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Big traffic issues need big data solutions

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Key to solving Asean's urban city transport woes is leveraging technology

Asean celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and there is much to be proud of.

In simple economic terms, Asean's gross domestic product growth over that period from US$37.6 billion (S$51.4 billion) to US$2.6 trillion has set the region firmly on the path to advanced standards of living. But this has come at a price.


Economic growth across South-east Asia is driven by cities and the surge in urban population has propelled Jakarta, Bangkok and Manila into the ranks of global megacities - with all the associated transport problems.

The multiple ill effects of traffic congestion on the individual as well as on the national economy are well known, and sadly, the cities of our region are major offenders.

Apart from Singapore and Malaysia, the 2016-2017 Global Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum found that every nation in South-east Asia scored badly when it came to transport infrastructure.

The reasons for this situation are historic and complex, ranging from political to the economic.

Whatever the underlying causes, the key factor is the absence of government-level planning for comprehensive urban road and rail transit systems for both private and public use.

Now, the authorities in these countries have recognised that their transportation nightmares are a serious threat to the functioning of their cities, and over the past few years have been following Singapore's lead in developing mass transit projects.

However, private vehicle traffic is not going away any time soon, and one challenge faced by city administrations is how to manage it and how to integrate it into a comprehensive urban transit system.


The poster boy for urban traffic management is Singapore, which in 1998 pioneered the world's first Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system. This congestion pricing system automatically deducts the toll via a pre-paid in-vehicle unit, which is electronically triggered when the vehicle passes under a purpose-built gantry.

Singapore is now field-testing another world first - an ERP system based on satellite navigation technology instead of physical gantries.

The system will have island-wide coverage and will charge for actual distance travelled.

It can also facilitate coupon-less street parking and will provide road users with real-time traffic information through an intelligent onboard unit.


Transport and traffic management is a perfect subject for big data analysis.

The real promise of this burgeoning technology in the transportation sector is its potential to enable a comprehensive city-wide transit system, coordinating public and private, road and rail.

The intimate understanding of customer behaviour and journey plans furnished by big data allows the authorities to plan for additional services on the routes, such as conveniently located retail stores.

It also lets the transit authority tailor communications with each individual rider to notify them of any service changes, upcoming events or weather issues that may impact service, or provide targeted advertising.


A significant element of the costs of any mass transit system is maintenance.

By leveraging big data, the authorities can predict optimal maintenance requirements of the equipment, whether it is trains and their tracks or bus assets.

Data from the sensors installed on the equipment can be analysed faster and at a more granular level.

This helps predict upcoming faults at the individual component level such as brakes, rails and so on.

The authorities can then schedule maintenance of the equipment at precisely the right time, optimising cost and minimising disruption.

One public rail transport provider in the United States has successfully deployed big data to schedule its equipment maintenance with astonishing results - mean time to failure of the equipment has been reduced by almost 80 per cent to 90 per cent and equipment life increased by 200 per cent.

If it is judiciously deployed, big data analysis has the potential to transform the transport systems of South-east Asia's megacities, delivering a positive impact on the environment, the economy and the quality of citizens' lives.

The writer is vice-president and general manager of Asia-Pacific at Hortonworks. This article was published in The Business Times on Oct 5.