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How IT Fixed London's Traffic Woes

How IT Fixed London's Traffic Woes

An Uncharted Road

From the outset, the risks were obvious. Quite simply, nothing like this had been attempted in a capital city before. Nor did London's streets lend themselves to the toll-charging proposal, explains consultant Derek Turner, former head of street management at Transport for London. Cramped, narrow, convoluted and literally hundreds of years old, they would require cameras to be sited very carefully in order to achieve sufficiently high levels of number recognition accuracy.

Not only that, but the city's leadership was new, part of a process to have London voters directly elect their mayor for the first time in 2000. This led to the ascension of Mayor Ken Livingstone (see "The Man Behind the Plan", page 124). Coincidentally, Transport for London, the government agency established to upgrade the metropolitan area's public transit systems, also was new and untested, staffed by people drawn from a clutch of predecessor organisations with different policies, practices and cultures.

Of course, various anticongestion schemes had been discussed and mooted over the years. Livingstone was determined that his tenure would see action, rather than yet more talk. A 1998 independent government white paper previously had highlighted two options - a clampdown on workplace parking and a camera-based toll system. Deeming the parking clampdown to be a political bombshell, Livingstone told Transport for London to get on with the camera-based system. The deadline for delivery: February 17, 2003, one year before the next mayoral election.

For Livingstone, the political risk was huge. He could expect any failure to be viciously seized upon.

That was the bad news. But there were some positives too. Undeniably, the scheme was positive with the public. If Livingstone could pull it off, another election victory seemed assured. And why would a toll system prove popular? Quite simply, most people wouldn't be required to pay it. Although one million people entered central London by all forms of transport every morning, 85 per cent of them did so by public transport. A minority (motorists) would pay to improve the lot of the vast majority.

And there were ways of minimising the political risks. In retrospect, one of the smartest moves of the whole project was a decision by Transport for London to recognise its own limitations - limitations in terms of experience, IT ability and management time. (Officials such as Turner, don't forget, were very busy. His days were filled with bringing the capital's streets under a single management for the first time.)

Time to Outsource

Accordingly, explains Malcolm Murray-Clark, one of the two directors appointed by Turner to oversee the scheme, Transport for London made the decision to outsource critical elements of the project management of the scheme - first to consultants from PricewaterhouseCoopers, and second to consultancy Deloitte & Touche.

Very early on in the project, then, project managers identified the critical technical elements of the scheme and made judgements about the costs and risks of acquiring these as part of a big-bang solution or instead going for a best-of-breed approach. UK public-sector IT projects have often favoured the big-bang approach: The congestion charging scheme went the other way. Managers divided the project into "packages" that could, if required, be bought and managed separately.

There were five such packages: the camera technology to be used; the image management store where the images would be collected, turned into licence numbers and condensed (duplicates would occur when one vehicle was photographed by several cameras); the telecommunications links between the cameras and the image store; the customer services infrastructure, including the ability to pay by phone, Web and mail; and finally, an extensive network of retail outlets, enabling people to pay at shops, kiosks and petrol stations.

And even at this early stage, the policy of risk aversion was having an effect. Murray-Clark says one option would have been to lump the customer services infrastructure and the retail side together in a single customer-facing operation. Instead, retail was seen as a big enough challenge to be bought and managed separately. Likewise, the mere existence of the five packages underpinned a determination to go for best-of-breed in each instance - in every case, the package had to be the best available.

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