Kingston to use AI to make transport decisions

Kingston Council is working with an artificial intelligence (AI) company to monitor what people and vehicles do when they enter the town centre.

The project, run jointly with Sutton Council, will track the real-time movement of people through the town, and is partly to ensure pedestrians and other road users are able to practise social distancing.

Corporate head of digital strategy and portfolio at Kingston Council David Grasty said: “When the first [Covid] wave happened there were a lot of things done to widen pavements so that people wouldn’t have to crowd in on each other.

“We took lanes out of the road based on where we thought there might be problems, but there was no evidence or real data to do that.”

The technology is provided by a London based AI transport company called Vivacity Labs which has carried out similar work for other towns and Transport For London (TFL).

The AI works by using sensors in particular areas to monitor footfall and patterns of movement.

With non-essential shops due to reopen on April 12, it is a challenge for councils to predict how people will behave in terms of going out and which modes of transport will be favoured. 

CEO of Vivacity Labs Mark Nicholson said: “The only way that you can try and get an insight into what’s going to happen is to at least understand the situation today otherwise you don’t have any chance at all.”

The sensors have been installed throughout Kingston town centre and on the Riverside and will go live on April 6.

Kingston Council had made the cycle lane a pedestrian route to help with social distancing Photo: Andrew Fosker/Shutterstock (10661766a)

Privacy

In the past, collecting data about road usage involved people going out on the road with clipboards, using a rubber grip or setting up a video camera on a pavement. 

The new technology aims to produce quicker and more accurate data but with sensors tracking everybody’s movements, there could be privacy concerns.

Grasty said: “We own the data. Privacy has been designed into this project from the very beginning. It’s not a CCTV camera.

“No pictures leave the sensors as a matter of course. The sensors process what they see within themselves but only send summary information every five minutes.”

He added: “There’s no hidden agenda behind this project. What this project is doing is providing data, and that data will be useful in all sorts of policy issues and it will be useful in debates when a policy is being consulted upon.”

Nicholson also emphasised that it is not a spying tool.

He said: “All that we keep is something anonymous that tells us one car has gone past or one cyclist has gone past – there is no privacy invasion.”

Active Travel

Cycling and walking, also referred to as “active travel”, have increased during the pandemic.

Nicholson said: “[Kingston Council] are looking to understand the current utilisation of pedestrians and cyclists across the network and will try to see how that is changing as restrictions ease and what can they do to improve that situation.

“Lots of different local authorities are trying to promote more cycling and walking to try to alleviate a future congestion challenge.”

  • Do people in Kingston want more infrastructure that will encourage active travel?

A poll conducted by the Kingston Courier, in a Kingston Facebook group, showed the most popular transport change people would like to see is that of fewer cycle lanes. 

Chart: Sharmeen Ziauddin

Despite the anti-cyclist sentiment, move towards sustainability and active travel is something councils, especially in London, want to encourage.

Nicholson said: “Given the pandemic, what have been some of the changes that have happened in cycling and walking and how can [councils] help promote them more?” 

The data gathered from the sensors will help the council make policy decisions like installing a new cycle lane or zebra crossing and then use it to monitor the impact of those changes.

The technology can calculate how long it takes for a car or cyclist to get from Penrhyn Road to Kingston Bridge for example, and can also distinguish between nine types of vehicles including cyclists and mopeds.

The sensors can also detect how close pedestrians walk to each other and whether they are able to stay Covid-safe.

Grasty said: “We don’t know what the ‘new normal’ will be and having evidence-based rather than guessing is going to help us.

“It’s all about giving us data to be able to make Kingston safer in terms of the Covid perspective but longer-term it’s got many more implications for us in making sure that Kingston is a vibrant place and helping the growth and recovery of the town centre.”

The funding for the initiative comes from The South London Partnership and the Mayor of London and will last for at least two years.

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