Bangalore: It’s hard to believe, but rush hour traffic at Bangalore’s arterial MG Road could have been worse. The anarchy is what you get when you take a city bursting at its seams with unplanned housing and exploding vehicle count, and then band-aid it with some world-class traffic management systems.
Traffic management technology in India is indeed state of the art. At first look, Bangalore Traffic Improvement Project’s (BTRAC) headquarters looks like a miniature command centre of the US’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Large screens relay live images from junctions, while a geographic information system renders traffic-congestion levels into a map veined with red, yellow and green.
Traffic policemen at four-screen consoles monitor the 316 “signalized” junctions in the city, about half of which have Bosch Security System’s hi-tech, remotely operable, pan-tilt-zoom cameras. “I have seen the traffic management systems at London, Manila, Virginia (US) and many others and we have every bit of the infrastructure they do,” says Ashwin Mahesh, chief executive of social technology firm Mapunity Information Systems and a member of Bangalore’s city planning task force “But the problem here is technology can only do so much.”
BTRAC is an example of cutting-edge traffic management systems deployed in most metropolises in India, including Delhi and Mumbai.
Meanwhile, sitting at his console that monitors Anil Kumble circle on MG Road, R. Sudhir, in-charge of the BTRAC centre, shows the traffic lights configuration (TLC) application, developed originally by Microsoft Corp. and integrated by Bharat Electronics Ltd into traffic lights.
Signals for each of the four roads that meet at the circle flash on his screen. Sudhir adjusts the signals every time he sees a jammed road on the camera feed.
“We have sensors beneath the road-surface. If the traffic stops flowing before green time is up, the light automatically trips. This is what we call intelligent signalling,” he says.
TLC divides each day into slots and tweaks its signalling strategy depending on whether it is a rush hour or a lean period.
Junctions that do not have video cameras depend on a system developed by Mapunity. It uses data from Bharti Airtel Ltd’s cellphone network and global positioning systems (GPS) deployed on 600 buses to estimate traffic speeds. While Airtel feeds data about density of cellphones in an area, GPS relays information about bus speeds and location. The data is analysed to spot areas of congestion. A map at BTRAC’s centre then translates this data into visual codes.
A traffic management system like BTRAC cannot plug and play devices built for developed countries. Indian conditions demand specialized gadgets, and technology firms have spotted this opportunity. Delhi-based Kritikal Solutions Pvt. Ltd has a technology that can read numbers off licence plates using a camera.
Jatin Sharma, one of the founders of Kritikal, explains, “There are companies like the US-based Autoscope who are already in this space. But their products won’t work here because American standards—a fixed font size for the licence number and a retro reflective plate—aren’t followed here.”
So Kritikal developed its own algorithm for pattern-recognition programmes. “In India, these systems are used so far only for security... Going ahead, it can be used for traffic violations too,” says Sharma.
Back in BTRAC’s centre, the limits of technology are showing up. Take signal synchronization, for example. When more than two signals are present on a stretch of road, the signals need to be synchronized so a commuter can catch green lights all through.
“We can do this only if the planning of the roads allows it. A five-road signal cannot be synchronized with a three-road signal,” says Sudhir, “because the former will require more green-time”.
Traffic congestion cannot be solved with technology if interventions are not made in planning. Of course, there have been improvements in planning. A good example is the Big 10 and Big Circle bus rapid transit systems—a network of 300 buses that ply on 27 major circular routes and 12 radial routes. These operate on two assumptions: first, if public transport is made easier to use, more people will shift to it. Second, if routes are better served by public transport, commercial establishments will spring up around them.
As an aside, Sudhir plays a morbid video compiled by BTRAC, with a soundtrack by Mumbai’s traffic management department. The lyrics goad commuters to follow rules; the tune is borrowed from singer-composer Shankar Mahadevan’s album Breathless. The video is a series of accident clippings caught on BTRAC’s surveillance cameras. An enthusiastic voice sings along while buses crash against autos at shocking speeds, leaving wounded passengers sprawled helplessly. It might not be in great taste, but it sure drives the point home.