9th November 2017

How Manchester is being shaped into a smart city with a connected transport system and cleaner air in sight

‘I don’t want Greater Manchester to be just a smart city – I want it to be the smartest city’, new mayor Andy Burnham declared soon after taking office in the spring1. We take a look at the latest ‘smart’ moves in the city that our Trak Labs division is delighted to call home.

Principal initiatives have been bubbling away since mid-2016 under the ‘Smarter City Programme’3 banner, which is the council’s baby and aims to leverage new technologies and fresh ways of working to understand and optimise Manchester’s infrastructure and systems for everyone’s benefit based around six primary themes: live, work, play, move, learn and organise4.

All manner of exciting projects5 are making progress under the Smarter City umbrella from intelligent lighting including real-time dimming, smart energy systems with hydrogen a key part, domestic smart home technology impetus, and social modelling to better plan roads and facilities. Trak Global Group is chiefly involved in automotive products and services, so it’s understandably the transport-related developments that pique our interest most keenly.

A key Smarter City project is called CityVerve, which also officially embarked in 2016 and will continue with aplomb until at least summer 20186. CityVerve sees a consortium of over twenty large organisations collaborate across four primary areas, one of which is travel and transport7.

Anyone familiar with driving into Manchester will like the sound of the ‘smart parking’ project CityVerve is developing, working on ways of notifying motorists of nearby parking spaces with the ultimate aim of encouraging more people to use public transport for latter stages of each journey. Granted, it somewhat sounds like a glorified park and ride scheme but any steps that help vehicles find vacant spaces more efficiently have to be a good thing, helping reduce congestion, frustration and tardiness. Owners of popular car parks such as the ‘Boddingtons’ site opposite the Manchester Arena will also be able to use data-driven insights to predict usage and availability to refine their services, and a booking system for EVs is also being researched8.

Disabled residents, parents, the elderly and others will benefit from wayfinding services like City Concierge, which will see everything from routes and traffic lights to signage and street furniture mapped, connected and the resulting data used to improve people’s mobility experience.

Customers on Manchester’s buses and the city’s iconic and recently expanded tram network will be kept informed and entertained by live and in some cases tailored messaging thanks to a network of sensors on smart ‘sensing trams’ and at ‘talkative’ bus stops where customers will even be able to check in to let drivers know they’re waiting. Perhaps don’t get your hopes up over a bus driver putting his or her foot down if you’re in a hurry on a typically rainy Manchester day, but joining up transport service providers and users so intimately sounds positive.

Road safety is close to Trak Global Group’s heart and to our young driver insurance brand, Carrot, so it’s great to learn that CityVerve is working on IoT applications to improve safety for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians initially along the Oxford Road corridor, which is typically very busy indeed on a daily basis. Connected sensors will also enable emergency services vehicles to respond more efficiently from Manchester’s main hospitals close to the university along with Salford Royal and other chief locations.

Breathing in fresh air and swapping vehicular transportation of any kind for exercise has many advantages, not least for physical and mental health, and the University of Manchester has developed an app called BeeActive9 that is set to boost fitness across the city. Some sceptics might perceive it as being slightly Big Brother-like, but the app will, for instance, know if someone is on the bus on a dry day, encouraging them to get off a few stops early and walk the rest of the way. Its name inspired by Manchester’s now globally-recognised worker bee symbol, a 1.5-mile walk starting at Oxford Road train station will be promoted through the app, which will reveal fascinating live insights into the city’s history and surroundings.

BT joined with See.Sense to run a trial project from August of this year with upto 180 participating cyclists testing connected and sensor-equipped ICON bike lights that use an app to transmit anonymised data on road surfaces, near-misses, real-time route updates and other aspects of the riders’ environments. Reducing some of the barriers to cycle adoption, this data crowdsourcing project will make Manchester’s roads safer for its two-wheeled users.

Staying on the subject of cycling, Manchester has unsurprisingly joined many other cities around the world by introducing a cycle share scheme, this one from Chinese firm Mobike who have unleashed a thousand silver and orange bikes across the city. Cheap at just 50p per 30-minute session, free from the need to dock them, and with a clever points system encouraging respectful use, Mobike10 has certainly gone about it the right way and will hopefully become a resounding success.

‘Driverless’ vehicles regularly make headlines these days and it’s exciting to anticipate that a trio of electric Westfield GTM autonomous cars will be trialled on public roads from January 2018 on a route linking Manchester Airport and Stockport railway station11. Anyone somewhat perturbed by this can rest assured that one such car has already been tested successfully on the A6 a little earlier this year.

Alternative fuels are also a hot topic as many organisations try to steer fleets and private motorists away from diesel in particular. It’s heart-warming that Manchester’s roads are now travelled by a fully electric Volvo bus12 that is actually the only one in the UK to recharge using a pantograph, one of the metal frames seen on the top of electric trains and trams, connecting them to the power lines above. Mayor Andy Burnham, who championed the introduction of this green bus, has indicated that he doesn’t have an appetite for a congestion charge to be implemented across Manchester13, which is welcome news for many of the region’s drivers.

With the motorways encircling the city having been bogged down for a few years and counting while ‘smart’ carriageways are rolled out, the city centre itself is clearly going through a fascinating evolution courtesy of sensors, big data, the Internet of Things and other technologies, with clear civic benefits in sight.

1. http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/business/business-news/andy-burnham-outlines-ambitions-make-13072736
2. https://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/blog/2016/07/cityverve-launches-manchester/
3. http://pwc.blogs.com/publicsectormatters/2016/06/index.html
4. http://www.manchester.gov.uk/info/500315/smarter_city/7013/manchester_smarter_city_programme
5. http://www.manchester.gov.uk/site/custom_scripts/smarter_city/case_studies.php
6. https://innovateuk.blog.gov.uk/2016/10/24/meet-our-customers-cityverve/
7. http://www.cityverve.org.uk/projects/
8. http://www.cityverve.org.uk/project/travel-and-transport/
9. http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/business/business-news/beeactive-app-residents-discover-manchester-13842483
10. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/bike-blog/2017/jul/06/manchester-mobike-review-better-than-londons-boris-bikes
11. http://www.itv.com/news/granada/2017-04-11/driverless-cars-coming-to-greater-manchester-roads/
12. https://www.businessgreen.com/bg/news/3017922/manchester-debuts-its-first-electric-bus
13. https://www.airqualitynews.com/2017/08/29/burnham-says-charging-not-table-greater-manchester/