Any innovation is about saving real-life problems.

Interview with Rikesh Shah

“Any innovation is about saving real-life problems.”.

Imagine a metropolis, where inhabitants and tourists will almost exlusively choose sustainable mobility options to travel across the city, while serious road accidents and fatalities have been reduced to zero. Rikesh Shah from London’s transport authority, TfL, reveals the role, Mercedes-Benz plays in this scenario.

London's Mayor, who is also the chair of Transport for London (TfL), outlines “a city for all Londoners”. What will this city look like in detail?

Rikesh Shah: London will be a safer, more inclusive, greener and also a more prosperous city. This is why the Mayor’s Transport Strategy sets a key target. He wants 80 percent of all trips to be made by walking, cycling and public transit by 2041. And it’s fantastic to have this North Star, a long-term target to aim for.

How do you turn the Transport Strategy into action?

Rikesh Shah: With recent advances in technology, there will be lots of innovations that can add value to our strategy. We set out the Innovation Hub to focus on a few key areas. And we recognise mobility is changing. When I was a child, I’d either got a lift in my parent’s car, rode my BMX bike around or I’d use public transport. Today, there are multiple options. You may own a bike, or you may rent it. It might be a folding bike, an electric bike, dockless or docked. Similarly, it could be a car, or a minicab, and you may be sat with other people through pooling services. Our work in the Innovation Hub is to deal with new mobility concepts, advances in technology, thinking about aspects such as safety and accessibility. The question is, how can we run our city better by embracing new technologies?

A look at London's intermodal mobility offering.
A look at London's intermodal mobility offering.

A clear strategy: safety as a core focus

What are your key challenges?

Rikesh Shah: Safety is key as we move people around the city. Tragically, we had 96 deaths on the road network in 2020, and we want to get it to zero. So, Vision Zero is our core focus. Another topic that is front of mind for the organisation is finance. 72 percent of TfL’s revenue is from fares. And with covid-19, all of the UK’s transit agencies have suffered in terms of revenue. Third, our decarbonisation agenda ensures we move towards a green city. So, three very different examples of challenges, but all priorities.

Speaking of covid, what further impacts has the pandemic had on your work?

Rikesh Shah: It has helped to strengthen some sustainable mobility concepts. We’ve invested a lot of resources and budget towards creating new cycleways and new walkways to support people to walk around the city safely, particularly in response to the pandemic. However, there is also another development. Pre-March 2020, my job was to encourage people to use public transport. Suddenly, covid-19 came in, and we needed to suddenly think even more about cleaning and safety from a new perspective. And with the latest variant, it’s still a challenge. We stick to government guidelines and public health guidelines but we want to make sure anyone on our network is safe.

Do you also notice changes that reinforce your work in the Innovation Hub?

Rikesh Shah: Yes, we had a lot of collaboration between London’s multiple travel agencies and stakeholder groups from the boroughs and other communities during the pandemic. We were sharing data on different interventions that we were testing. And aligned to that, teams came up with a lot of new ideas. As a result of a great uncertainty we were able to experiment a little bit more than usual. Looking at different options and then coming up with the right solution in a really quick manner was incredibly impressive.

An innovative service: real-time services for passengers

Please share an example.

Rikesh Shah: During the first peak of the pandemic in London, a new hospital was built and we also introduced new transport services to help the medical stuff move in and out safely. Our idea was to provide real-time information, so doctors and nurses can get quickly onto the bus, rather than congregating together and increasing the risk of spreading the virus. So, once the bus route went live, a team of colleagues together with a start-up company, put in a series of sensors on buses and turned them into a GPS locator. Then, they turned the transmitted data into a timetable service, and released all information to app developers and others. So, in real-time, doctors and nurses were able to know exactly where and at what time the buses would pick them up. And that was done in less than three weeks. We have an incredible team and a brilliant ecosystem innovators.

Do you also work with data to address impacts of road traffic?

Rikesh Shah: Definitely. Technology is allowing us to make use of data in a way that we couldn't do ten years ago. Let me give you one example of our work. Together with German technology provider Bosch we were seeking to improve the air quality on the High Street of a London borough. We installed air quality monitors and controlled the traffic flow through adjusting traffic light timing. So, when the traffic went through a densely populated area, it smoothly flowed through rather than stop-starting. We then looked at multiple data types, e.g., at the types of vehicles that are going through, the building typology, even weather data, as well as complementing it with air quality sensor data. As a result, we were able to develop an accurate model of what impact that intervention has had. Even though traffic volumes were low, it reduced exposure to bad air by six percent in that particular area. So it's proven an intervention based on data works, and that's a really good example of how we are now using data and hoping to scale it in other locations.

Data-based traffic flow can help improve air quality in cities.
Data-based traffic flow can help improve air quality in cities.

