Analysis: traffic congestion has a huge negative impact on the Irish economy, but technology offers an opportunity to mitigate some of these issues.

By Peter Woods, ICHEC

Planning for the future has many challenges and the need to quickly address short-term requirements can often exacerbate long-term problems. The recent expansion of commercial buildings and new offices in Dublin city means a guaranteed increase in traffic from both public transport services and private cars, and a challenge for local city councils to plan and manage their smart city policies. The creation of new urban residential developments also brings demands for an adequate support infrastructure such as altered bus routes, shops and schools.

Such conditions require an agile planning and operational platform to be in place to adapt to such on-going growth of a modern country. They call for an intelligent engine to help local authorities to roll out new services and policies, and ultimately help increase quality of life for commuters.

Commuting is an arduous part of modern life, a phenomenon which is known to have negative impacts on mental health. In their Statement of Strategy, the National Transport Authority (NTA) outlined a recorded increase of 30% in public transport passenger numbers over the past two years, and that the average commuting time to work has increased from 26.6 minutes to 28.2 minutes with the numbers commuting over one hour also increasing in that period.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Anne Graham, CEO of the National Transport Authority, on the growth of public transport journeys in 2017 and expectations and plans for the future

Smart Transport Ireland 

Traffic in cities has a significant social, economic and environmental impact, and upgrades to the current road transport infrastructure are either very expensive or in many cases impossible. At the Irish Centre for High End Computing (ICHEC), we are working on Smart Transport Ireland, a project aimed at improving transport systems in Ireland and ultimately the quality of life for commuters who use them.

The project aims to create a consortium of key organisations responsible for the future of Ireland's transport planning. The data provided by each of these organisations will be fused together to establish a comprehensive analysis and modelling platform - a real challenge due to the diversity and complexity of the data. This platform will allow the latest advances in artificial intelligence and deep learning to be introduced which, when allied with the recent increases in computing power, will allow for innovative solutions to be developed. These will help to optimise the existing traffic flow in Irish cities, improve road safety and enable agile planning of Ireland’s future transport infrastructure.

The idea is that data from national public transport networks, real-time traffic, video streams, and estimated annual growth of new cars on the road can be integrated for analysis and coordination to establish a better environment for all commuters (public/private transportation, cyclists and pedestrians). At the same time, national transport networks will be analysed and re-organised on a continual basis as well as intelligently managed during seasonal fluctuations, changing weather conditions, incidents and accidents.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, a report on the National Transport Authority of Ireland's research that 9 out of 10 passengers are satisfied with Irish public transport services

The project will also provide a measured economic impact - fuel-efficiency, lowered traffic congestions, reduced accident response times - along with reduced carbon emissions for an environmental friendly national transport operation. Models that are built using the AI techniques will make predictions, present a set of recommendations to address or resolve specific scenarios, and (semi-)automatically implement decisions with manual supervision where desired.

For instance, integrated data from public transport real-time (bus, tram, train) services with the latest traffic data and localised weather conditions can be used to accurately predict the expected level of congestion (at Monday morning rush-hour, for example), the extent of operational delays i.e. the time it takes to load passengers at different bus stops, and ultimately make suggestions to alter the frequency of the service to deal with such conditions. The impacts of a more efficient traffic management system will be experienced by every person and organisation who interacts with the city in any way.

What's in it for me in my car or on my bicycle?

The project’s framework is based around four key objectives: (1) optimising the use and operation of the national transport network; (2) improving safety, emergency response and mitigating human errors; (3) mitigating unfavourable environmental impacts (e.g. reduced energy/fuel consumption) and (4) anomalous activity detection and social offences (e.g. littering, seat belt violations, speeding).

It is estimated that the daily cost of the time lost due to aggravated congestion (i.e. congestion levels above those which would be expected on a properly functioning, busy road) in the Greater Dublin Region will be in excess of €1.8m in 2019. This does not include the impacts of increased congestion on journey quality as a result of driving on more congested roads or travelling via more crowded public transport. It does not take in increased fuel consumption and other vehicle operating costs or increases in vehicle emissions.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, a report on "intolerable congestion" on the M50

Congestion also has an impact on the wider economy and Ireland’s competitiveness. All else being equal, high levels of congestion will reduce the attractiveness of a location to work and live in, as well as directly affecting the cost of transporting goods and services. These costs are not captured by this study, and as such, the total costs of aggravated congestion are likely to be higher than those estimated in this report.

The general public benefit directly and indirectly from a number of services offered by both public and private sector players in the transport sector. In particular, this project focuses on route planning (advised by accident detection and congestion detection), accident and breakdown recovery services, emergency services notification in the event of accidents.

Congestion has an impact on the wider economy, and our country’s competitiveness. reducing the attractiveness of Ireland as location to work and live in for everyone. Smart Transport Ireland using state-of-the-art technology offers an opportunity to mitigate these issues, improving mobility for all.

Peter Woods is Business Development & Public Sector Lead at the Irish Centre for High End Computing (ICHEC)

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