New technologies such as big data, cloud computing, and autonomous driving could provide solutions for urban traffic problems
By Yuan Yanan
The feeling of being trapped in a car in an endless stream of non-moving traffic while “inhuman” traffic lights rigidly change color to a set rhythm is familiar to many. Many spend more time looking for parking than the trip to the destination would take. For ambulances, traffic problems can mean lost lives. A traffic accident usually causes traffic on a city street to pile up long before the police can arrive at the scene.
“The city is humanity’s greatest invention,” wrote American scholar Edward Glaeser in his book Triumph of the City. Urban agglomeration maximizes the power of human cooperation, and the ensuing massive innovation brings more benefits to humanity. However, as the scale of the city expands, a series of “urban maladies” follows, with traffic congestion constantly being one of the most glaring problems.
According to data from the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations, by 2050, around 2.3 billion more people will be living in cities, which will be equivalent to the global population of 1950. The rapid progress of urbanization has posed a serious challenge for all countries to tackle “urban maladies,” including traffic congestion.
Allocation of Resources Is Key
“A 20th Century solution to highway congestion is to add more lanes because if you add more lanes more cars can flow,” said Dr. Jonathan Reichental, former chief information officer of Palo Alto, California, who continues to work on developing smart cities. “It turns out it doesn’t work that way. As more cars fill in that space, and more cars change lanes, there will be more congestion, ultimately.”
“21st Century solutions approach the problem differently,” commented Wang Jian, an academician with the Chinese Academy of Engineering and founder of Ali Cloud, a subsidiary of Alibaba Group that provides cloud computing services to online businesses. “We can solve urban problems using new technologies such as big data, cloud computing, and unmanned driving.”
At the first China Digital Carbon Neutrality Summit in September 2021, Wang shared his opinions on the topic with attendees. “In urban transportation, the volume of motor vehicles is often an important indicator to judge the need for the compatibility and construction of transportation facilities,” he said. “However, the fact is that there’s an obvious difference between the volume of motor vehicles and the volume of traffic. Take Hangzhou as an example: Although it possesses a total number of 3 million cars, only 300,000 of them are on the road at rush hours, or 10 percent of the total.”
“For a city, the resources to provide services for 3 million cars are completely different from the resources for 300,000 cars,” stressed Wang. If we simply increase the supply of traffic facilities such as road networks and parking lots, we’re likely to end up with a lot of vacancies and wasted resources. The optimal way to efficiently allocate urban traffic resources is worth more in-depth discussion, said Wang.
Urban informatization over the last few decades has focused on traffic information collection, transmission, digitization, and visualization, but has lacked sufficient in-depth analysis of the data and coordination between different systems. “The longest distance in the world might be between cameras and traffic lights installed in the same place,” joked Wang. “They’re never connected digitally even though they’re on the same poles.”
A feasible means to resolve urban maladies such as traffic congestion is to install a “brain” to efficiently manage big data of all kinds and conduct overall real-time analysis with an aim to rationally allocate public resources. Considering the constant breakthroughs in big data, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and other new technologies as of late, such a prospect is far from a fantasy. Today, more than 500 Chinese cities are investing in “city brains,” with Hangzhou taking the lead.
Smart Congestion Relief
It has been nearly six years since Hangzhou began its “City Brain” project in April 2016. With transportation as the first breakthrough point, the city has explored and practiced the optimization of urban governance with big data.
As the capital of southeast China’s Zhejiang Province, Hangzhou is also a central city on the south side of the Yangtze River Delta and the core of the Hangzhou Metropolitan Area. According to the 2020 census, its permanent resident population is nearly 12 million. From 2010 to 2020, it maintained an average annual population growth rate of 3.21 percent, which has exerted considerable pressure on the city’s traffic.
