ITS is the acronym for Intelligent Transport Systems, which refers to the application of Information and Communication technologies in different transport modes and transport infrastructures. It is a pretty broad concept that encompasses, for example, real-time traffic information, Advance Driver Assistance systems, automated cars or contactless ticketing.
Currently, transport infrastructures are under strong pressure, particularly in cities. If nothing changes, the situation is expected to worsen as the number of city dwellers is growing, intensifying congestion and pollution problems. Traditionally, the response to this challenge would consist of widening the physical infrastructure, but this option is very costly and clashes with space limitations. In this context, ITS offers an alternative as it allows to optimise the functioning of existing infrastructures to better manage the traffic flows, for instance, by predicting congestion and re-routing cars before bottling occurs.
Furthermore, ITS can also enhance traffic safety. eCall is a well-known example. In the case of an accident the automatic emergency call system installed in your vehicle will send an alert to 112 so emergency services can immediately head to the accident point. By speeding up this process the percentage of deaths in car accidents will be reduced. The implementation of eCall has proven to be a rocky road due to the need for all relevant stakeholders to reach agreements, but the eCall regulation has finally been approved by the European Parliament on 29 April; as such the system will be compulsory in new cars and light vans by April 2018.
On top of helping save lives, ITS can also aid mitigation of Greenhouse gas emissions coming from road transport. This is all but trivial, as road transport is the most polluting sector right after energy. Some will say the real solution starts by reducing incentives for car usage as well as increasing the walkability or bikeability of cities, while providing high quality and sustainable public transport.
I believe such measures are part of the solution, but so is ITS. ITS offers, among other things, systems that help the driver drive more efficiently, saving fuel and reducing CO2 emissions. By reducing traffic jams or helping cars quickly find a parking space it would also contribute to minimising the impact of road transport on the environment.
Regarding freight transport, it is a low-tech industry that coordinates the transport of goods, via ships, rails, and trucks. In a context where online shopping is contributing to the decentralisation of the deliveries, ITS has a role to play by increasing the efficiency of freight, reducing delays and increasing profit.
Mobility as a Service
Probably, what I find the most interesting about ITS is the potential to boost multimodality. A truly multimodal transport system would allow users to combine different means of transport to go from point A to point B in the most convenient way. This would include trains, metros, buses, cars (car-sharing, taxies) and biking.
Multimodality connects with the concept of Mobility as a Service (MaaS), pioneered by Finland. MaaS is a mobility model resulting from a shift of ownership to utilisation. In this model, the customer satisfies her/his transportation needs from a single travel plan interface and with a single ticketing system. MaaS might evolve and take the form of ´mobility package´ offered by a service provider to the user. These mobility packages would encompass combinations of different transport modes depending on the needs of each specific user.
This way, for example, if you use transport to go to work in the morning, you will probably need a different mode of transport than if you go to spend the weekend on a lake in the countryside. The modes of transport you need will be included in your mobility package.
Functional and targeted mobility packages offered in the framework of an integrated and multimodal mobility network, supported by digitalization and big data, might reduce reliance on private cars and contribute to the sustainability as well as efficiency of urban mobility schemes. Perhaps (hopefully) in the future we will be able to enjoy the benefits of such a transport network. I have begged for it ever since I realised my monthly public transport pass does not even allow me to take all buses in Brussels. Thus, commercial reasons and political sensitivities might contribute sometimes to the fragmentation of mobility networks.
For MaaS to become a reality there is, of course, a long way to go, but it is an effort that is worth a try. Mobility service providers are not necessarily eager to twirl their business models and there are unsolved questions, not only in terms of competition and taxation, but also in terms of data ownership, data protection and privacy. However, the world we live in is rapidly changing and transport challenges demand some structural changes too.
Last week the European Commission hosted the ITS Conference under the theme: “A Digital Strategy for Mobility: from capacity to connectivity”. You can rightfully call me an idealist, but from all the interesting discussions about connected and automated vehicles, data as well as the contribution of Transport and ITS to the Digital Single Market- I choose this quote from the Commissioner for Transport as food for thoughts:
“Not technologies by themselves, but the integrated solutions based on those technologies are driving the change. (…) Are we aware of these changes? Are we using the technologies to enable the potentials of where we, as a civilisation, are moving to?”