By the project “Innovative demand responsive green public transportation for cleaner air in urban environment“ (INNOAIR), funded under Call 5 of the Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) for the topic air quality, the Municipality of the Bulgarian capital Sofia is taking actions against noxious emissions from road transport. The topic is highly relevant in view of to the extreme motorization rate of the city: While the European average is 45 registered cars per 100 inhabitants, in Sofia it is 70, causing heavy congestion, affecting air quality, livability and traffic efficiency.
At the core of the INNOAIR project activities are four pilot tests of innovative services, namely green corridors, congestion charge, low emission zones, and green on-demand public transport. The latter shall improve the convenience and attractiveness of public transport by a first of its kind realization of innovations to better connect new suburban residential areas of Sofia with the end stations of the urban metro system through the deployment of a fleet of five electric mini buses that will not only drive emission-free, but also offer on demand, shared mobility services. The management of the fleet and the services will be based on a sophisticated software platform that responds to the usage requests of citizens with optimal routes determined with the help of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and big-data analytics. Furthermore, the project is motivating citizens to change their mobility behavior by its other measures, i.e. the congestion charging, the low emission urban zones preventing cars to enter the city center at high pollution, and the green corridors stimulating the cultural shift from individual to public transport and soft mobility modes.
The INNOAIR project, which is coordinated by Sofia Municipality has a budget of 4.6 million Euros, co-funded at 80% by the UIA. It has been planned for a duration of three years from July 2020 to June 2023. Partners include the Sofia Development Association (SDA), Sofia University, Plovdiv University, Sofia Urban Mobility Center, National Association of Municipalities, Modeshift Europe, and National Institute for Meteorology.
In the months before the period covered here, the INNOAIR project had already concluded its initialization phase with the creation of the fundamental project structures for coordination, data, investments and quality management. Also, mechanisms for stakeholder involvement, partner engagement and citizens’ participation had been put into place and the tools for communication like, e.g., the social media channel on Facebook had been established. Moreover, first implementation steps towards greener and demand-responsive public transportation had been taken in Sofia.
From April 2021 on, the particular focus of the INNOVAIR project activities has been to gather an understanding of citizens’ expectations from the shared e-bus service and the related public transport policies, to plan the e-bus routes in new residential areas of Sofia and to create the AI-and-big-data-enabled platform and dashboard for the on-demand operations jointly with the academic partners. Moreover, actions to engage citizens in debates and ideation about how to make mobility in Sofia smarter and greener took place, and significant effort was spent on promoting its measures, e.g. in the context of the “Bike Parade 2021 - Sofia cycles and runs for cleaner air“ (see figure 1).
The coordinators of the INNOAIR project also were invited to present their approach at the European Parliament's Special Committee on Artificial Intelligence in a Digital Age (AIDA) that organized a workshop on Artificial Intelligence and Public Administration in May 2021. The workshop addressed the use and impact of AI in public services in the EU, and highlighted a number of AI use cases in public administration, e.g. for improving processes and document handling, fighting crime, and the management of urban mobility. In their presentation, the representatives of INNOAIR pointed to a number specific opportunities and challenges for the deployment of AI in the control of public transportation fleets: It would allow to offer pro-active transport services in underserved areas by flexibly adapting bus routes to identified demand patterns, and thereby raise the quality and efficiency of public transport. However, it would require to use and analyse data from multiple sources requiring capacity building and regulation.
Moreover, during the European Green week in June 2021, the Municipality of Sofia held a virtual three-day hackathon where it challenged teams from high schools, universities and startup companies to ideate and prototype ways to make Sofia’s urban mobility smarter and greener (see figure 2). The focus areas of the hackathon covered integration and intermodality, incentives for “eco” citizens and user experience and feedback. Examples of the solutions that the 24 teams presented were, e.g., a camera-based system to make public transport responsive to demand by determining the occupancy level of public buses, a voice-assisted mobile app that improves the accessibility of public transport for vision impaired people by facilitating to communication with drivers, and a system of air quality sensors and purifiers reducing pollutants locally at bus stops. The solution that won the hackathon was a mapping tool called sofenhagen that helps cyclists to find the best routes in Sofia, to rate them and to share their experiences (www.sofenhagen.com).
The most recent output of the INNOAIR project is Sofia Coin, a mobile app launched in December 2021 that encourages citizens to contribute to cleaner air by walking, cycling or using a scooter (see figure 3). The app measures the distance travelled and the harmful emissions saved per trip, and rewards individuals for their sustainable mobility habits with e.g. free tickets for public transport, electric scooters or public bike service, or entry to the Sofia Zoo. Moreover, there are premium rewards for those that score highest once in four months. At the same time, the data collected by the Sofia Coin app is used to improve the conditions for more active and zero emission travel modes in Sofia in a comprehensive way: highly frequented walking and cycling routes determined by the app are included in Sofia Municipality’s investment programme to maintain and improve their quality.
With its highly effective first achievements and the ambitious plans for the coming months, the INNOAIR project is playing a ground-braking role for more sustainable and more intelligent urban transport policies.
At the local level, INNOAIR helps to create citizen’s buy-in for regulative measures such as the low-emission zones and congestion charges that the City Council of Sofia is about to establish end of March 2022 (see figure 4). The need for low-emission zones in Sofia is backed by a recent study of the Clean Air Fund in partnership with ICCT, FIA Foundation, TRUE, the Swedish-Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce and Sofia Green published in December 2021. The study found that Euro 4 standard diesel and older cars disproportionately contribute to nitrogen oxide (NOx) and fine particulate (PM) emissions in the city, while a more than 90% reduction in average car NOx emissions could be achieved over the next ten years, if low emission zones were introduced.
On a wider, European scale, INNOAIR can be considered a frontrunner in implementing the objectives of the “New Urban Mobility Framework” that the European Commission published in December 2021 as part of its Transport Package. The framework is addressing the primary challenges of urban mobility in terms of congestion, emissions, and noise, and gives guidance on how cities can cut emissions and improve mobility by optimizing and promoting public transport, walking and cycling. Priority shall be given to zero-emission solutions for urban fleets, including ride-hailing services and new digital solutions and service. As these concepts are implemented by INNOAIR already now, the project may be referred to as a best practice example when the European Commission will propose a recommendation to EU Member States for the development of national plans to assist cities in developing their mobility plans in 2022.