“Urban transportation serves the needs of both traffic controllers and participants,” said Gao Xiang, deputy general manager of Ali Cloud Transportation and Logistics Industry and secretary general of Alibaba Digital Intelligent Transportation Research Institute. “From the perspective of traffic controllers, they need to be aware of the real-time traffic situation in the city to improve control efficiency. From the perspective of traffic participants, it’s essential to obtain accurate and real-time traffic information and enjoy more convenient and cost-saving services.”
At the Hangzhou Traffic Command Center located in Yunxi Town, real-time information about the city’s traffic is displayed on a large screen. The City Brain scans the city’s traffic situation every two minutes and updates traffic indicators such as volume of traffic, congestion index, delay index, safety index, and speed of traffic on the expressway.
The City Brain quickly became indispensable for traffic controllers. It can detect 110 kinds of risks automatically and alarm the police immediately. As of April 2021, the Hangzhou City Brain automatically detected an average of 30,000 risks per day with an accuracy rate of 95 percent. It only takes an average of 10 seconds from detection to alarm for the traffic control department to respond rapidly.
“In Hangzhou, the police responded to 72.1 percent of traffic accidents in five minutes,” reported Wu Haiwei, director of integrated transportation research at the Hangzhou Integrated Transportation Research Center. “And 51.7 percent of crashed vehicles are removed from the scene within five minutes, minimizing the impact of traffic congestion caused by accidents.”
After the Hangzhou City Brain was put into action in 2016, the city chose two of the most congested main roads, Zhonghe-Shangtang and Moganshan, and their surrounding areas, to conduct tests. One important measure was to retrofit traffic lights. The City Brain connected 128 traffic lights with the “brain” and artificially adjusted the lights according to traffic flow. Within a year, the average delays on Moganshan and other main roads fell by 8.5 percent, and the average delays on Zhonghe-Shangtang fell by 15.3 percent. Min Wanli, former chief scientist of Ali Cloud Machine Intelligence, noted that the cost of that much improvement via traditional methods like adding lanes would have been tens or hundreds of billions of dollars.
The City Brain is designed to strike a balance between supply and demand in urban traffic by helping traffic controllers deal with traffic congestion more smoothly while providing traffic participants with integrated and personalized information services, said Gao Xiang.
The Hangzhou City Brain provides convenient navigation services and timely information to traffic participants, which help them easily plan efficient routes and save time. To solve the problem of difficult parking, Hangzhou launched an online leave-before-paying parking system by connecting information on more than 730,000 parking spaces in 3,453 parking lots to the “brain.” The efficiency of parking and leaving is eight times greater than before.
According to a report released by AutoNavi, Alibaba’s navigation services provider, Hangzhou’s rank on the 100-city traffic congestion index has dropped from 3rd in 2013 to 31st in the third quarter of 2020. “This ranking drop was not easy,” said Wu Haiwei. “Smart traffic has played a major role in traffic congestion relief.”
Hangzhou has set an example for many other cities. Gao Xiang explained that Alibaba’s smart urban traffic project essentially covers every aspect of urban traffic including smart traffic control, traffic operation monitoring and dispatching (TOCC), mobility as a service (Maas), and smart parking. Alongside Hangzhou, Alibaba has provided technical support for smart transportation projects in Kunming, Chengdu, Chongqing, Beijing, Liuzhou, and other cities.
According to data released by the Kunming Traffic Police in January 2022, 503 intersections in the city have implemented Traffic Light Synchronization. Delays on the city’s 12 main roads have fallen by an average of 10.5 percent, and delays within the First Ring Road have fallen by 20 percent.
Smart transportation technology is changing the way people travel, and it will also become an effective means of urban governance. “Data silos and business barriers have always been pains and difficulties troubling smart transportation,” said Gao Xiang, “Data sharing and business coordination will be the future trend of smart urban transportation.”
Intelligent connected vehicles will be further integrated with smart city infrastructure, enabling automated driving on urban roads, said Gao. In addition to improvement in traffic control, more efforts are needed to enhance public services, so as to truly improve the travel experience, promote green travel, and realize the sustainable development of urban transportation, noted Gao.