COVID-19 proofs that big data traffic modelling helps quick decision-making

We spoke with Georgia Ayfantopoulou about the challenges of traffic planning during COVID-19, her support for making quick decisions and her outlook towards the emerging mobility solutions of tomorrow. The Research Director at CERTH in Thessaloniki also gave a detailed insight into the cooperation between the research institute and the second largest Greek city.


Please introduce CERTH-HIT and explain why your organisation joined MOMENTUM and what’s it’s major benefit from the project?

CERTH-HIT is focusing on applied research for securing adoption of innovation in mobility transport and logistics. More specifically, we help city officials, regions, and business actors in their decision-making process in pursuing innovative mobility solutions in the smart sustainable mobility field.  New emerging mobility require multiple types of decisions, as planning becomes much more complex and almost “an every day” task. On a daily basis, questions such as ‘What priorities for public space use?’, ‘Where to develop infrastructure for shared electric cars or bikes?’ or ‘how to regulate e-scooters operations in cities?’ need to be answered. In this context our research assesses how decision-making for sustainable mobility can be facilitated, by developing new techniques and tools, which aim to sufficiently forecast the demand for future mobility solutions. In this way, we believe we will help cities for transitioning towards smart & sustainable mobility.

Across Europe we are currently lacking detailed models to predict the new means of transport, which are emerging. MOMENTUM gives us the possibility to develop such new decision-support and modelling tools to help cities to plan for future mobility, study their intermodal systems and the technology impact to seamless operation.

In Thessaloniki the city administrators found themselves in a similar situation, as they need to regulate new emerging mobility solutions without prior knowledge and planning tools. The new modelling techniques, which were developed by CERTH as part of the MOMENTUM project, are big-data-driven and will help to quickly take decisions and implement new mobility solutions in Thessaloniki. These tools can also help business actors to assess whether they should enter the mobility market and justify their investment. For example, CERTH uses dedicated big data analysis and models for supporting a car-sharing company to take business decisions for specific cities cases.


Since you have strong sharing of data between CERTH and the mobility ecosystem of Thessaloniki, what is the relationship between CERTH and the city? Does CERTH perform other tasks for the city, such as traffic forecasting?

Our organisation is committed to create and stimulate the ecosystem for smart and sustainable mobility in Thessaloniki and throughout Greece. Furthermore, we are also maintaining a state-of-the-art transportation model for the Thessaloniki agglomeration and perform demand forecasts, as part of feasibility assessment of mobility measures and transport infrastructure.

Since this is rather abstract, let us use the example of taxi fleets. A taxi company shares their anonymised and neutralised data with us. In return, we provide them a service, which estimates where a taxi driver should stay be positioned for achieving a higher probability of customers.

These types of cooperation have been considered very useful during the COVID-19 outbreak, as the city of Thessaloniki urgently needed to expand the network of bicycle and pedestrian routes. The question arose: ‘How to decide which roads to select for implementing bike lanes?’. Thus, we took the free-floating bicycle data, aligned it with the most-frequented bicycle routes and shared this information to the city administration. It was a very good example of how data analysis can help quick decision-making by the city.


Since you explained the cooperation with Thessaloniki in a very detailed manner, for how long does the cooperation between CERTH-HIT and Thessaloniki exist?

The idea “of a city as an open laboratory for mobility research” was dominant in my mind since the beginning of my research carrier. It is only under real conditions that we can test innovative solutions and study the behaviour of the users. At the beginning, it was necessary to integrate our research infrastructure in the city network. Throughout the last twelve years, we have created a strong tie, thanks to our vast data sharing in the context of a Mobility Living Lab.

It is a long process, as we need to convince the city and local actors about the benefits, but we have excellent progress. Now data owners and mobility stakeholders (especially industrial) are coming voluntarily to join the Living Lab because they are convinced of the added value we can provide.

Nowadays, this cooperation is a great asset, as I am a strong believer that in the future the cities will need to take quick decisions, which can only be made on the premise of quantitative- and big data analysis. This would lead to a more sophisticated processes, which we desperately need to efficiently support for our city. It especially applies to focused challenges and quick decisions, like the example with the bike lane.


Shifting our discussion towards MOMENTUM. CERTH is responsible for the analysis of impacts of bike sharing, micro mobility and transport planning, could you draw already some first results, which you can share with the interested audience?

