Drive down Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway on a busy morning and overhead signs tell you how heavy the traffic is, whether or not there are delays and how long your journey will take.

Drive down Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway on a busy morning and overhead signs tell you how heavy the traffic is, whether or not there are delays and how long your journey will take.

Get into town and signs tell you how many spaces are available in your favourite car park and what level these are on.

Public transport users, meanwhile, can go online for real-time information about service disruptions.

These systems, however, have limitations. Those signs on the Freeway cannot tell you whether or not alternatives such as Whitehorse or Doncaster Road are themselves running any better, whether or not taking a train from the nearest station would save time or whether or not the jam will mean that your favourite parking spot is taken when you arrive. Nor can these systems look at the bigger picture of the metropolitan area across all transport modes and provide customised suggestions to each road user in a way which would move everybody plus freight traffic to destinations in a more efficient manner. In short, none of these systems speak to each other.

For some time, traffic engineers have been trying to change that. Thus far, however, experiments have largely taken place in a controlled environment.

Now, such experiments are going live. Led by Melbourne University, a collaboration of seventeen domestic and international partners from across government, industry and academia are creating a 1.2 kilometre ‘test bed’ which is being fitted with thousands of sensors which will communicate with each other under a network and will bring previously separate data sets relating to tram, train, cyclist, pedestrian and vehicle movements together in an integrated network. The test bed takes in busy freight and commuter routes, including one of Australia’s most congested roads in Hoddle Street.

Essentially, the system will combine traffic data from VicRoads, transport and Myki data from Public Transport Victoria, parking data from the City of Melbourne and live traffic updates to create one big ‘brain’, says Dirk Van de Meerssche, Sales and Marketing Director and Strategic Business Advisor at Cubic Transportation Systems – supplier of the back office multi-modal transport management platform which is being used in the test bed. From there, he says, the partners will perform big data analytics to not only look at historical data but also to perform modelling and simulation as to how congestion could be reduced and ultimately to undertake predictive analysis with regard to strategies which could be adopted in order to improve the overall journey experience across multiple models of transport.

Majid Sarvi, a Professor in Transport and Cities at Melbourne University and Project Leader for the new test bed, describes such connectivity as a ‘holy grail’ which will benefit both individual commuters and other users of the broader transport network.

For individuals, Sarvi says that at the moment, anyone catching a bus down Lygon Street would have no idea that there was an accident down the road. A connected system, however, could tell them not just about the accident but that in fact the bus coming after this one was full and that their best option would be to take a less busy bus in 20 minutes or indeed to walk.

At a broader level, he said such connectivity will help to facilitate the unlocking of benefits from emerging technologies such as autonomous vehicles. He says many of the benefits associated with self-driving cars will come when the vehicles connected to other vehicles and the network. Longer term he said, this kind of network could be used to facilitate tasks such as the sharing of the load in terms of freight traffic so as to reduce damage to the road network.

David Bonn, a transport specialist at CUBIC, says the idea was to move away from mass broadcasting of information and toward provision of customised information in real-time for individual commuters so as to empower them to make optimal decisions regarding how they travel and the time at which they travel. Further, he says, the objective is for the system to make recommendations based on a holistic view of the entire network and to balance the needs of different transport users in order to get everybody (including freight traffic) to their destinations in the most efficient way possible.

Take the example of someone driving to work on a day when there happens to be an accident on the West Gate Bridge. At the moment, he or she heads for the bridge and becomes stuck for two hours, Bonn says. It would be better, he said, if instead they could receive a personal text message indicating that there was an accident and that they would be better taking the train. Furthermore, in order to avoid everybody heading for a 7.30 train which might already be crowded, Bonn said the message might suggest that the person instead wait and take a later train at 8:05 which would be less crowded and would give them a more comfortable ride.

Bonn says these systems will help to manage transport networks in a more holistic manner in order to best suit the needs of all users from an overall perspective. Longer term, he said, the information could be used to provide incentives for people to use the system in a manner which optimises network efficiency.

Ultimately, Bonn says, the objective is to get freight and people moving in a way which is most beneficial for them bearing in mind the impact which their movements might have on others.

“It’s changing the face of transport choice,” Bonn said. “We are moving away from broadcasting the same information to everybody to delivering information that is much more relevant to an individual and an individual’s journey on that particular day.”

“We are trying to balance the demand of the travelling public with available capacity with the view to improving the customer experience.”

Sarvi says Australia has an opportunity to lead in this area and enjoy significant benefits including improved productivity and new commercial and employment opportunities.

“Australia didn’t really take advantage of the smartphone phenomenon or the computer phenomenon,” Sarvi said. “We pretty much stayed passive in them too much.”

“This is our chance. If we are smart, we have an opportunity in transport connectivity to become international leaders and take a big share not only for the Australian economy or for universities but also for companies. We are not behind anybody, we are ahead of everyone.”

“We need to take this seriously.”