COVID-19 Just Made This Technology a Rising Star

Photo credit: iStockphoto/YiuCheung

The COVID-19 disruptions have created a second reason why social distancing can be a good idea.

The first reason has been known by urban planners and geographers for some time and is intrinsic to planning smart cities: that is less congestion means smoother flowing car and pedestrian traffic and a more efficient economic environment.

There have even been studies which quantify this. In Canada, for example, a study for the Canadian Wireless and Telecommunications Association found that a 10 percent reduction in travel time could increase productivity and boost GDP by CAD 270 million and by CAD 535 million in Montreal.

Now, COVID-19 has given us an additional reason to focus on the better flow of vehicles and people, and this has coincided with some new terminology which is just entering the business lexicon.

New age of PFS

Let us all get familiar with the term “people flow solutions” because it seems it is coming our way, and its shaping as a key driver in building and urban planning over the next few decades. It even has an abbreviation for those in the know: let’s just call it PFS.

PFS are new technologies and solutions used in controlling the flow of people in confined areas, and along with telematics for traffic control present as an enabler for more sustainable, energy efficient and livable cities.

One of the major vendors in this space is Xovis, which provides PFS to airports around the world. In a recent white paper, they show that tracking crowd movements through a passenger containment map and identifying contagious groups at an early stage will be powerful tools to ensure social distancing in airports.

To do this, Xovis has created algorithms based on years of crowd movement data which can now be applied in contagion maps. These are based on KPIs such as footfall, queue lengths and waiting times.

“Using a high precision people flow monitoring system is the most effective way for airports to ensure physical distancing regulations are met,” says Christian Studer, co-founder at Xovis, which has deployed over 100,000 high accuracy 3D sensors across a wide range of industries.

In highly urbanized environments such as China and India, PFS has particular importance.

Think about a city like Mumbai. There you have a city with 12.8 million people, where local trains carry over eight million passengers per day. Trains which are supposed to carry 1,800 people at a time actually carry 3,500, but under social distancing they should only carry 900 people.

Given that Mumbai has been one of the cities worst affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with almost 50,000 cases and over 1600 deaths as of early June, PFS not only makes sense as a way to make the city more livable, but to save people’s lives.

Already, authorities are looking at the ramping up of technologies such as automatic and digital payment systems to ease bus and train queues, and mobile phone based applications to deliver alerts on vehicle traffic and crowd congestion.

Over COVID-19, movement of people through public transport stations fell by 52%, according to Google, while movement to workplaces fell 41% and residences by 22%.

Not new but underutilized

As with many technologies, the COVID-19 experience is creating momentum for technologies which have been around for years but have been underutilized.

“Many major cities have resisted opting for digital payments over the years,” Madhav Pai, the Indian director of the WRI Ross Centre for Sustainable Cities, told local website IndiaSpend.

“Use of digital payments will stop cash leakage in the system and will provide data that will help plan our systems in a much better way.”

Finnish company Kone Corporation, a leader in the elevator and escalator industry, is also moving rapidly into PFS solutions to make buildings and cities safer.

Through using data, simulation tools, and the insights from interior architects and data scientists, customers can reduce crowding and bottlenecks.

The company’s next generation elevators have built-in connectivity, with features enabling people to call an elevator from anywhere using an app on their smartphone.

It works with a flow app and social messaging such as WhatsApp to completely remove the need to touch elevator buttons and screens.

PFS blockages

There are some barriers to PFS. As a new technology its implementation can be expensive, particularly when retro fitted.

Data privacy is another issue which needs more clarity before implementations can become widespread.

Nevertheless, PFS presents as a new tool to make our cities smarter, and healthier, with monitoring, sensing and data analysis the key to success.

It might just save you time, or even help save your life.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/YiuCheung