Transport driving the smart city

Dubai’s Roads & Transport Authority is responsible for some of the most dynamic projects in Dubai, and for developing the infrastructure and integration to create a new seamless, multi-modal approach to transport for the city

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Transport driving the smart city Abdulla Al Madani, CEO of Corporate Technology Support Services, Dubai Roads & Transport Authority. (ITP Images)
By  Mark Sutton Published  November 28, 2016

There are many different ideas of how the digital age will shape the cities of the future, from science fiction-inspired predictions through to more prosaic ideas of connected power meters and solar-powered street lamps, but one aspect of city life appears in almost every smart city vision — transport. No single factor has as much impact on the urban landscape as transportation in its various forms, effecting every sector from the economy to the environment. There are a multitude of initiatives focused on the future of transport, and in Dubai, they are the responsibility of the Roads & Transport Authority (RTA).

Transport is one of the key pillars of Dubai’s smart city vision, and the RTA is one of the founding strategic partners of the Smart Dubai initiative, responsible for nearly 90% of the activities in the ‘transport’ pillar of Smart Dubai, and 95 transport-related initiatives.

Abdulla Al Madani, CEO of Corporate Technology Support Services at the RTA, said that the Authority plays a pivotal role in Smart Dubai: “We are unique in a way, because there are not many similar entities that cover the whole portfolio that we have — we have public transport, including buses, trams, taxis, ferries, and Metro; and then we also look after private transport, we build roads, we do car registration, vehicle licensing. In general, moving people within the city is what we do — our vision is safe and smooth transport for all.

“In order to achieve [city happiness] you need to make sure that transport and movement within the city is very smooth and done in a way that goes beyond the customer expectations. Transport influences safety, health, the environment, the economy — we make it easy for people to live in the city,” he added.

Al Madani joined the RTA in 2005, shortly after it was formed, as the IT director, before moving to head up the corporate services division six months later. Since then, the Authority has achieved a number of digital transformation goals, and Al Madani has also participated in many of Dubai and the UAE’s smart initiatives, including being part of the Smart Dubai team and chairing Dubai’s Open Data Committee.

Before the announcement of Smart Dubai, the RTA had already initiated a number of projects to improve operations and services, but which also align with wider goals such as integration, seamless experiences and user happiness. “We have a wealth of projects that have already been implemented, that contribute in a big way to the smart city,” Al Madani noted.

Some 170 services offered by the RTA have been made available through mobile channels, which in some cases have completely eliminated paperwork or the need to visit a physical service centre to complete transactions, and the Authority has invested heavily in enabling multiple channels of communication and service for stakeholders.

Other smart projects include the nol card, a contactless smart card scheme, initially implemented for public transport passengers. The nol card functions as an electronic wallet, which can be used to pay fares for all of Dubai’s public transport, as well as to pay for taxis, parking meters and so on. The RTA has signed MoUs with Smart Dubai and Dubai Municipality to use nol cards for micro-payments for other services in future.

In terms of connected transport, the city has deployed an Automated Vehicle Management (AVM) System, which monitors the RTA’s bus fleet using satellite location services and monitoring through a central control centre. The system has delivered savings of AED200 million ($54m), according to the RTA, through improving efficiency and punctuality of bus services.

The AVM also contributes data to over 40 different performance reports, while the system is also highly integrated with other smart solutions, including nol, real time display systems for transport information, the Wojhati journey planner app and accounting solutions. Future plans for vehicle control will extend to putting face recognition scanners in buses and taxis, to monitor drivers and ensure they are alert.

The RTA is also conducting projects in smart lighting, and a smart parking project has successfully completed its pilot stage and will be rolled out to other busy areas of Dubai.

Smart plans have even extended to the city’s bus shelters, Al Madani explained, with around 100 ‘smart’ bus shelters installed. The shelters extend a project for air conditioned bus shelters, through the addition of free Wi-Fi, phone charging points, bus information screens, and a smart kiosk where people can top up their nol card and pay utilities and telephone bills. The payment options have even been extended via agreements with major telecoms companies worldwide, so that foreign tourists can top up their phone credit with their home operator.

Another customer-focused project is the smart mall, developed by the RTA with Etisalat and online grocery shopping service trolley.ae. Currently in pilot at the Mall of the Emirates Metro station, the Smart Mall allows Metro passengers to shop for groceries through a virtual, smart-screen based market, and have their shopping delivered at the time and place of their choosing.

The aim for both projects is to help busy travellers to get the most from the transport network and improve the experience. Al Madani said: “People will say, ‘you are in the transportation business, what does that have to do with a smart mall?’ but there are so many people using the Metro who don’t have time to go to a grocery or a supermarket, so this service has been created because our customers are important to us, and we want to make them happy, and make their experience in Dubai happy.”

The RTA’s smart projects, both complete and in progress, also go far beyond anything as mundane as grocery shopping. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, has a set a target for 25% of journeys in Dubai to be conducted using driverless transport by 2030, and the RTA is focused on deploying autonomous systems to exceed that goal. The Metro already runs driverless trains, and the Authority has a number of pilot projects with autonomous vehicles, including a driverless minibus.

Another major project which is underway, is the Enterprise Command & Control Center (EC3), a AED335 million ($90m) master control centre which will oversee operations of all Dubai transport modes.

Al Madani explained: “EC3 is going to be like a bigger brother that looks at all the other OCCs (operational control centres), we have a Metro OCC, a tram OCC, a taxi dispatch centre, bus OCC, we have traffic OCC. EC3 will take data from all of these, we will have analytics tools and decision support systems, to make this data into meaningful, rich data that can be used for better planning, event management, crisis management, and providing better information to our customers.”

The EC3 is due to go live next year, and along with monitoring and analysis, will play an important role in integrating and creating visibility across all transport systems, in line with another goal for smart Dubai of creating seamless, city-wide transport.

Under this initiative, transport will become like accessing a utility, Al Madani said, with multiple modes of transport seamlessly available to passengers, and less emphasis on means of transport, instead with a focus on efficiency, cost and choice. An integrated app, the Dubai Integrated Mobility Platform (DIMP) is being developed as a platform for customers, so that they can see all the options they have for transport in a multi-modal network, plan the journey using all different types of transport available and enable them to get real time information, pay fares, etc.

“What we are trying to do is provide a platform where a customer sees all the different options he or she has for moving from one point in the city to another, not only that but they know how much it will cost and how much time it will take. You won’t care how you get to your [destination] just that you get there, on time.”

To foster these future ideas and innovations, the RTA has undertaken a number of collaboration programs with other government entities, and with transport authorities around the world. The Authority has also opened an Innovation Lab, to explore new ideas and new technology.

Staying abreast of new technologies and integrating them in Dubai’s smart transport plans is essential to the RTA, Al Madani concluded: “These disruptive technologies are coming very fast, and we are doing a lot to embrace these disruptive technologies. In the RTA, especially when it comes to smart cities, transportation is always there, so we have a big role to play as the RTA — it is never finished.”

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