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Mobile tech helping Bangalore beat its notorious traffic jams

Mobile tech helping Bangalore beat its notorious traffic jams
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First Published: Mon, Jul 09 2007. 12 03 AM IST

Updated: Mon, Jul 09 2007. 12 03 AM IST
Bangalore: For Aamer Khan, 32, a media marketing professional in India’s tech hub, the journey to the city airport from his residence at RT Nagar, a northern suburb, can take almost as much time as it takes to reach on a flight to Mumbai, a trip he makes twice a month.
The 15km drive to the airport takes on an average 90 minutes, but with Bangalore’s already clogged roads adding almost 1,000 cars and two-wheelers a day, Khan says the road trip till he reaches the airport is always tense.
That’s because a majority of the roads that connect different points of the 800 sq. km city witnesses bumper-to-bumper traffic, with an average vehicle speed of 10km per hour. The city, which has a population of 6.5 million, has more than three million vehicles, almost one for every two citizens, compared, on average, with seven-eight vehicles per 1,000 Indians nationwide.
Early in June, an ambitious Bangalore traffic improvement project called B-Trac, a multi-pronged strategy by the police to improve the traffic situation in the city by 2010, got under way.
The Rs350 crore project includes a data centre that holds information on vehicles in the city and traffic offences, as well as cameras placed across the city to capture traffic movement. Around 280 traffic sub-inspectors have been given Blackberry mobile email devices with printers to issue fines and collect payments for traffic offences.
One of the more interesting features of the project also offers citizens real-time traffic updates that estimate the travel time between destinations.
Khan is already among its first users. He now plans his journey within the city by sending a text message to a number, giving the location he needs to reach, and gets an immediate response of the estimated time it would take based on cellphone usage patterns on roads.
“Whenever somebody sends an SMS to 54321 enquiring about travel time between, say, Brigade Road and Airport Road, our server does the calculation and messages back to the subscriber,” said Ashwin Mahesh, chief executive of Mapunity Information Services, a city-based start-up firm focused on developing geo-spatial applications.
Mapunity, incubated at the NS Raghavan Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning at the Indian Institute of Management here, built the traffic management system which is powered by around 200 micro towers of mobile operator Bharti Airtel Ltd. An additional 200 towers are set to be added in the next few months, Mahesh says.
The Bharti Airtel micro towers capture signals of active mobile phones at a particular junction (though only Airtel mobiles), and send back the information to a server hosted at Mapunity’s premises, which in turn analyses the cellular density as a proxy for traffic density.
A public display that estimates journey time from MG Road, the city’s main centre, to the airport, around 9km away, is already in place at the junction of Trinity Circle.
Around October, Mahesh says, he started thinking about a possible solution that could help commuters plan their movement across the city “and also empower traffic authorities with inputs about traffic movement at various hours, and help them identify the trouble spots”. And the only way out, Mahesh says, was to “somehow capture the traffic congestion real-time and make that information available to anybody who is planning to pound the road”.
After meeting M.N. Reddi, former additional commissioner of traffic, Mahesh offered his geographical information system, a solution that helps track and monitor movement of traffic, to be used for the project. But the challenge was to establish a network of micro towers that could intercept traffic congestion at various junctions in the city, which required “significant investments since these towers could cost anywhere between Rs7 lakh and Rs11 lakh”, recalls Mahesh.
Meanwhile, Bharti Airtel was also seeking different ways to solve the “call drop” instances among its subscriber base in the city by putting micro towers at pockets with the highest density of cellular activity. Around half of Bangalore’s 3.5 million mobile phone users are on the Airtel network, the company says.
“Having invested in the infrastructure, we can now serve our customers better at some of these congested junctions,” said Deepak Mehrotra, director, mobility solutions, Bharti Airtel, South. The phone firm procured servers and also funded the software programmers who worked on this project at Mapunity.
As of now, there is no extra charge for the SMS enquiry on traffic congestion (subscribers are charged for each text message as per their tariff plan), but Bharti Airtel is exploring the possibility of offering it as a value-added service and may even look at it as part of a location-based service. Mapunity’s Mahesh says his company aims to earn revenue by providing location-based services.
On a June afternoon, Mint reporters testing the service reached the airport in 16 minutes on a two-wheeler from MG Road—exactly the time predicted on the display. But on a longer journey, Mahesh says, the time could vary by around 15% due to change in traffic patterns.
Still, local authorities will need to rope in other cellular operators to get a more comprehensive picture of the traffic congestion. Currently, the system tracks just Airtel subscribers and is only “representative traffic behaviour”, concedes Mahesh.
According to him, operators such as Reliance Communications Ltd are showing interest in this initiative. A Hutchison Essar Ltd spokesperson said the company has no immediate plans to join the project.
But others are joining the traffic bandwagon. Internet services provider Sify Ltd has placed cameras on five locations that have dense traffic in the city and displays real-time traffic movements on its local portal, Bangalorelive.com.
Over 10,000 users track it every day and a majority of them do so between 4pm and 6pm, indicating that people from workplaces are checking it out before they head out on to the road home, says Arun Rajamani, head of consumer channels for Sify.
Nearly 60% of the B-Trac system is completed and the focus now is on pedestrian safety and traffic signal coordination. The system is aimed at improving traffic movement in the information technology corridor in the southern and eastern parts of the city and the route to the present airport; it has not touched the routes in the north and west of the city.
Experts warn that systems like B-Trac will offer balm only in the immediate term, at best. “The traffic planning (in Bangalore) is still not long-term. If we design one for this year, we take two years to implement it,” says M.N. Srihari, chairman of Traffic Engineers and Safety Trainers, a non-government agency that advises the Karnataka government on traffic issues.
He warns of traffic chaos once the greenfield airport under development opens in Devanahalli, as most of its approach roads are still under construction and are unlikely to be opened before the first flight lands in April.
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First Published: Mon, Jul 09 2007. 12 03 AM IST
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