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Real-Time Traffic Updates From Tracking Our Phones

Getting a real-time picture of traffic—both auto and pedestrian—is a daunting but necessary task for cities looking to streamline how people get around. A new system uses our ubiquitous cell phones to figure out where things are congested.

With more and more people living in cities, our urban traffic problems aren’t going to fix themselves. But many cities don’t have a very detailed understanding of traffic flows in the first place.

To address that problem, Spanish company Libelium has developed a sensor network that can track how people move in an urban area and make that information available, in real time, to citizens and city officials.

Libelium’s Vehicle Traffic Monitoring Platform consists of a network of small sensors that scan a surrounding area for Bluetooth devices, such as smartphones. Each sensor has a range of up to 160 feet, can scan up to 250 devices at a time, and can distinguish between a Bluetooth signal from a cell phone and one from a car-based hands-free kit.

The sensors could be mounted, for example, on lampposts along a busy street. As people (and their Bluetooth-enabled devices) move along the street, the sensor network gathers information about how many pedestrians and motorists there are, which way they’re going, and how fast they’re moving.

That real-time traffic information can then be used in myriad ways. According to Libelium’s CTO David Gascón, "The platform can help drivers can avoid congested roads through provision of real-time warnings on electronic displays or via smartphone applications." It could also be used to improve pedestrian traffic flow in airports or sports stadiums, or to inform long-term city planning decisions.

The data from Libelium’s network isn’t perfect. After all, not everybody carries a Bluetooth-enabled device. But nevertheless, a sensor network like this would provide a city with a much better picture of traffic patterns—and of where improvements should be focused.

And a smoother flow of traffic means less wasted time and money, less carbon in our atmosphere, and happier citizens.