George W. Coleman Jr., left, IT Director for the Regional Transportation Authority of Northeastern Illinois, and Gerry Tumbali, Engineering and Technology Division Manager for the RTA, say they have seen improvements since their organization moved to new, cloud-based technologies.

Jan 31 2022

Cities Adopt Cloud Computing and IoT for Smarter Transportation

Transit agencies boost efficiency, resiliency and safety through IT modernization and the Internet of Things.

The Regional Transportation Authority of Northeastern Illinois (RTA), faced with sweeping shutdowns due to COVID-19, announced that its workforce would be fully remote after March 13, 2020, until further notice.

Everyone, that is, except for its call center staff. While the rest of the agency settled into home offices, call center staffers went into the office to retrieve voicemails and return messages.

“We were able to manage,” says Gerry Tumbali, engineering and technology division manager at the RTA. “But, obviously, our customer service interaction suffered.”

By June 2020, the agency was able to replace its legacy on-premises Cisco unified collaboration system with cloud-based Cisco Webex. Once that was in place, the RTA’s call center staff was finally able to work from home.

Regions and municipalities around the country in recent years have been moving to the cloud and using Internet of Things sensors to boost efficiency and improve transportation safety. Some agencies froze those plans to respond to pandemic-related crises. For others, such as the RTA, the pandemic accelerated the urgency of modernization.

“It was more or less a natural disaster that didn’t end,” Matt Arcaro, next-generation automotive and transportation research manager at IDC, says of the COVID-19 crisis. The length and severity of the pandemic gave agencies a chance to step back and look at existing challenges, as well as opportunities, through a new lens.

“There’s a better way to do this besides the traditional example of more traffic, therefore more traffic lanes,” says Arcaro. “That’s a paradigm that we know is broken.”

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Municipalities Start to Rethink Transportation

One community in Florida is in a unique position to build forward-thinking systems from the ground up. Lake Nona, a 17-square-mile district in Orlando, has spent the past 15 years growing its reputation as a living lab.

“I’ve seen some incredible ideas from a smart city perspective that stay on paper,” explains Juan Santos, senior vice president of brand experience and innovation at Tavistock Development, which develops and manages the 18,000- resident master-designed community. “This is a place where you can take great ideas and see them realized very quickly.”

Lake Nona already has a network of IoT sensors throughout its streets and buildings. It also operates the country’s largest and longest-running system of autonomous shuttles, equipped with video and light detection and ranging sensors.

74%

The percentage of global smart city decision-makers who say connected public transport via the Internet of Things is a top priority

Source: itforall.com, “Building the World’s Cities with Smart Technology,” July 13, 2021

Tavistock owns and operates businesses within Lake Nona, so it also has access to data such as hotel occupancy and restaurant table turnover, as well as anonymized wireless data about where visitors come from and where people move around the district.

Transportation data isn’t limited to the ground, Santos adds. There are sensors on Lake Nona’s semi-autonomous drone, and those sensors will gather data from the district’s planned vertiport — a vertical takeoff and landing hub for electric air taxis.

EXPLORE: How does real-time data analysis benefit transit agencies?

Data Analysis and Insights Can Improve City Transit

Until now, all of Lake Nona’s data has been self-contained, but Tavistock recently announced a partnership with Hitachi America to expose that data to each other and use analytics to gain insight into and optimize movement in Lake Nona and prevent slowdowns.

“The work from Hitachi allows us to take data from the intersection cameras, from the parking sensors, from the access controls in buildings, from camera systems, and create a ­centralized place where we can use artificial intelligence and human intelligence to figure out ways to remove friction,” Santos says.

The underlying infrastructure consists of Cisco Meraki as the connection fabric and Verizon for wireless connectivity, with a millimeter-wave 5G network built both indoors and outdoors throughout Lake Nona.

George W. Coleman Jr., IT Director, Regional Transportation Authority of Northeastern Illinois
Now that we’ve got many of our ­systems moved to the cloud, we’ve seen much higher levels of reliability and functionality.”

George W. Coleman Jr. IT Director, Regional Transportation Authority of Northeastern Illinois

The initiative will collect data from independent systems, all of which have management interfaces that use standard web technologies and will publish to a publish-subscribe bus that’s streamed into a data lake.

“That architecture allows you to do things like put rules engines or artificial intelligence at the bus level without having to worry about integration with hundreds of pieces that make up a smart city,” Santos says.

RELATED: How will 5G networks enhance smart city solutions? 

Portland Breaks Down Barriers to Traffic Sensor Data

Across the country, in Oregon, the city of Portland is also embarking on a data lake initiative aimed at integrating and ­presenting data in a way that city analysts can use to better understand the problems they’re trying to solve and ­evaluate their solutions.

The initiative has its roots in a 2018 pilot project in which Portland partnered with AT&T to install Intel-powered General Electric sensors on streetlights along three city corridors. The goal was to advance the city’s Vision Zero program to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries on its streets.

City officials decided not to continue with the pilot, but they did want to make use of the 18 months’ worth of data collected. “We had 200 sensors generating data every 15 seconds,” says Portland Smart City PDX Manager Kevin Martin. “It’s got to go someplace.”

The city’s existing data systems can’t manage that volume or structure of data, so it recently launched a three-year cloud-based data lake initiative, with plans to expand it to meet ongoing, real-time mobility data needs.

The data streams from the city’s ­traffic signals are being upgraded to generate additional data. In the past, they were utilized solely by traffic engineers in the operational context of the signals. “They’ve been walled off,” Martin says, but they could inform conversations among planners about the safety of pedestrians.

“That’s the kind of integration and breaking down of data silos that is going to allow folks to have more information at their ­fingertips about what’s actually happening at these places where we’re experiencing safety issues,” Martin says. 

DIVE DEEPER: How can smart mobility tech meet citizens’ needs?

Transit Agencies Use the Cloud to Boost Efficiency

The RTA Metrics and Statistics ­platform, which runs on Amazon Web Services, measures everything from ­ridership and citizens’ comfort returning to public transportation to statistical data about engines, cars and other assets to inform purchasing decisions. 

“We can use those metrics to help improve ­ridership among our service boards,” says George W. Coleman Jr., the RTA’s IT director.

The modernization project got its start in 2019, when the agency launched a down-to-the-studs remodel of the 15th floor of its Chicago headquarters. In addition to accommodating remote workers during construction — and ­giving all employees a work-from-home option in the future — the infrastructure upgrade provided an opportunity to move many systems to the cloud and offload the responsibility of hosting, managing and administering the RTA’s legacy system.

“Moving to the cloud offers government agencies the resiliency and the capabilities that they’re looking for without the headaches,” Tumbali says.

The RTA upgraded its network with Cisco Firepower 2130 firewalls, Meraki switches, Windows 2019 virtual domain controllers and NetApp network storage prior to adopting Webex.

“Now that we’ve got many of our ­systems moved to the cloud, we’ve seen much higher levels of reliability and functionality,” Coleman says.

Photography by Bob Stefko

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