Twice in the last decade Londoners have seen dramatic shifts in the way they interact with streets and transit. The first was in 2012 when the Olympic Games temporarily brought 600,000 new riders to London’s buses and trains. The second was in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic emptied streets, buses, and rail cars. In both instances, planners at Transport for London (TfL) looked for near real-time understanding of traffic patterns, demand, and incidents using situational awareness from a geographic information system (GIS).
London transit agency Transport for London uses mapping technology to maintain traffic awareness and prioritize sustainable transportation.
- London traffic planners built on the pioneering system from the 2012 London Olympics to usher in leading-edge GIS for traffic awareness in the city.
- London’s transit agency uses awareness to flexibly adapt to COVID-19 realities.
- Data visualization guides an initiative to provide accessible, socially distant transportation options for Londoners.
In response to the pandemic, TfL had to reconsider how mobility can enhance public safety. During the Olympics, it had to move people around to many venues, while maintaining mobility for residents and businesses. New technologies implemented in 2012 would prove valuable once again in 2020.
Olympics preparation included standing up the Games Playbook, a comprehensive traffic management tool that served as a central source to visualize mobility. Reflecting on lessons from the games, Michelle Dix, director of planning for TfL at the time, told the BBC: “That’s the biggest legacy in terms of behavioural change. We proved that through messaging and communications and telling people what’s going on, telling them about alternatives so they can make informed choices, we proved that you can manage these big events.”
GIS technology has given TfL a chance to understand how street space can be reimagined for London’s residents—whether the challenge is to use the space efficiently for more people or use it safely for fewer.
The Olympics effort was deemed a success, with 90 percent of journeys completed on time despite a record number of riders. The London Tube alone had 4.5 million riders on one day of the games compared to the typical 3 million, and 30 percent more than usual over the course of the event.
In addition to catalysing the use of powerful traffic awareness technology, the Olympics kicked off a series of citywide initiatives to make healthy, sustainable travel options more accessible. Boris Johnson, then-mayor of London, pledged to maintain key elements of the walking, cycling, and public transit infrastructure created to support the games.
Now, public health is a top priority of Mayor Sadiq Khan’s 2018 Transport Strategy with the goal of 80 percent of trips around the city to be taken via public transit, on foot, or by bicycle by 2041.
TfL’s GIS services have been instrumental in these efforts.
“After the Olympics, the need for geospatial understanding still remained very much at the forefront,” said Jaymie Croucher, TfL’s GIS lead for Network Management, Surface Transport.
TfL invested in its GIS in 2014, delivering GIS as a service, and creating the Surface Playbook. “We’re six years in to a 10-year plan, and we continue to grow to support internal and external stakeholders—all fed through the single source of truth for data,” Croucher said.
Creating Space for Safe Streets during COVID-19
Since the emergence of COVID-19 in early 2020, TfL has faced a new challenge in support of social distancing and implementing London’s goals for active, sustainable transportation.
Using maps of city streets created in the Surface Playbook, TfL used funding from the Government’s Active Travel Fund to make more space for people to walk and cycle safely during the pandemic. The program’s intention is, “to support the members of the public to have more confidence to walk and cycle,” Croucher said. “It’s focused on supporting sustainable modes and increasing the ability to enact social distancing in transit, whilst limiting the impact of other modes.”
The program encompasses several connected projects, including widening walkways, creating temporary bicycle lanes, and restricting car traffic near schools and in designated low traffic neighbourhoods. Projects have been implemented citywide on the 360 miles of roads managed by TfL as well as locally through funding provided to London’s boroughs.
As all the projects took shape, Surface Playbook was utilized as the focal point to giving clear situational awareness across the business as schemes were proposed, planned and delivered. “There’s a limited amount of space in London, and our team had to act quickly and use it wisely,” Croucher said. “We needed to look at social distancing and find out where it was going to be the biggest issue.”
The team’s principal data manager and GIS specialists (Christophe Delatreche, Timothy Fegan and Christina Kimbrough) along with the data scientists of Operational Analysis, created products identifying at-risk and high-demand areas of pavement to give planners a clear indication of priority areas. In particular, the maps highlighted five factors: areas with current high demand for cyclists and pedestrians; essential services like grocery stores; population density; median household income (low income typically correlates to higher foot traffic); and high-traffic public transportation hubs. As a whole, the maps conveyed a clear picture of where streets were likely to be crowded—and where more space was needed most for safe and socially distant activity.
The resultant risk assessments could then be layered over data like walkway widths to create priority scores. Top priority was given to streets and neighbourhoods with both the need and capacity for wider walkways. “This enabled the business to have a clear understanding of precedence enabling clearer decision making prior to accepting schemes.” Croucher said.
