Transport for London is one of the best transport operators in the world
The London Body Motion Control Center is a state-of-the-art facility with a world-class reputation. We learn how he manages the capital roads
If you're driving to Sao Paulo, things can get easier - or perhaps, depending on your point of view, harder. A delegation from the City Transport Authority is visiting Transport for London's network management control center (command center) to see for themselves how the organization, which is considered one of the best transport operators in the world, manages a capital of 360 kilometers of roads.
Crouched behind viewing windows, visitors peer into a huge center of wall screens that broadcast high-definition traffic video and watch as operating staff joystick zoom in on incidents such as a capture scene from a BBC surveillance thriller.
“They're especially interested in how we've integrated all of our previously separate control departments so we have a more efficient and targeted approach to road management,” Nick Owen, head of the Operations Control Center, tells me.
This change in the way TFL works has been driven by London Mayor Sadiq Khan's transport strategy, which aims to eliminate all deaths and serious injuries from London's streets by 2041, an ambition exhibited as part of a broader vision of zero movement.
My visit to the command center coincides with the start of work on the installation of new 20 mph speed limit signs, road markings and pedestrian crossings, raised five and a half kilometers of roads into restricted traffic zones, to go live in May. By 2024, many roads outside this zone will also be subject to a 10mph reduction. The fact that the average speed for cars in the capital is just 7mph seems to make these cuts unnecessary - at least until you're hit by a car doing 30mph.
In any case, cars in London live in turbulent times, so the 2041 transport strategy's goal is that 80% of all trips in the capital will be by public transport, cycling or on foot. Currently, this figure is 63%.
Cameras that can be zoomed in on them, speed limits that are getting lower and plans to reduce them – that sounds like London is in for drivers. Unless, listen to him, Owen might be their friend.
To prove it, he walks me around the center area, dedicated to accounting for 13 tunnels and underpasses and moving. The bank of large, wall-mounted screens displays live images of cars and trucks streaming through the tunnels. Image viewing multiple operators, two control centers 170 staff on duty, who provide round-the-clock coverage, 365 days a year. They look not only for incidents, but for anything that could cause things like potholes or losing cover.
“Just recently, around noon, after rush hour, we closed the tunnel to repair the hole,” says Owen. “It only took two and a half minutes from closing to opening and we avoided the inevitable crash later in the day.”
We are moving to the city traffic control team, whose purpose is to respond to incidents. Among the general images of traffic such as the one you might have seen at breakfast is a tourist television update with close-up videos of the incident with cameramen zooming in and out for a closer look or assessment of the impact on neighboring streets.
One incident is happening right before our eyes. It's at a major crossroads in a Swiss house. Traffic lights and two lanes were closed. The recent merger once separate Tfl control functions means that part of the Metropolitan Militia now comes under the control of the command center (tfl Met means 2000 employees) and two police officers have been deployed to direct the traffic.
At many intersections, TFL uses monitoring tools, including magnetic coils buried in the road, to record traffic volumes and optimize traffic light sequences (center operators can also monitor 80% of Metropolitan 6300 light sets remotely). Elsewhere, we are testing radar at the largest pedestrian crossings to estimate crowd size and automatically trigger and extend "little green men" lights, and at one of the M2 and A2 sites, we are testing traffic light prediction software in cars.
These advances are part of TFL's new Surface Intelligent Transportation Systems (SITS) program. Last August, he announced that he was developing a new control system to capture more data on congestion (such as from radar, sensors and anonymous mobile phone data), bus performance, weather and road performance to provide a more uniform view and improve response time.
“The meaning of all these new technologies will enable earlier incidents and better management of our roads,” says Owen. “That is, we have a finite road space, and the demand for it exceeds the supply. For example, while we see 13,500 fewer old, polluting vehicles entering the congestion zone, the number of all types of vehicles circulating inside it has increased, keeping pressure on road space.
“During the day, cyclists and pedestrians are the most efficient use of this space, and we prioritize them. But at night, you need to eat less, so it’s easier for drivers to get around.”
Technology, including the 5500 CCTV cameras to which it has access, is helping TFL manage congestion more effectively, but most importantly Owen's sensors are, and will remain, bus drivers in the capital.
“They are especially valuable because they are the only road users that need to be on schedule,” explains Owen. “The second driver stops for an incident – like an accident or roadworks – they tell us.”
He points to a screen showing bus routes, some of them in red, where services are delayed.
“Red routes are in trouble, but show us where to look and what should be managed,” says Owen.
Now experts from Sao Paulo have seen enough and are shuffling out of the screening room, heads filled with new ways to manage their city's boost from traffic jams.
I'll leave too, but on the street in the control center I recklessly decided that since the traffic lights are on red, I'll ignore the red man at the pedestrian crossing and the dashes on the other side. It’s just that when I approach the far curb, the light changes and the black taxi, whose driver was clearly offended by my decision, accelerates hard, straight at me.
It's a reminder that in the complex space that London's roads are, one wrong decision can mean the difference between going home or going to the hospital. At least Nick Owen and his team are watching.
One way of trucking, forwarding and continues to improve the way it maintains the roads. For example, using traditional road blocking methods, repair work on the A2 motorway between Blackwall Lane and Dartford Heath took up to 58 days in previous years, but by completely closing the road every night, the most recent work carried out this year was done in 20.
Tasks performed included:
Repair 80 potholes
Replacement of 256 lighting units
Grinding over 5500 square meters of roadway
Cleaning 1027 characters
Cleaning 1340 scours
Replacement 3365 road hairpin
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