of the viewing room, heads filled with new ways to manage their city’s rising traffic levels.

I leave too, but on the street outside the control centre I rashly decide that since the traffic lights are on red, I’ll ignore the red man on the pedestrian crossing and dash to the other side anyway. Just as I approach the far kerb, the lights change and a black cab, whose driver has clearly taken umbrage at my decision, accelerates hard, straight at me.



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