Similar processes informed additional schemes like added space for social distancing at heavily trafficked bus stops and establishing 24/7 bus lanes on priority routes.
TfL also coordinated with the GIS team within City Planning, led by Vicki Gilham, to expedite existing plans for cycle lanes created under London’s broader transport strategy. Prior to the pandemic, Croucher said, “Where previously we had seen cycling programs paused pre-pandemic, we’re now seeing those accelerated in areas where there’s an increased need for cycling infrastructure.”
Mapping the Future of London Transit
While the efforts align with London’s long-term goals, many schemes introduced during the pandemic are currently considered temporary. TfL is working to report on the success of each scheme to gauge whether the changes will make sense for the city after the pandemic—much like the process for maintaining Olympics infrastructure following the games.
“Before we can decide whether a feature becomes permanent or not, we need to understand what the impact is,” Croucher said. “If you close a street, for example, that is going to cause traffic to develop elsewhere. The schemes need to be well monitored to ensure that they’re effective in the long run for all modes of transport.”
London’s streets see over 25 million trips per day via many modes of transit. TfL’s long-term traffic strategies, informed by GIS data, help manage congestion, maintain safety, and encourage greener, healthier transportation.
Onsite surveys have been a key component of the monitoring process. Surveyors in the field across the Greater London area capture data about use, safety, and needed improvements. Survey feedback populates a live, online GIS dashboard, providing real-time visibility for city management and informing next steps.
To that end, such shareable reporting tools have supported TfL during the pandemic. With many schemes also being carried out by boroughs, the team created a GIS database to centralize program information.
“Compiling it all within a single portal, we’ve allowed everyone to have transparency over the safety of each scheme and compliance of users,” Croucher said. The portal delivers situational awareness for TfL and city leadership to see how each scheme performs and interacts.
Changing a city’s transportation habits ultimately requires a strategic rebalancing of the way residents use city streets. Recreation, public transit, transportation of people and goods—each claims a space on city streets. Giving more space to one will necessarily take space from another.
Maps provide a powerful visual understanding of the space available and a strong platform to plan, prioritize, and improve.
“The benefits of the way we collect and disseminate this information are reaped well beyond TfL to provide clarity to both external partners and ultimately the public,” Croucher said. “Understanding the spatial relationships that elements have provides a clear picture for decision makers that you won’t necessarily see by looking through more traditional means such as a database or a spreadsheet.”
Learn more about how GIS is used to make transportation more efficient.
Location Information at the Center of Traffic Management
The Network Management department at Transport for London (TfL) delivers GIS as a service (GISaaS) to many different departments and enterprise systems. The data and layers captured in TfL’s geographic information system describe locations and things, including up-to-date details about roadways, rails, paths, and all the physical assets it maintains. Sharing this capacity as a service means other systems can ingest and build on authoritative data to visualize, query, and analyse it for specific purposes.
TfL undertook a major digital transformation in 2016, with its Surface Intelligent Transport System (SITS), an umbrella project that modernized traffic signals, incident management, and the coordination of road improvement.
TfL’s GIS as a service directly feeds its adaptive traffic signal system. Data from sensors in the road network feed the split cycle offset optimization technique (SCOOT) model that analyses volume second by second. Buses and their location in the queue are also modelled and monitored. Then, the model feeds junction controllers in real time to adjust traffic signal timings to take advantage of each road’s volume versus capacity and to coordinate flow with neighbouring roadways.
TfL’s operational knowledge, captured in GIS, helps improve traffic flow and the environment for walking and cycling. One of the traffic signal innovations tested during COVID-19 involved “trialing the Green Man Authority,” where pedestrians see a continuous green man until a vehicle approaches.
GIS and the SCOOT system also feed an advanced big data analytics tool to understand dynamic changes in road traffic. The Real Time Origin Destination Analysis Tool (RODAT) analyses feeds from video cameras at key locations and along major routes in central London. The system monitors more than 20,000 origin and destination pairs every 15 minutes to calculate actual journey times and traffic flows to keep London moving.
GIS is also at the centre of TfL’s LondonWorks system for coordination of road improvements, with a registry of all road works and street-related events, both planned and current, in the Greater London area. LondonWorks maps all incidents, and uses spatial analysis to assess road networks then coordinate various road works to minimize congestion.
All inputs are combined in TfL’s Traffic Information Management System (TIMS) to monitor and manage traffic using a GIS database of live and planned traffic disruptions in London, including congestion, traffic incidents, repair work, and events. TIMS allows media agencies and other stakeholders to view disruptions in real time (updated every five minutes), and to see information about planned activity likely to impact traffic—providing a shared situational awareness.