Revolutionising our roads: The imperative role of 5G in transport

Chris Holmes

Chris Holmes, transport programme director at West Midlands 5G, explores the many ways in which connectivity can revolutionise our transport systems.

Following the disruption caused by the pandemic, we have seen a significant return to the roads, whether for a family day out or just the regular commute back into the office. According to the Department for Transport, by the end of May 2021 road traffic in the UK had returned to roughly the pre-pandemic levels.

With the world re-opening and the roads getting busier again, naturally congestion and pollution are on the rise. The transport sector produces more greenhouse gas emissions than any other – in 2019, 27% of the UK’s total emissions came from transport, 91% of which was produced directly by vehicles.

It’s clear that something needs to be done to reduce congestion and its impact on both the environment and individuals. The inconvenience and unpredictability of being stuck in traffic is an unwanted issue, wasting time and resources. INRIX has estimated that road congestion cost the UK economy £8bn in 2018.

So, what can be done and what is the role of connectivity in transport?

While technology has been used to plan routes and avoid peak times for a while now, advanced connectivity solutions like 5G are beginning to transform the way we travel.

By enhancing the connectivity of our transport systems – from road to rail – we have the capability to improve the accessibility, safety, efficiency, and quality of travel. Through its low latency, high capacity and reliability, 5G technology may be the key to increased visibility and control over transportation systems.

At West Midlands 5G (WM5G), our core challenge is to find solutions to ease traffic congestion, navigate the changing post-covid environment and make transport more attractive and accessible.

By delivering end-to-end connectivity solutions, 5G can support transport authorities by increasing their understanding of their systems and how people use their networks through tracking and reporting live data.

Advanced connectivity, whether it be vehicle-to-vehicle or vehicle-to-infrastructure, supports operational efficiency improvements of the overall system, and produces many benefits for travellers.

How can connectivity provide solutions in transport?

Our Transport Innovation Projects challenge the fundamental issues in transport across the West Midlands, with a mission to make transport more efficient, reliable, accessible, and enjoyable. As the central hub of the UK economy, it’s more important than ever that people are well connected within the region.

Our approach is to back many products and services, testing them in real-life environments and supporting implementation in the market, working closely with operators and local authorities.

Working closely with Transport for West Midlands (TfWM), we align our projects with local policy objectives to ensure we help to deliver the region’s strategy and create a happier, healthier, and better-connected place to live.

A major project currently being trialled is the road sensor network. Before the pandemic, a rapid increase in demand for travel in the region meant that 50% of road traffic was being carried on just 7% of the available road network, resulting in high levels of congestion, crowded public transport and long journey times.

WM5G and TfWM have developed what is thought to be the UK’s first 5G road sensor network, using cameras and emissions sensors at selected sites across the region’s key route network (KRN) to provide detailed insights on traffic movement and pollution.

This information, connected via 5G to the Regional Transport Coordination Centre (RTCC), will enable better road management - roadwork planning and incident management - and a healthier environment.

Alongside the road sensor network, WM5G has partnered with Blacc, Immense, One.Network and the University of Warwick to develop a road user simulation suite of tools (Capacity Manager). 

The project will dynamically monitor and predict capacity across the road network and help to plan for highly disruptive activities and events, leading to less disruption, improved journey times and increased travel reliability for network users.

This is especially important for the region given the ongoing construction of HS2 and the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games adding to the congestion burden.

Another road infrastructure product development is CURBS, a project that WM5G is funding with a partnership of Vortex, National Express and BT/EE, to enable effective mapping and monitoring of the road surface, kerbs, and various roadside infrastructure assets. This product will provide regular monitoring that will enable forecasting and trending of feature changes, a very valuable addition to the current infrequent asset monitoring process.

This will enable repairs and upgrades to be applied at the point of most need, improving safety through the application of science to the current infrastructure maintenance. It makes sure that the roads are fit for purpose for the potential autonomous cars of the future.

WM5G also recently concluded the Predikt project run by Appyway and Get Mapping. This product uses 5G-enabled kerbside imaging to supply up-to-the-minute parking availability along our urban streets. This will help to reduce the average eight minutes spent finding a parking space in urban centres and the estimated £373m spent each year in wasted time and fuel across the UK.

In addition to these infrastructure projects there are six products and services developments with WM5G which have either completed or are in progress, exploiting data and connectivity.

These products are aimed at improving the traveller experience of using public transport services which operate on the roads via buses and tram services. These range from helping partially sighted people to detecting the occupancy levels of public service vehicles, stations and venues across the region - all improving accessibility, operation and confidence in using public transport for everyone.

The future is now

Connectivity and data across transport systems hold the key to addressing issues in real-time and enabling greater efficiency. Improving our transport infrastructure supports better services and improved connections within communities, creating jobs and employment, and contributing to a better overall quality of life.

5G-connected smart cities are already playing a critical role in improving our transport systems. Trials of new or upgraded products and services we are supporting are proving that connectivity is making transport more accessible to residents, visitors, and businesses, and supporting the growth of the West Midlands as a thriving hub of the UK economy.

At WM5G, we are continuing to develop products and services to improve the decarbonisation and passenger first goals of the future, with the goal to implement solutions for the longer-term benefit of society.

If you’d like to find out more about WM5G’s transport projects, please visit us here .

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