Transport for London has revealed how a data sharing partnership with sat nav firm Waze is helping to keep traffic moving though the Blackwall tunnel, one of London’s main traffic arteries which carries more than 36 million journeys each year.
While most journeys through the tunnel are completed without incident, its status as one of London’s busiest river crossings means any interruption to traffic flow can quickly result in delayed journeys and serious economic harm to the capital, with annual losses estimated to be almost £7m.
Six months ago TfL started working with Waze, a smartphone app which has more than a million users in the city, to tackle two of the most common causes of hold-up in the tunnel – drivers who run out of fuel and those who fail to realise their vehicle is over-height.
“Because we’re a sat nav we know where people are and where they’re going, and when they’re completely stopped we can serve little messages to them to remind them to do things,” said Waze’s UK head, Finlay Clark.
“When TfL said ‘people break down almost one a day with no fuel’ we said ‘well we know where they are, we know where the petrol stations are, we can offer them the chance to re-route’.
“We started this in May and we’re still running it today and in that time we have routed well over 450 people out of the traffic to a petrol station, what TfL have also seen is that’s reduced the number of people who’ve broken down by about 50 percent.”
“We’ve seen some really positive results,” confirms Glynn Barton, TfL’s Director of Network Management.
“I think it’s proved that targeted campaigns really work and can have an impact and I think it really proves that working in partnership with people who have a very different approach to the marketplace than we do, in terms of the platforms they can offer, the direct interaction with customers, the type of mutual benefit that you get from that, that’s something’s I think we really need to build on.
“There’s so many opportunities to do much more with this.”
While Barton says it’s “very difficult to quantify”, the decline in incidents suggests drivers may be more likely to heed alerts conveyed by a trusted app than via external signage.
And, by virtue of being completely free to TfL, Waze’s alerts are far better value for the taxpayer than installing additional digital displays along known problem routes.
The successful trial at Blackwall is part of a deeper partnership between the two organisations which sees Waze incorporate the agency’s publicly available open data, for example details of planned road closures, into its app to help route drivers away from problem areas.
In turn, Waze supplies anonymised data from its user base to TfL’s 24-hour traffic control centre which, alongside feeds from its own CCTV network and other data providers, is used to identify any congestion hotspots and traffic incidents which are then publicised via social and broadcast media.
Clark stresses that “there never will be” any charge to TfL for the services it provides, saying: “We know that in order to make complex cities like London, that were never designed for the number of cars that we have in them today, work we need to be smarter [and] we need to work directly with TfL.”
“From our side that’s why our open data policy is so important, because it does stimulate this type of partnership and it makes it much easier,” says Barton.
In addition to helping keep traffic moving, Barton and Clark suggest their partnership could also help make roads safer by, for example, alerting drivers when they’re in areas with high level of cyclists and need to take extra care.
“This is just the beginning, as we’re now exploring how the new technology can give us even better insights into London’s roads and enable drivers to avoid unnecessary delays,” says Barton.
“This in turn will help make our roads safer and more efficient for everyone.”