In South Africa, our transport, storage, and communications industry contributed almost R350 billion to GDP in the first quarter of 2022, a 1.8% increase from the fourth quarter of 2021. The transport industry accounts for around 6,5% of our GDP, and when looking at economic growth by province, those with the highest economic growth rates are the ones with better transport.  

Improving public transportation in South Africa is a challenge, but solving this issue holds great opportunity for our country. Commuters across the country shouldn’t have to choose between safety, reliability, or cost-effectiveness when deciding what form of transit to use. Developing public transportation infrastructure that benefits all South Africans is a non-negotiable if we’re serious about socio-economic advancement.

Considering that 67% of South Africa’s total population live in urban areas, a good way to begin addressing these challenges is to use digital innovation to tackle urban transport. In fact, with access to the latest technologies, South Africa has the potential to become a benchmark for improving urbanised transport systems.

The potential of digitalisation

The average South African spends a large portion of their income on transport and struggles to find public transport that ensures mobility at all times of the day. Most people living in urban spaces rely on private motor vehicles, mini-bus taxis, or buses to get around. Despite moving in the right direction with projects like the Bus Rapid Transit network, the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project, and the Gautrain, our urban areas lack the connectivity needed to support an efficient public transportation system.

This is where technology could elevate transport in South Africa. Employing data-driven, cloud-based mobile surveillance could help redefine our roads, train and bus stations, taxi ranks, and even ports in ensuring an efficient and secure experience. Looking at what happens in a typical port as an example, real-time surveillance of port activity involves checking what goes into stacking, what’s being loaded onto ships and in what quantity, and what stock is going on which train or truck to be taken away from the port. Live, intelligent monitoring ensures real-time interaction between the operator and the asset; it not only streamlines operations, but it also makes it possible to proactively identify and resolve bottlenecks.

There are many enabling technologies that can impact transportation in South Africa, but a good place to start is by considering the applications for smart physical technology with the ability to collect and respond to data.

Technologies that could help rebuild our transportation systems

Adaptive traffic signal control (ATSC) technologies help improve the quality of service that commuters experience on roads and highways. ATSC refers to traffic control systems that use data from vehicle detectors or cameras to optimise traffic signal timing based on real-time traffic demand in the area. These intelligent systems could improve traffic congestion by decreasing delays, travel times, and queues. By receiving and processing sensor data to enhance and update signal timing settings, these technologies automatically determine when and how long lights should be green, so we all spend less time in traffic. 

As the transport industry shifts towards intelligent or smart transportation systems, digital twin (DT) technology can transform traffic management and operations. A DT is a digital version of a physical object or process based on data from various sources. The transportation DT can be visualised as traffic data collected from different physical systems, such as sensors, CVs, traffic signals, and traffic monitoring cameras to create a digital copy of the systems in order to help with decision making. Once a DT exists, we can use it to test new systems and processes, predict and solve future problems, and see the effect of changing variables in a much more cost-effective way.

Drones and innovative security cameras can also be put to work in the industry. By collecting both visual images and coordinates, they could monitor construction activity in, for example, city ports. Drones or cameras could take stock of materials used and monitor progress, which improves the accuracy and speed of monitoring. Big data, analytics, and AI make it possible for satellite imagery to be used in monitoring road conditions or getting a big picture view of cities in their entirety. 

There’s no denying that South Africa’s transport problems are complex, but we shouldn’t feel discouraged by this. Advances in GPS, network and onboard cameras, access control, body-worn solutions, and sound detection technology, among many others, could soon become indispensable to the sector. We can start small by testing how this innovative tech could contribute to improvements, and then consider how to roll it out on a larger scale. Whatever methods we choose, one thing’s for sure: technology holds the key to delivering the solutions to our challenges, and we should be embracing its potential.