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Can Japanese tech ease traffic jams in India's Silicon Valley?

It's one of India's top IT hubs, but Bangalore is looking to Japan rather than homegrown talent for a ground...

Posted: Dec. 10, 2018 12:18 PM
Updated: Dec. 10, 2018 12:18 PM

It's one of India's top IT hubs, but Bangalore is looking to Japan rather than homegrown talent for a groundbreaking solution to its notorious congestion problem.

Traffic jam volume at major intersections could be slashed by 30% within three years by a new intelligent transportation system (ITS), according to the local authorities.

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Cameras and sensors will be laced across the city, and GPS devices placed on public buses to enable traffic busters to monitor congestion levels. That data will be fed into a traffic control center, which will then divert traffic away from hotspots.

The $11.3 million project is funded by Japan. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), a government body that provides aid to developing countries, is working with Bangalore authorities on the project.

System installation will begin in March 2019, and the ITS will be in use in the city by mid-2020.

Read: Is India's Amaravati the next sustainable city?

From 'garden city' to tech hub

The capital of the state of Karnataka, Bangalore is often called the "Silicon Valley of India," as it is home to some of the world's top software companies.

But in the mid-20th century, Bangalore was known as a "garden city" where people would retire to enjoy its ample greenery, says Ravindra Brahmajosyula, associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Jodhpur Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Over the past three decades, the boom in the tech sector has changed the city's image and led to a population burst. The ITS will tackle the congestion problems created by this growth, says Akira Fujiwara, of the grant aid project management division at JICA.

Bangalore has an average travel speed of 8 miles (13 kilometers) per hour during peak times in the morning which hinders the local economy, according to JICA.

For comparison, in Los Angeles -- the most congested city out of 1,360 locations surveyed last year by transportation analytics firm Inrix -- the average traffic speed is 10 miles (16 kilometers) per hour.

Read: Transforming a desert in India into a tech hub

How does the system work?

The ITS will see 72 sensors installed across 12 traffic jam hot spots in the city. Detectors will use ultrasonic waves to capture information every 60 seconds, such as the length of a line of cars.

GPS devices installed on 6,700 buses will collect information about travel speed, while 16 cameras and sensors across eight locations will assess traffic volume and speed.

Meanwhile, new traffic lights will be installed at 29 junctions. The lights will be coordinated to create "green waves" -- meaning that, where possible, a vehicle that has passed one green light will be given another green at the next signal.

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Could it eliminate traffic in India?

ITS have been used throughout Japan since the 1990s, according to Fujiwara. JICA has installed similar systems in Sri Lanka and Cambodia, and is working on one in Uganda.

In 2017, JICA helped install an ITS in Moscow, Russia, which reduced congestion levels by 40%.

So can it deliver similar results in Bangalore?

Ashish Verma, an associate professor in transportation systems engineering at the Indian Institute of Science, is skeptical.

"Unfortunately, (the system) will have limited impact particularly during the morning and evening peak period, because the traffic is already operating at over-saturated conditions -- which will allow limited scope for such traffic management measures to make any substantial impact," Verma says.

Tarun Rambha, an assistant professor at the India Institute of Science's Department of Civil Engineering, however, says Bangalore has the benefit of being an "early adopter when it comes to technology" and notes that its citizens are tech-savvy, which could help a smart system like this be successful.

Finding a solution to congestion, he adds, is crucial for the local economy.

"Low-income households are often forced to find accommodation far from their workplaces, which increases the their commute times and in turn results in poor economic productivity," he says. "In subtle ways, congestion can widen the economic divide between individuals."

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