How mobile phone data could reduce traffic jams and train delays

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Managing traffic flows has long been a core tenet of transportation planning. Congestion, whether vehicle or pedestrian related, can have a significant economic impact.

An annual study of congestion by INRIX found that the cost of congestion in the U.S., UK and Germany came to almost $1,000 per person. The study worked out a monetary value to a peak hour (including cost of travel, time not at work or with family), before determining that citizens in Los Angeles spent 102 peak hours in congestion, while in Moscow and New York, residents endure 91 hours of jams. INRIX estimates that congestion cost drivers in the U.S. more than $305 billion in direct and indirect costs in 2017 alone.

The effect of continued vehicle congestion is not limited purely to the economy either. Time spent traveling is time spent away from families, which can influence perceived quality of life and work/life balance. A study from Washington University found that, due to spending more time traveling, commuters in highly congested areas have less time to exercise, which has negative health implications. And there is the considerable impact of air pollution from traffic congestion, which also affects health and lifespan.

Understanding the citizen experience

In order to combat these effects and deliver an overall more positive citizen experience – which in turn should lead to greater economic activity – several cities are looking at ways they can improve and plan transport infrastructure better.

To do that, however, they need to understand the way transportation is used – not just for daily commuters and permanent inhabitants, but also for tourists, business travelers and other occasional visitors.

Top 10 congested cities

Historically, that might have come from looking at public transit ticket purchases, counting vehicles at specific intersections or traveler and user surveys. However, this has its limitations.

Ju Young Jeon, Flux Vision Product Manager, Orange Applications for Business, points out that "tickets can only tell you how people intend to travel for that part of the journey. It's harder to understand their full journey: are they finishing at that station or do they connect to another form of transportation?"

With more public services becoming privatized, it's also increasingly hard for metropolitan governments or municipal authorities to access data.

"If your bus network is delivered by one provider, and a separate company operates CCTV in pedestrianized sections, and your rail network is owned by a private company, accessing the complete picture can be challenging," Ju Young Jeon explains.

A solution in customers' pockets

It is the sort of challenge the Paris Public Transport Authority (RATP) faced. Originally founded to run the French capital's bus and Metro services, which remains a core part of its business, the group has now expanded to provide public transit operations in 15 countries across Europe, the Americas and Asia. In order to be able to plan its services effectively and incorporate new methods of transport, such as carpooling and bike rent schemes, it needed a reliable and representative source of data.

The city of Mulhouse in France had a similar requirement. It wanted to be able to make more effective commercial decisions to help revitalize the city center; improve the transportation infrastructure, offers and services that it provided; and understand its visitors better.

The solution for both RATP and Mulhouse lies in mobile network data.

"Pretty much everyone owns a mobile phone," says Lola Viel, Big Data Product Manager at Orange Business Services, "and they are carried everywhere. There's a huge amount of data available simply from watching how mobile phones move. The insights mined from that data can then help organizations work out how they need to plan their services more effectively."

A clear view of transport users

From measuring overall attendance, to understanding users' places of origin and behavior, right down to improving communications and identifying better ways to attract the right audiences, mobile phones can provide significant information. For RATP, it meant being able to analyze, in real-time, traffic flows and inter-modality – the use of multiple forms of transport in one trip – to better plan transportation schemes and implement relevant, timely new services.

Mulhouse was able to use mobile data to measure the attendance of the whole city center, as well as break it down by districts, along with understanding the demographics of visitors. This meant it could evaluate the impact of different events and improve its overall understanding of who users are.

Both used Orange Business Services Flux Vision, which converts data from the Orange mobile network into anonymous statistical indicators on how people move around. For Mulhouse, this has meant helping city center shops to open at alternative times to capitalize on pedestrian flow and reduce unnecessary congestion.

"We have over a quarter of the market share in Belgium and 40 percent in France," says Lola Viel. "It's a strong representative sample that allows our customers, such as RATP, Mulhouse and many others, to map how their users, whether citizens, tourists or commuters, move around and design services to aid and support them."

The data that Flux Vision can capture has led to it being used to measure tourist attendance in ski resorts and coastal provinces, thereby improving how resources are utilized. It is also being used by banks to identify the best services to offer customers in different locations.

"Flux Vision means that customers can truly understand who their target audiences are. From making an interaction with your bank more relevant to managing queues at ski lifts, it is helping deliver improved experiences," says Ju Young Jeon.

Insight without sacrificing privacy

Being able to see how consumers move might be hugely useful for large organizations, but it does raise the issue of privacy. To ensure that Flux Vision adheres to GDPR and protects citizens' privacy, it employs algorithms that guarantee irreversible anonymization. It does this by deleting all personal data before it's handed to customers, making it impossible to identify individuals.

"We have to protect individual privacy," says Lola Viel. "Mobile phones are incredibly personal, so both Orange and our customers have a responsibility to make sure no person can be identified by their data. There is a unique opportunity here, but only if it is handled sensitively."

The ubiquity of the mobile phone means that the mobile network offers huge opportunities for a variety of organizations wanting to have accurate, real-time information on their audiences' movements.

Ju Young Jeon underlines this: "Handled responsibly, mobile network data can help transport providers understand audiences, improve their services and deliver a win-win situation for both citizens and cities in reducing congestion and, ultimately, with enhanced economic and lifestyle benefits."

To find out more, read our case study on how the Compagnie du Mont Blanc and the Chamonix Tourist Office uses Flux Vision to help reduce queuing at ski lifts.