Why Africa Should Adopt Intelligent Transport Infrastructure

By Kevin Pillay
Published October 9, 2017

An electric train that plies the 752-kilometre Addis Ababa-Djibouti Standard Gauge Railway.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.

Intelligent mobility involves the electrification, automation and digitalisation of existing transport infrastructure, and gives every citizen access to safe, reliable and efficient modes of transport.

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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.

Kenya Airways will immediately apply for approval to code-share with US airlines while concurrently pursuing approval for direct flights.World Bank data also indicates that the Sub-Saharan African railway network has declined to 59634km today, down from 65661km 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.

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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.

Djibouti's Doraleh Multipurpose PortThe 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.

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Tanzania has in 2017 put its Bagamoyo Port project on hold as it concentrates on the expansion of Mtwara and Dar ports.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.

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.

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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.

The masterplan of Lamu Port South Sudan EthiopiaAnother 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.

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.

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Today transportation-related emissions are already about 60 percent 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.

Kevin Pillay, Vice President for Mobility at Siemens Africa, says Africa is better off with intelligent traffic networks.

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.

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.

Kevin Pillay is Vice President for Mobility at Siemens Africa.