In the future we will communicate with smart traffic lights, predicted the traffic light expert of my hometown ʼs-Hertogenbosch in an interview for my blog in 2016. “In some way the installations and the road users are going to send and receive information.” Almost 2 years later that future is here and people cycling are the first to communicate with the traffic lights in the city via an app on their smart phone!
The traffic light installations in the city of ʼs-Hertogenbosch were already fully actuated. Meaning they try to detect every single road user and adapt the green phases to the road users that are present at any given time. These installations are now becoming smart. They start to communicate with individual road users. So far, the communication is only one way, road users report their presence, but in the near future the lights will also be able to give road users information back, time-to-green or time-to-red, for instance.
Supported by the Province of North Brabant, the city started a trial last year in November with one intersection that was ready to communicate with road users via an app. But the app was initially not available for iOS and that intersection was out of my way. That is why I hadn’t tested the system yet. Now “Schwung”, as the app is called, is available for Android as well as iOS. All 50 traffic light installations that register cycling in the city have been upgraded last Thursday, to receive information from the app and respond to it. I downloaded the app and the preliminary results are very promising. You do seem to get green even more than before.
What does Schwung* do exactly? Eric Greweldinger, the city’s traffic light expert, is clear in his LinkedIn article “It lets the traffic lights know you are coming. It is like pressing a digital button much earlier.” Years ago, that was all there was: a button. But the button was no longer the only detection mechanism in the Netherlands, there were detection loops in the surface too. At the intersection, but also at 25 metres ahead of the intersection. The city of ʼs-Hertogenbosch reached astonishing results with those three detectors. You really did have the feeling that lights turned green just for you, especially outside peak hours. But these mechanisms had their limitations. Even 25 metres ahead is just a few seconds before you reach the intersection and the loops were not very good at detecting multiple people. Due to the short time between your request and the time you arrived at the intersection, you had to be lucky that there was a time slot available for you to get the green light. That will now change. The green light request is now at a much earlier time and the installations will now also know the exact number of people arriving by bike. The installation can better anticipate and even conclude green phases for other groups of road users in time to give you a green light at the time of your arrival. Not always, but more often than before. For groups of older school children, cycling together, this will certainly make a difference. Fortunately, teenagers are just the right demographic when it comes to using smart phones as well.
The city launched a campaign to make people aware the app exists. With news items on the internet, but also by showing a video on the square in front of city hall. People started downloading the app right there! There is also information on a digital sign, that will be set up at a different location in the first weeks, to alert as many people as possible. The newspapers wrote about it too of course.
In the reactions to this news two concerns keep coming back. One, isn’t this unfair to road users without a smart phone, or to people who simply do not want to download the app? I don’t think so. Those people will keep what they had, an already outstanding system of fully actuated installations. The city was the runner-up in the 2016 “Best Traffic Light Region of the Netherlands” competition. But this competition didn’t specifically look at cycling. The focus was on cycling in the national survey for the “Cycling city of 2018” competition, organised by the Dutch Cyclists’ Union, for which I was a member of the jury. Over 45,000 people, who cycle regularly, rated the traffic lights in their hometown and in that rating the city of ʼs-Hertogenbosch ended in 5th position. Both indications that the lights in ʼs-Hertogenbosch are already very good.
The second concern is people’s privacy. The city assures the app is safe. At no point does Schwung get access to your personal data. It is only used to announce “someone cycling” is approaching a signalised intersection. You can keep your phone in your pocket or bag. The app works without user input. If you let it, it does record rides and sends that information to the city. You can start the app manually when you start to ride, but you can also let it detect when you cycle. Every ride gets a unique ID, so the different rides you make cannot be grouped. A small delay after the start makes it impossible to pinpoint an exact starting location. Having these recorded rides makes it possible for the city to learn which turns are made most at specific intersections. The smart traffic light installations (I-VRI in Dutch) can be programmed to handle the expected movements in an even better way.
The first figures show that the people in ʼs-Hertogenbosch like to experiment with new technology. Eric Greweldinger informed me that the app was downloaded 3,500 times in the first 4 days (Android and iOS combined). The use for Thursday to Sunday was as follows in the graph below. Not bad for something so new in a town of about 108,000 people on days with terrible weather for cycling! Eric was quite pleased with these first results. “Especially”, he said, “when you consider that some people thought this was an early April Fools’ Day joke!”.
It was anticipated for some time now: “the future is connected”. Car manufacturers are not sitting on their hands either. Motor vehicles will also communicate with smart traffic signals soon. The smart traffic lights are the work of a platform “Partnership Talking Traffic”. A public/private collaboration for the development and implementation of innovative traffic solutions. By participating the government wants to improve urban accessibility in a sustainable and safe way. The new Dutch minister of transport said this week that she wants this to happen quickly. Between 600 and 800 traffic light installations in the Netherlands should become smart in this year alone. For motor traffic it is the vehicle that is connected. But if cars can communicate with traffic lights it is very good that people cycling talk with the lights too. It is therefore very good that ʼs-Hertogenbosch started with cycling first, so drivers do not have an advantage again. Drivers have had too many perks in traffic situations in the past. Other cities in the Netherlands, notably Breda, Hilversum and Enschede (albeit on a much smaller scale) will also work with Schwung. Tilburg is testing another app. With the help of data and smart technology the government tries to achieve that people can make their trips in the urban areas better informed, faster and safer. That future is almost here for car drivers, but in ʼs-Hertogenbosch that future is now for cycling!
This week’s video: More green with Schwung in ʼs-Hertogenbosch!