How cities can use transport data to reduce pollution and increase safety


Written by Rikesh Shah, Outgoing head of open innovation, Transport for London

London’s transport authority uses data sharing principles to solve city-wide challenges like air quality and safety. While I was working as head of open innovation at Transport for London (TfL), we adopted an innovative approach to working with private sector organizations to make journeys simper and faster, reducing both pollution and accident levels.


Improving air quality through co-creation

In 2018, the Mayor of London set an ambitious goal: 80 percent of the 31 million daily trips in the city should be made on foot, by bicycle, or public transport by 2041. By the end of 2022, 63 percent of journeys fulfilled these criteria. In a city where streets account for 80 percent of public space, their domination by traffic makes it harder for people to walk, cycle, or take the bus. Road vehicle traffic is the single biggest cause of the toxic air pollution that can damage health and environment in London. In order to improve air quality, we first had to understand how and where pollution was building up over the course of the day. And to drive significant change, we needed to foster innovation in the public sector; we could not carry on applying traditional approaches.

One way we have innovated is through public-private cooperation. By deploying 17 Bosch air quality monitors in the center of Brixton, a high-traffic area in south London, and in the streets nearby, we were able to measure the air for a range of pollutants including Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ground-level ozone, and particle pollution. Combining this data with Bosch’s traffic modelling allowed us to contribute inputs to emissions and dispersion modelling.

But collecting air quality data was only half of the challenge. We also needed to understand how the flow of different types of vehicles through Brixton affected the levels of pollution around the busy high street. This required the integration of the different types of data, including automatic number-plate recognition; split cycle offset optimisation technique (SCOOT) loops, a traffic control system that we installed at traffic signals to measure traffic congestion and automatically adjust signal timings; and maps with real-time traffic movements. By analyzing the data via an environmentally sensitive traffic management model—a live heatmap developed by Bosch that integrated data from all our different sources—we concluded that, by changing the timing of a key set of traffic lights, TfL could smooth traffic flow with additional traffic light staging to mitigate the density of vehicles entering Brixton Road. By making one change, this slightly increased average speeds to 10 mph, which led to a 20 percent decrease of the toxic pollutant NO2. We are exploring this approach on similar road layouts across London. 


Making London roads safer, smarter, and more efficient

Another example of innovation using live-data capabilities via the cloud is TfL’s London RoadLab programme. This aims to address the disruption caused by roadworks, which contributes to delays that cost more than £2 billion ($2.4 billion) each year.

We leveraged open data feeds via a unified application programming interface (API), which allows the aggregation and integration of data from different sources and in different formats. Historically, data from different modes of transportation was shared in different formats and structures. Unifying the data means we can access integrated information quickly, though it is important to note that TfL still owns the data.

With this data, we challenged tech app startups to develop new ways to make our roads safer and smarter during roadworks. Over a 10-week period in 2019, TfL’s team fielded proposals for the RoadLab programme to cut congestion. After nine trials, we selected and scaled two products:, artificial intelligence (AI) software that uses anonymized social media data to detect emerging disruptions, and Immense, which uses simulation technology that models roadworks to understand their impact on the capital’s road network before they take place.

RoadLab 2.0, launched in November 2022, focuses on improving portable traffic signals to reduce congestion. It also looks for ways in which TfL can better use data on walking and cycling to optimize the planning of roadworks. Four in five bus delays in London are attributed to roadworks for construction and utilities work, so this really matters to our customers. We are currently assessing the proposals for solutions.


Paving the way for success with screening charter

Early adoption of the Emerging Technology Charter was crucial to the success of our public-private cooperation. This set of practical and ethical guidelines, set up by Theo Blackwell, London’s chief digital officer, serves as a first-step stress test for the trialing and deployment of any proposal. By filtering all potential collaborators’ plans through the charter, we make sure that only those that meet our standards are considered for testing any new technology in our city. As Theo explains, “TfL’s Open Data Initiative has truly transformed the way that Londoners navigate our great city.

“Making our data more accessible has enabled private sector partners to develop apps and other digital resources which make it easier for Londoners and visitors to plan their journeys and get real-time transport and road updates.

“Through this innovative approach to our digital transformation, we have made our transport network far more efficient and are helping to build a better, greener, more prosperous London for all.”


How other cities can get started

Around the world, cities invest time and money in developing better services at a faster and more cost-effective rate for their citizens. City transport networks are data-rich, but often the data is locked into proprietary systems operated by different parts of the organization, and public sector leaders often find it difficult to get value from the data. To work backwards from citizen need, make sure that your organization has access to your own data. For TfL, putting our data on a unified platform allowed our potential collaborators to use it for innovation, but TfL still owned it. In order to harness rapidly changing technology to create new value, here are the mission-critical aspects to keep top of mind:


  1. Be mission-led when choosing problems to focus on; prioritize those where the public sector can scale solutions.
  2. Bring all the key internal and external stakeholders around the table from day one.
  3. Create a city test-bed, a space where you can safely test and trial innovative ideas with the right controls in place.
  4. Be prepared to experiment, iterate, and fail.
  5. De-risk the private sector investment by being focused, efficient, and willing to spend if the innovation works.
  6. Be flexible on intellectual property rights.
  7. Keep collaborating; innovation can take time.
  8. Establish a procurement process that enables you to develop, test, and scale innovative solutions, as opposed to simply hosting a series of pilots.



This article was originally published on the AWS Public Sector Blog, in partnership with the AWS Institute.

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