Cities globally are trying to move the focus away from cars to a shared approach and ‘mobility as a service’. At Smart City InFocus in Yinchuan, Geoff Snelson, Director of Strategy & Futures, Milton Keynes Council, shared the details of how the City of Milton Keynes plans to get there.
Like many cities, Milton Keynes was designed with car travel in mind as the major mode of transport. Now, as the population expands, infrastructure is approaching capacity. The city is using a combination of approaches to improve mobility, including data, AI, autonomous vehicles and mass transit.
“Every city starts its smart city journey from a different place and looks to address different challenges,” Snelson said. “But there’s often an application or a challenge which forges a path and starts to reveal the opportunities and drive investment. In our situation, that is mobility.”
Data enables mobility
At the heart of Milton Keynes’ smart city initiative, MK:Smart, is the MK Data Hub. It was developed as part of a TM Forum proof-of-concept Catalyst project and won an award for its commercial potential and innovation. This city-scale data hub allows onboarding of data from multiple sources, including live data feeds, to support IoT innovation.
The data hub pulls in data about movement in the city, including pedestrian and vehicle flow, and bus occupancy levels, etc. This data is used in various ways – for example, in a route-planning app (MotionMap) for citizens.
“It also provides us as a city with strategic insight and ultimately allows us to work to move forward to integrate different transportation systems,” Snelson said.
Milton Keynes is now working with a partner called Vivacity Labs to introduce artificial intelligence (AI) sensors across the whole city for transportation purposes.
These video sensors detect what’s going on in the environment, perform analysis and send a data package back to a platform. They are deployed at key junctions to provide a real-time view of movement across the whole city.
This aims to help with issues such as more efficient use of available parking spaces. There are 23,000 non-multi-story car parking spaces in Milton Keynes. These sensors can scan the area for spaces (an individual sensor is not needed for each parking space) and can even detect the difference between cyclists, pedestrians and cars.
“You get a very rich set of analytics,” Snelson said.
Ultimately there is potential to connect this technology with traffic signals to provide a real-time demand-responsive signaling system.
Milton Keynes has also been doing a lot of work around autonomy with its trials of a small fleet of 40 autonomous ‘autopods’. These are designed as a ‘last mile’ solution to take passengers from the train station, for example, to their final destination. From next year, the city will be running them as a small-scale public transport service to understand the economics and logistics of using this kind of technology.
The pods use a 3D digital template to understand their environment and sensors to detect movement. They can then ‘decide’ how to interact and avoid collisions. As they learn more, they will grow less risk averse and move more freely.
“It’s truly an intelligent transit system,” Snelson said.
The city is also working with motor manufacturers on how systems might evolve from driverless systems to full autonomy and how they might interact and work collectively with other modes of transport to form a holistic service.
To support this, the city is using technology such as radar sensors, which communicate with the autopods and vehicles about traffic, movement and potential collisions.
Snelson commented: “You can see how this kind of system can be enabled by platform technology and how you can start creating an environment across the whole city to enable transport to move more freely and respond to events in an agile and intelligent way.”
Mass transit, city design
Investment in infrastructure such as trams is not viable for Milton Keynes at the moment. At the same time, it has a lot of ‘hard assets’ such as good highways, etc. The mass transit option it is looking for “doesn’t really exist” – yet. Leaders are working with the cities of Oxford and Cambridge to develop a new type of transit vehicle which will provide the equivalent of trams but use existing road infrastructure.
Looking ahead at the city’s design is also important – it’s about “designing the next stage of the city’s development to better enable these technologies and help people move around in ways which will matter to them in the future,” Snelson explained.
Snelson said: “With a proper integrated transport system with comfortable and convenient transportation that is wrapped around the needs of users, we believe people will be interested in a more human walkable, greener city center environment.”
He concluded: “I am not pretending we are there but I hope this is going to come together into something quite magnificent. We think there is a route through to make mobility as a service a reality.”
TM Forum takeaway
Carl Piva, Head of the Smart City Forum, TM Forum, comments, “Using autonomous vehicles as part of solutions for the ‘last-mile problem’ is intriguing and something that is discussed in many cities. This opens things up for densification or more green space in cities.”