United in Vision Zero

Improving road safety towards a Vision Zero target is the other key issue of the Transport Strategy. Where do you stand today?

Rikesh Shah: We’ve already seen a significant percentage decrease of deaths and serious injuries compared to 2019 levels. But it’s not about celebrating. It's about how do we continue on that path and we will not stop until we get to zero.

Together with Mercedes-Benz, you are working on a program for greater road safety. How did this partnership develop?

Rikesh Shah: It started with a coffee table talk at the London Automotive Forum a few years ago. After that, Mercedes-Benz’s department Urban Mobility Solution and TfL shared some of their problem statements and quickly it became paramount that safety is what we should be focussing on. So, as part of that, we ran some workshops which led to the concept of vehicle as a sensor. An average car has many sensors, the data is used based on customer consent. Those analyses are very interesting in terms of road safety. So far, our risk modelling tool has focussed on a series of TfL data points and police data points. However, when we started to interrogate some of the vehicle data analytics, we gained insights that we hadn't seen before.

Please tell us more about these insights.

Rikesh Shah: We looked at one particular location, which is a dual carriageway. The road is sealed, but there's a flowerbed on one particular part. And what we noticed through the analysis of anonymised vehicle data which Mercedes-Benz shared with us was that, at this place, the advanced driver assistance system initiated emergency braking. We then found that people from a hotel across the road were using the flowerbed as a halfway point. They were trying to cross the road there, rather than using the next pedestrian crossing. So, that’s an example that wouldn’t have come up on our data, because there weren’t any incidents. As a result, the team is now exploring the chances of complementing the data from Mercedes-Benz cars with other sources like scooters, freight or cycles. The aim is to use this intelligence to improve our road risk modelling to make a significant contribution to road safety in London. So, based on these findings, TfL and the responsible public authorities can invest in more targeted interventions to make our roads safer for everyone.

Anonymously transmitted vehicle data can help to identify danger spots in cities.
Anonymously transmitted vehicle data can help to identify danger spots in cities.

What role might connected vehicles play in a mobility concept of the future?

Rikesh Shah: The level of data generated by cars goes beyond safety. So, it could be around wayfinding information. How do you take the driver from A to B as quickly and safely and reliably in the most green manner possible? What’s the level of optimisation when you are making a trip from A to B? Anyway, that would need other data than we use today and likely also further driver consent.

An exciting job: bringing magicians together

A lot of interesting projects to explore in TfL’s innovation hub.

Rikesh Shah: Absolutely. And we can’t do it alone, we are dependent on partnerships and the willingness of the drivers to share the data. The magicians are the innovators. Our job is to curate and bring some of those great ideas together and let the geniuses, the innovators, come up with good solutions. Because any innovation is about saving real-life problems. It’s also important for me to say that it’s owing to the brilliant creativity and minds of people – suppliers, academia, TfL colleagues including my team and others – working in the Innovation Hub enables us to try new concepts.

What is a real-life problem that you personally like to solve in any case?

Rikesh Shah: I'm a born and bred Londoner, and my children are growing up here. The London that I remember from 40 years ago was quite different to what it is now. Put away the nostalgic view, I want my kids to grow up where the air that they breathe in doesn't create disbenefits for them from a health point of view. I want them to move around safely and keep fit and really enjoy what London has to offer.

How does your personal mobility mix look like?

Rikesh Shah: We have just recently moved houses to somewhere that we have a park across the road. As a family, a bunch of novice cyclists, we are going through the park now, which is good. Walking and jogging is something I do regularly, particularly as I’m working from home. I don’t get enough opportunity to do exercise. And I do use my wife’s car for trips where genuinely public transport cannot be used. So, as the pandemic meant many of us, including myself, had to work from home I found that I missed my trip on the Jubilee Line. Believe it or not, I missed my local bus trips that I was doing, and that will continue as soon as we come out the next current phase of working from home. So, I am a true multi-modaler.

Are you close to the 80 percent vision of your mayor?

Rikesh Shah: I need to check my pedometer (laughs). I would say, I’m certainly close to it. I will probably use the car for half an hour a day to pick up one of my sons from school. So, yes, it is about 80 to 20 for me. And it’s easy, too. You know, for London, you are normally no more than 400 yards away from a TfL service.

Thank you for the interview.

Rikesh Shah, Head of Commercial Innovation at Transport for London
Rikesh Shah, Head of Commercial Innovation at Transport for London

Rikesh Shah is Head of Commercial Innovation at Transport for London, and accountable for TfL’s engagement with market innovators to create new value for the city. He is also a member of the Smart London Board which is charged helping the Mayor shape his vision and strategy for London’s smart city agenda and investment in data infrastructure.

Find other articles in our Sustainability Report 2022.