Intelligent transportation systems have revolutionized all aspects of urban transportation. These systems contribute to more efficient urban transport by helping people plan trips, improving safety on high-volume traffic roads, and creating simple mechanisms for service and toll payments.

Intelligent transportation systems (ITS) debuted with in-vehicle navigation systems such as Navteq, Onstar, Navigation Disc programs, and iDrive systems, which aimed to provide safe, comfortable, and environmentally friendly driving guidance. Changes following rapid urbanization increased transport complexity and created the need for a more sophisticated tool.

The resulting ITS uses integrated systems, wireless communication, data clouds, and cloud computing to respond to the needs of individual drivers in urban settings. In addition to helping drivers, these new systems allow transportation agencies and companies to more efficiently manage their IT resources and to develop and host mobile and web-based applications.

One of ITS’s most powerful tools is the ability to connect transportation devices to the cloud computing infrastructure, which allows for real-time analysis of data. To see how effective this can be, imagine these headlines: a major snowstorm hits New York City during rush hour, snaring city-wide public transportation. Not only do officials want to know where all of the buses are in the affected area, but also how many people are on each bus. Instead of relying solely on GPS data to locate each bus, the local transportation agency can obtain accurate data on the number of passengers on each bus and communicate this critical information to emergency rescue services. If the technology embedded in a standard bus—a camera, a fare collection terminal, a passenger counting device, a WiFi and GPS system—is ultimately connected to a cloud computing infrastructure, data can be analyzed in near real-time, providing realistic snapshots at any given moment.

Legislating change

The need for “smart” transport was recognized in 2010 by the European Council, European Parliament, and European Commission, as they agreed on a pan-European Directive for ITS. The Directive means that travelers will benefit from seamless services across Europe. Also, authorities and administrations will reduce waste as network reliability and equilibrium are improved through the use of more integrated systems. Industry will also have a stable market to service, because of the new and sustained business opportunities created. Transaction systems, like integrated ticketing, road user charging, electronic fee collection, and improved traffic management and information systems will be the key to this major transition in transport.

To support better and more efficient transport decisions, more and better quality data is essential. In addition to traditional transport statistics, new ways of collecting and sharing data—for example, through crowd-sourcing mechanisms—should be combined with sound follow-up actions and enforcement policies.

Innovative approaches

Changes in the traditional landscape of the transportation industry have translated into another major shift in the development process, welcoming new actors and innovative solutions. To capture this innovation, the World Bank has initiated Transport Hackathons—a multi-month process designed to engage experts in the field of transport and urban development alongside experts from the volunteer technology community.

Hackathons represent a new approach to transportation problem-solving. In this context, it refers to a series of events that source problem statements from citizens, civil society, and development experts; build sectoral and digital literacy for technologists and for development practitioners; develop community structures, networks and relationships; and use technology to visualize solutions. Together, these groups hack (i.e., create) rapid iterations of technical pilot solutions to conceptualize and build solutions to pressing development challenges.

The first stage of the Transport Hackathon, a Tech Camp, launched in Egypt in June 2012, and the full Transport Hackathon followed in October 2012. Overall, the event increased awareness of transport challenges facing Cairo and the impact on the city’s sustainability. But personal interactions were also key. Participants acknowledged the importance of creating a network of partners that had never before collaborated—including Egyptian civil society, aid agencies, software developers, and relevant Egyptian government offices. In other words, it’s a hack for the greater good—and if it results in smarter, greener growth for the transportation sector, it will be even better.

Why Cairo?

Cairo’s traffic costs the economy as much as $8 billion in lost productivity, delays, and excess fuel consumption, according to the World Bank. That amounts to about 3 percent of gross domestic product, putting Cairo’s rate several times higher than that of comparable cities.