İllustration: Ece Çiftçi

Can a dedicated Cambridge graduate stop traffic jams with his startup?

If Istanbul has 99 problems, traffic congestion is definitely one –perhaps the one. It has become some sort of a cliché in the daily rhetoric, and no viable solution seems to be on the horizon. Then again, Istanbul is only one of many cities that face this problem. The TomTom Traffic Index ranked it 6th among the most congested cities in the world in 2017 (Shead, 2017), and 3rd in 2015 (n.d., 2015), while transportation intelligence firm Inrix claimed Istanbul had the worst traffic in its region with 59 hours of peak congestion per driver (Starichenko, 2018). Then there is the aspect of costs. The average commuter spends 36 hours a year on the road (McFarlane & Gooding, 2018), and the annual cost of projection is predicted to be around £30bn (Holmfdr, 2018) in the UK, when both fuel and the time spent are also taken into account. With technological developments such as driverless cars on the rise, it really is time to think harder and act tougher about traffic.

We hear constantly from citizens and from traffic managers that congestion is awful and we want to do more about it. But cities don’t have the tools to do anything about it.

Enter Richard Cartwright, a recent alumnus of University of Cambridge. After graduating from the Economics Department of Jesus College with a focus on congestion pricing on June 2017, Cartwright received $2,500 in a competition held by Singapore Management University with a proposal which suggested extracting data from CCTV cameras to manage traffic congestions (Card, 2018). He talks as if he has heard every cliché in the book about traffic jams and ineffective ways to stop them: “We hear constantly from citizens and from traffic managers that congestion is awful and we want to do more about it. But cities don’t have the tools to do anything about it.”

Cartwright set up a venture titled FlowX and soon after entering an office space in central London with a £10,000 grant from OS (Ordnance Survey), his control centers spread through Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Sheffield, Milton Keynes, and Huddersfield. His plan, which basically suggests incorporating CCTV technology in the calculation of traffic density, encountered a small bump (pun intended) on the road: “Traffic controllers don’t always see the accident, they just see the effects of the accident and, by then, it’s much more difficult to control. There is no computer analytics, no smart stuff, no computer vision on any of the CCTV in any of these cities. For me, that was pretty shocking.” (Card, 2018). To tackle this issue, Cartwright formed a system which counted on computers learning to identify and count vehicles on the open road, understand what a normal flow of traffic looked like, then learn to spot an accident through machine learning and alert authorities immediately. In order to do that, FlowX collaborated with London-based traffic software company Vivacity Labs, combining their software with that of the existing CCTV cameras (McFarlane & Gooding, 2018).

We can only hope the future will be one where we will be able to spend less hours of our life on the road. In order to achieve such a vision, perhaps all we need is to go with the FlowX

For Cartwright to achieve success, he still needs to overcome the issue of personal data protection, and frankly, concerns about over-playing surveillance seem to be quite fair. FlowX currently dismisses these by claiming that the negotiations with local authorities carry on, yet the issues regarding privacy and personal data remain there as a huge obstacle that can never be disregarded.

Will Cartwright’s plan be enough to convince lawmakers and public opinion? Even if it does, will it succeed in solving traffic congestion? It’s too soon to say, yet we can only hope the future will be one where we will be able to spend less hours of our life on the road. In order to achieve such a vision, perhaps all we need is to go with the FlowX.