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Israeli tech to speed up public transportation

Commute times from one end of the Jerusalem Light Rail to the other fell from 80 minutes to 42 minutes after Israeli tech company Axilion Smart Mobility implemented its software, and now New York City is piloting the same technology on its 5th Avenue M1 bus route. Axilion’s technology coordinates streetlights with road vehicles, prioritizing public transit options like buses so that when they approach intersections, the traffic lights turn in their favor, creating a “green wave.”

The pilot is also set to reach the 1st and 2nd Avenue Select Bus Service lines in the coming months, while also operating in Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Washington DC, Virginia and Maryland.

Though the US pilots are just getting off the ground, Axilion’s track record is promising. In Jerusalem, the light rail now runs without stopping at red lights, which has boosted its ridership and revenue by 400% between 2014 and 2017. In Haifa, where buses now receive 100% priority on the roads, bus speeds increased by 30% and 11% of users reported that they were now choosing to leave their cars at home, according to Axilion.

Fewer cars on the road means less congestion and lower carbon emissions. The transit vehicles themselves, which spend less time sitting in front of red lights when Axilion’s technology is utilized, also become more carbon-efficient.

“It has a social impact,” said Axilion cofounder and CEO Oran Dror, referring not only to Axilion’s environmental benefits, but its contribution to socioeconomic equality as well.
“Usually, it’s more the under-served communities who are riding the bus,” said Dror, emphasizing that America’s “car-centric” infrastructure plans tend to focus more heavily on building roads, with traffic engineers working to optimize the commuting experiences of those in cars. “Traffic lights are a very, very political thing. Right now, private cars are winning.”

The dominance of cars on the road – especially with the success of ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft – is reflected in rising congestion statistics. The average American spent 58.6 hours stuck at red lights in 2018, up from 34 hours in 2009, according to the American Automobile Association.

According to a June 2019 report by New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, 29% of all Manhattan traffic comes from for-hire vehicles, which spend 41% of their time “cruising” without passengers. New York passed a landmark congestion pricing program in April that will tax vehicles entering the busiest parts of Manhattan beginning in 2021. By 2021, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wants city buses to run 25% faster, Dror said, to give constituencies an alternative to cars before congestion pricing kicks in. “That’s why we are really focusing on New York,” he said.

Israel serves as the testing grounds for Axilion’s programs and simulation algorithms, which were developed in partnership with the Technion’s Department of Civil Engineering, but the US at large is Axilion’s next big target, Dror said, “simply because it’s relatively behind.” The timing for traffic signals in the US is updated once every five to ten years, with stoplights generally operating on a four-phase cycle that has a different setting for mornings, afternoons, nights, and weekends.

Axilion’s simulation (now used by NYC’s Department of Transportation) uses artificial intelligence to map dozens of intersections at a time, synchronizing the traffic light schedules with the timetables of buses, whose locations can be accessed in real-time with GPS trackers. It takes into account other parameters as well, like how much time pedestrians require to cross streets.

“In our system, we are creating endless time plans based on thousands of parameters that are constantly changing based on sensors,” Dror explained. The flexibility of the technology, which can bridge the different types of hardware used by different cities’ traffic operations, gives it the potential to be used world-wide.

Already, it has had success in Dijon, France; Rabat, Morocco; and Switzerland. The collaboration between Israeli businesses and American transit programs is still in its infancy. At a Jerusalem meeting between Israeli technology innovators and a delegation of New York government officials on June 27, Metropolitan Transit Authority managing director Veronique Hakim reaffirmed the city’s interest in revitalizing its transit system.

“Any ideas that you have,” Hakim said to the Israeli business leaders gathered there, “we want to hear. And we are here to listen.”

Sonia Epstein