The Municipality of Sofia, Bulgaria, is tackling emissions from road transport through the project “Innovative demand responsive green public transportation for cleaner air in urban environment“ (INNOAIR), which is funded by the Urban Innovative Actions' (UIA) Call 5 and focuses on air quality.
The INNOAIR project had taken a number of successful first actions in implementing highly-interlinked innovative services for the improvement of air quality in Sofia and had gathered an understanding of citizens’ expectations from the shared e-bus service which is one of the four innovative solutions to improve air quality and reduce emissions that the INNOAIR project has been focusing on during the last year.
The primary project focus in 2022 was clearly put on preparing the on-demand operations of a fleet of five electric mini buses to connect suburban residential areas with the urban metro system using a sophisticated software platform. That platform uses artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and big-data analytics to optimize routes and respond to usage requests. For the other three innovative solutions of by INNOAIR, i.e. green corridors, congestion charges, and low emission zones, infrastructures and regulations were adapted to reducing car usage and actions to motivate more travel by soft modes such as walking and cycling were taken.
In September 2022, the new electric minibuses for the on-demand green public transport service were delivered to the Municipality of Sofia. The features of the busses, the charging infrastructure and the systems for the transportation platform and app for managing their booking and mission in two neighborhoods in the Southern periphery of the city, Buxton and Manastirski livadi, has been described in the INNOAIR podcast #4 “Electric minibuses offering on-demand and zero-emission public transport options to citizens in Sofia”, recently (https://uia-initiative.eu/en/news/electric-minibuses-offering-ondemand-and-zeroemission-public-transport-options-citizens-sofia). Before the end of 2022, extensive tests of the on-demand service have started. The goal of this pilot phase was twofold: one, to train drivers and dispatch officers, and equally important, to involve the communities in the deployment areas to evaluate the application and potential of the service, test routes, and identify any potential gaps.
In parallel to these pilots, the Municipality of Sofia and Sofia Development Association organized a design competition for the buses in partnership with New Bulgarian University. The students of the Bachelor’s programme "Web Design and Graphic Advertising“ were tasked to create a design that shows that the minibuses are part of the public transport system, but also that their use is via an application and without a fixed route. The simple and modern designs proposed consist of e.g. winding or crisscrossing bus lines indicating that the routing in the warren of narrow residential streets is adapted to the demand. They also promote the BUSINN booking app as well as the a QR code for downloading it from Google Play and App stores.
Compared to on-demand public transport approaches in other cities, Sofia’s comprehensive approach to combine it with electric minibuses and complement it by other measures to reduce urban transport emissions and improve air quality, based on infrastructure, regulation and behavior change, has been unique in the EU so far.
In 2022, preference has been given to green corridors as a complementing measure to the on-demand electric bus service implemented by the project INNOAIR. These corridors prioritize zero-emission transportation methods, such as public transit, shared electric bikes and cars, and personal micro vehicles like e-bikes and e-scooters. They will connect major transport hubs and include the zones for on-demand green public transport, where the on-call electric minibuses are deployed. Efforts are also made to connect these corridors to existing green spaces like parks, bike lanes, and pedestrian areas. The web-based digital map of the selected green corridors will be publicly available, based on OpenStreetMaps, with free access and no registration. The map combines both dynamic and static information: on the one hand, current conditions and location of zero emission ground public transport vehicles, metro, electric buses, trams, trolleys and the new on-demand transport, as well as the location of shared electric vehicles, and on the other hand charging stations, stops location, bike routes as well as lines, routes and timetable of public transport vehicles. Users can choose between the modes to be displayed on the map and select the layers of the static data. The access is provided via . The green corridors are a unique way to extend the promotion of public, green, and soft mobility modes to the whole city of Sofia and beyond the neighborhoods where on green on-demand public transport is offered.
Furthermore, in the course of 2022, the INNOAIR project has supported the Municipality's plans to introduce low-emission zones (LEZ) to tackle air pollution. Sofia is one of the most polluted cities in the EU and faces serious public health concerns due to one of the highest ultra-fine particulate concentration levels in the EU. This is partly caused by the widespread use of coal and firewood for heating in the city's homes, but also due to the slow progress in expanding public transportation and encouraging residents to switch from cars. Therefore, the comprehensive approach of the INNOAIR project complements green corridor and on-demand public transport offers by the introduction of LEZ as a regulatory measure.
The draft ordinance proposing two LEZ for transport had been open for consultation for one month in summer 2022. In September, the authorities in the Bulgarian capital voted the approval of a new policy establishing two LEZ in the city centre and surrounding neighborhoods, the small ring and the large ring zones. The zones will be introduced gradually until 2025, with violators being photographed and receiving appropriate sanctions. As of December 2023, cars from the first ecological group, i.e. EURO 1 and EURO 2 cars, will be banned from entering the small ring zone, and the ban will extend to the second and third ecological groups in 2025 and 2028, respectively, while the large ring zone will follow a few years later. This will eventually affect the vast majority of the more than 170.000 cars entering the small ring zone, and more than 300.000 for the large ring zone every day. Exceptions to the ban include cars of people living in the zones, cars of people with disabilities, cars with a special mode of operation, i.e. electric vehicles, and public transport. INNOAIR conducted a study and testing of the low emission zone model in terms of transport, which will contribute to improving air quality. It is supporting a number of measures that make public transport and soft modes more attractive, e.g. by providing access to the public transport system through the on-demand bus service, by creating the green corridors or by offering incentives for cycling through the SofiaCoin app. The London-based research centre Clean Air Fund supported the City of Sofia in drafting the policy, by estimating the costs of reduced labour productivity and absenteeism due to air pollution for the city’s economy, which they estimated up to 13.4% of local GDP. In view of other cities such as Krakow announcing comparable efforts on LEZ, Sofia is becoming a pioneer, not only in Bulgaria, but also in Central and Eastern Europe.
The INNOAIR project also promoted green urban transport through a diverse and abundant programme during the European Mobility Week in Sofia in September 2022. The campaign aimed to raise awareness about sustainable mobility, promote behavioral change in favor of active mobility, and foster synergies between people and places. Activities included events to protect the safety of the youngest residents, exhibiting public transport vehicles, offering open door days to learn about the modern metro control system, and installing cameras to count bicycles in Sofia. The car-free day in September was the culmination of the European Mobility Week, where the city center was closed for car traffic, and a bike ride was organized to support the idea of healthy and sustainable commuting in the city. The new electric minibuses that would provide the INNOAIR in-demand transport were also presented to the public. The European Mobility Week reflected the wish of the citizens of Sofia, as well as the desire of people across Europe, to reconnect with each other after months of isolation, restrictions, and bans due to the COVID 19 pandemic. In recognition of Sofia’s efforts, the European Mobility Week selected Sofia as one of the three finalists for the 2022 award, together with Zagreb, Croatia, and Braga, Portugal, and pointed out INNOAIR as instrumental for that decision.