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5G, Tech a Source for Improved Mobility Management

A simple pilot project to ease over-packed trains in Chicago reduced crowding 18 percent by offering riders incentives to travel outside of peak times.

On Chicago Cubs game days commuter rail ridership on the Red Line jumps about 50 percent, straining equipment and passenger patience alike.

City Tech Collaborative, a nonprofit working with corporate, academic and city partners to explore technology solutions for urban problems, worked with the Chicago Transit Authority to encourage passengers to choose to travel before or after the periods when thousands of fans crowded onto trains to get to an evening game.

City Tech designed a pilot project where riders opted into using a text-based system to push out information to change rider behavior. Some of that information revolved around warnings about crowded trains.

“Then there was an incentive around a free ride,” said Brenna Berman, executive director of City Tech Collaborative, speaking Wednesday during a webinar hosted by Meeting of the Minds, a nonprofit dedicated to studying smart cities issues and solutions.

Berman explained that some of those incentives offered free rides if commuters opted to travel an hour earlier or an hour later than their normal travel time.

Another incentive did away with the free ride option, but rewarded behavior changes with the pledge to make a charitable donation.

“If you travel an hour earlier, if you travel an hour later, we’ll make a donation to a specific cancer charity in the amount of $5 if you change your behavior,” said Berman.

The experiment was run across six evening games and was able to change the behavior of about 18 percent of riders.

“Which, in the world of behavior change, is actually a significant measurable change and has a real impact on the capacity and congestion of that train line,” she added.

The CTA pilot is one of several City Tech is involved with as part of its Advanced Mobility Initiative, an effort with several corporate partners and advocacy groups focused on developing new solutions and thought leadership with the city and its residents.

Admittedly, the CTA pilot is fairly low-tech — sending text messages, offering a ride-pass or similar perk — but it yielded positive results the transit authority can build on, said Berman.

“This is a policy or an approach the CTA can implement around any event-driven congestion challenge they have across their system — a baseball game, a concert, a known sort of slowdown for say, construction on a rail line,” she added.

And as technologies like 5G come online, the ability to better manage transit and transportation in real time will become even more robust, say industry experts.

“As 5G allows city agencies to become more and more real-time driven and push their analysis to the edge, they will be able to use this kind of model to respond to events that pop up, i.e., emergencies in real time, and redirect people, basically, immediately because of events across the Chicago transit train system,” said Berman.

It isn’t just managing crowds on the transit system that 5G and other communication technologies can improve. Video streaming from intersections and other areas can aid in accomplishing Vision Zero goals, a common strategy assumed by many cities looking to eliminate pedestrian deaths. 

“In the next year and a half or so, we will generate about as much data as was generated in the history of the world, up to this point,” said Sean Harrington, vice president of City Solutions at Verizon.

“And importantly, I think we can all agree here, it’s not just about the data, it’s about converting that data into actionable insight,” he continued.

Data from sensors — increasingly small, accessible and ubiquitous in cities — can easily be uploaded to cloud-computing centers, analyzed, and then offer insights into events like near misses between a pedestrian and a car at key intersections. That feedback could be used by transportation officials to make the system safer.

With the help of 5G communication, “running that video across the wireless network becomes entirely cost-effective and practical, and that means the ability to remove some of the compute-intensive requirements on the device, into a more centralized location,” said Harrington.

Ideally, video data could be sent instantly from collection sites like streetlamps to a mobile edge computing (MEC) cloud that’s also receiving other data sets like mapping or other traffic flows, Harrington explained, which can lead to a vehicle with connected technologies knowing what’s happening on the streets “beyond the line of sight for that vehicle.”

Those levels of innovation are being explored in cities across the country by companies like Verizon and others, hoping to improve the way residents and goods move through urban areas.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.