MOMENTUM is giving us an excellent opportunity to develop new planning methods and tools for mobility, based on data analytics tools, to test them in Thessaloniki area. In this framework, we are observing, if these techniques are efficient in supporting the implementation of the Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan (SUMP) of the city. These tools are currently under development.

We also believe we could efficiently support the city for planning and regulating the e-scooters use in Thessaloniki, based on micro mobility data made available to us by the operating companies.  In less than a year a new generation of transport models will be available and functional in the context of the MOMENTUM decision-support tool, which will guide the majors through the decision-making process for smart and sustainable mobility planning.


European projects are always about sharing best practices and learning from experts in other countries. Did other consortium partners influence or inspired CERTH?

Actually, we have an excellent team in MOMENTUM, as we have different sized cities which are at various levels of maturity in urban mobility planning. This diversity helps us to create better tools, as every city is solving different mobility related challenges. Additionally, the consortium is a very capable technical group of partners and experts. We gain both at the level of data analysis techniques and on knowledge and ideas for new generation transport models development. Thanks to the coordination of TU München, a book will be published accumulating the consortium work on new modelling techniques to support the decision-making in sustainable urban mobility for cities.


CERTH has shared traffic data of Thessaloniki in times of COVID-19 and you have observed drastic changes in behaviour, like a traffic reduction of 70% during the heydays of the lockdown. How is the situation in recent month? What was the most outstanding phenomenon related to traffic developments during COVID-19 and post-COVID times?

Thanks to the availability of the digital mobility content platform of ‘ThessM@LL’, we were able to analyse the traffic developments on a daily and weekly basis, which was very helpful. It gave us the opportunity to learn a lot from the ‘empty streets’. Since the restrictive COVID-19 measures, such as teleworking and closures of schools, shops, and restaurants, were applied progressively, we had the opportunity to measure their respective impact on traffic. We related trip purposes to the traffic magnitude and other operational parameters easily.

Without our powerful tools, we would have needed very time-consuming and costly surveys for reaching similar conclusions. Our further analysis helped us to conclude that a certain minimal sub-network should be recognised as a minimum critical network, to be improved and be always available in cases of crisis for securing city resilience.

Furthermore, an increased number of citizens in Thessaloniki started to walk more and experienced the life of a city without traffic. Also, we observed an increase of shared bike use by 36% in some areas once the spread of COVID-19 intensified. Unfortunately, we clearly observe after the crisis that traffic has nearly reached pre-COVID-19 levels. Travelers still not trust public transport and taxis which increases the use of private car. No pun intended, but it seems that the momentum was lost.


You emphasised that citizens are walking more, do you think that COVID-19 has a long-term impact on the perception of citizens, as they saw a nearly car-free city?

I think that this experience remains with them. During this period, we have realised that most citizens they started thinking about proposals related to pedestrianisation of the main roads of the city, which were part of the suggestions for the latest SUMP. Such a public debate puts pressure on the city administration, as citizens expect immediate changes, so this might lead to the revision of the SUMP. Furthermore, it is clear that these SUMP goals are achievable.


Will COVID-19 have an influence on the modelling assessments of CERTH-HIT & Thessaloniki?

COVID-19 confirms that we did the right thing by conducting research related to new modelling and decision support tools for emerging mobility planning. Since the city administration had to solve challenges very quickly, instead of discussing several weeks about possible measurements, our data-driven models and results help them to make choices. I am glad to say that COVID-19 confirmed first results and assumptions of the MOMENTUM project.

Additionally, COVID-19 show us additional planning requirements for future mobility. Resilience of transport and mobility system is one of them. Also, our new forecasting models should be able to quantify impacts related to user behaviour. Analysis models and some of our techniques for developing these new transport modes will be influenced by the knowledge from COVID-19, which will lead to new KPIs for the impact assessment.


Let’s look towards the future. What are the most challenging issues which Thessaloniki will need to address in the coming decade?

The most challenging issue is the organisation of the transition from traditional mobility solutions to more modern, flexible and innovative mobility schemes and the adoption of emerging technologies towards connected and automated mobility. Also, we see possibilities for innovative business development in mobility and we want to strengthening this. Our answers as a research institute is the living lab, in which we can discuss and prioritise future steps and we can create the basis for an innovation hub for mobility in Thessaloniki. Of course apart of the research initiatives we need leadership of the mayors and the region. This is a strange period, because leadership is not well defined, we are running risks in not making the transition towards the innovative model that is needed.


Thank you very much for your time and your analysis of the local situation. How can people find out more about CERTH-HIT?

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