Innovation: Buses on the super highway: Southampton hopes its traffic data system will coax commuters out of their cars

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The Independent Online
THE citizens of Southampton are about to be subjected to a public relations campaign to persuade them to give up their cars and use public transport.

The campaign, to be launched in June, is intended to build on the achievements of the city's showpiece traffic- management project Romanse (which stands for Road Management System for Europe), now entering its third year. The aim of the pounds 8.5m project is to create an accessible information system giving precise details of traffic conditions.

'The challenge is to produce accurate and timely information which will influence travel decisions,' said David Tarrant, deputy county surveyor of Hampshire County Council, which leads the project. 'We need to influence decisions on whether or not to travel, the mode of transport, timing of the trip, the final destination and the route taken.'

While other cities contemplate road pricing to ration road use, Mr Tarrant believes people in Southampton will be persuaded out of their cars because the bus will be faster. Each bus stop will give real- time information on when the bus is due, and systems are being installed to police bus lanes and to give buses priority at junctions.

Romanse also aims to get more vehicles into the same space by using the information it collects to drive sophisticated traffic management systems.

'Once congestion reaches a peak, people do different things - for example, the morning peak spreads. But demand management by congestion is not a very good way of going about it,' Mr Tarrant said.

Most people's experience of travel information will leave them laughing aloud at the idea that a city-wide information system could be comprehensive or accurate enough to influence their behaviour. 'Even if the information is accurate it is usually not detailed enough to be useful,' Mr Tarrant agreed.

Southampton's travel network is highly complex, and the data needed to drive a comprehensive information system comes from many different sources in a variety of formats. It must be collated, and disseminated in time to be useful.

One of the primary data sources is an existing network of sensors positioned beneath roads across the city, and on the main routes in and out of the centre, which measure actual traffic flows and control the traffic lights. As part of the Romanse project the system has been updated to recognise buses and give them priority.

Data is also coming from closed-circuit television cameras at 14 strategic locations. These work in conjunction with incident detection software called Artemis, which recognises unusual traffic movements.

The local authority database of current and future roadworks is linked into the central information system, and news comes from the police and other organisations, including British Rail and the BBC Travel Unit. The Romanse project is also working in conjunction with Trafficmaster plc, the company that provides information on motorway congestion direct to screens in cars on the move. Infra-red detectors will be installed on one of Southampton's main roads to monitor vehicle flows and the information fed to the Traffic and Travel Information system and the screens in the cars of Trafficmaster users.

All the information is cross- referenced to a computer map of the city developed by the Ordnance Survey, which is based in Southampton. This enables operators at the Traffic and Travel Information centre to view the overall state of the transport network and decide how to manage it. This could be by using variable message signs that are being installed throughout the city to divert traffic, by altering traffic light timings, or calling out emergency or breakdown services.

The trick in using this data to influence travellers is to get the information to them before they pick up their car keys. In addition to the existing channels of local radio, television and teletext, information from the Traffic and Travel Information centre will be disseminated on bus stop displays, screens in railway and bus stations, car systems such as Trafficmaster and the Radio Data System: the Traffic Message Channel being developed by Ford Motors and the BBC butts in with travel information no matter which station a radio is tuned into. The cable television company Videotron is cabling 20,000 homes in Southampton and is interested in providing information direct from the traffic information system.

'When all these elements are pulled together, we are confident we can create a comprehensive information system that people will believe in,' Mr Tarrant said. 'We are not anti- car but, in the light of government predictions of a doubling in the number of vehicles in the next 30 years, it is vital that a form of management - self- regulation - is instituted now rather than later.

'Hampshire County Council is beginning its three-year public relations campaign in favour of the bus because it thinks persuasion is better than coercion and Draconian legislation to get people to give up cars.'

(Photographs omitted)