Despite the continent’s transport infrastructure lagging behind global standards for decades, Africa is bracing itself for a transport revolution as more countries embrace the onset of new technology.
This sets the scene for a new era of intelligent mobility in Africa, writes Kevin Pillay, vice-president for mobility at Siemens Africa.
Intelligent mobility involves the electrification, automation and digitalization of existing transport infrastructure, and gives every citizen access to safe, reliable and efficient modes of transport.
The need and demand for intelligent mobility in Africa has never been greater — World Economic Forum competitiveness data reveals that only three African countries feature in the top 50 globally for quality of roads, quality of rail and quality of ports infrastructure respectively.
World Bank data also indicates that the Sub-Saharan African railway network has declined to 59 634km today, down from 65 661km in 1980, with only about 70% of the railway network in operational state.
At face value, it seems as though the continent faces insurmountable transport challenges. But the reality is that we are already setting the wheels in motion to create interconnected, more modern and efficient African transport networks that keep economies on the move, rather than hindering them. This development will not happen overnight, and will be realised one step at a time.
Intelligent traffic systems
Many African cities have traffic infrastructure plagued by unreliable power supply. To the frustration of motorists, timing of traffic lights stays the same regardless of actual conditions, and many are faulty and take weeks to repair. This means that the road infrastructure can’t handle peak traffic, not because of technology but because of the lack of proper technological investment.
The challenge is partly that these traffic systems have grown in an unco-ordinated way, with lots of different suppliers and systems cobbled together. Speeding and traffic light violations are a problem, and there is limited technology deployed to support effective traffic law enforcement.
Concern of this situation has been expressed by officials and road users alike, who say congestion and accidents have reached alarming levels. Inefficiencies in these transport systems affect a country’s ability to attract and maintain investment.
So where do we begin?
The adoption of intelligent traffic systems (ITS) will keep Africa’s busiest cities as fast-moving investment destinations. ITS includes deployment of smart sensor systems with intelligent algorithms to automatically adapt to improve traffic flow.
Two-way communication can be enabled by running fibre between traffic junctions and a central control centre to gather information from intelligent networked systems, sensors and cameras at every junction. This allows traffic lights to be adjusted according to demand.
Nigeria’s Edo State government recently announced its intention to upgrade to a technologically-advanced ITS system that provides real-time traffic information in Benin City. As part of the integrated solution, motorists and commuters will be informed about travel times, weather conditions and traffic jams on radio or online.
With all traffic management systems automated and digitalized, technology like automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras can be utilised to efficiently enforce traffic rules.
Average speed over distance (ASOD) technology captures the time when a specific vehicle enters and exits the ASOD zone. The journey time is compared against the distance travelled and authorities are automatically notified if the prescribed speed limit was exceeded.
This improves the safety of drivers, passengers and pedestrians. It also minimises the risk of corruption, while promoting best practice among traffic enforcement officers who are exposed to a new skillset when trained in operating these new systems.
Automated rail infrastructure
Another effective means of reducing congestion on overburdened and under maintained roads in Africa is through greater investment in upgrading passenger rail networks.
Some of the world’s cities with the most advanced transport networks feature fast, efficient, safe and clean rail mobility networks powered by Siemens, and African cities can benefit from expertise in centralised traffic management and automation systems, including train control systems with minimum line side equipment linked to modern control centres.
A clear case in point is the Gauteng Nerve Centre (GNC) in South Africa. The 3400 m2 state-of-the art control centre for centralised rail traffic management in South Africa’s economic hub of Gauteng accommodates 35 train control operators in one place, and constantly monitors Gauteng’s rail traffic where over 600 trains carry more than 500 000 commuters on a daily basis.
The GNC boasts world-class automation capabilities and can immediately respond to any operating failures, accidents and other incidents, thereby enabling greater efficiencies in rail operations and train safety, while offering a more reliable service through higher infrastructure utilisation.
Siemens’ proven railway capabilities are set be bolstered further, following the mobility business’ recent announcement of its intention to merge with French railway engineering specialist Alstom.
With a strong presence in, and dedicated commitment to Africa, this anticipated partnership will create an African champion in mobility.
Intelligent, integrated mobility ensures environmental sustainability
Transportation is the world’s second-biggest producer of greenhouse gases. In 2015 motor vehicles, trains, ships, and planes emitted 7,5-billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, accounting for almost a quarter of all CO2 emissions worldwide.
Today transportation-related emissions are already about 60% higher than in 1990. One of the reasons for this is the dramatic increase in the number of vehicles in developing countries and emerging markets — of which Africa is home to many.
According to forecasts, transportation-related CO2 emissions will increase by another 67 percent between now and 2050. Clearly, in view of this, the global community must take decisive action to bring about a worldwide transition to sustainable transportation systems.
A well-integrated intelligent multi-modal transport network promotes a culture of eco-friendly travel and healthier living, as it reduces traffic congestion and CO2 emissions by transporting more people more safely and more comfortably, using newer and cleaner technology without relying on fossil fuels.
The time for intelligent mobility is now
If Africa truly wants to unleash its full potential, then sufficient funds must be responsibly invested in upgrading existing transport and logistics infrastructure like road, rail and ports, in addition to new concepts that include electric bus rapid transport and ferries, to name a few.
Intelligent and integrated traffic systems are part of the future of transport in the world’s advanced cities. If Africa seizes the opportunity, many of its cities will be on that list, and the continent’s citizens will reap the rewards. That is the way forward.