We believe that Virtual Reality (VR) offers tremendous opportunities as people can explore the future design options from different perspectives in the Virtual World. In the case of street design, for example, one can explore the experience from the view angles of motorists, cyclists, pedestrians and even children.
VR also offers new opportunities for stakeholder engagement as participants can provide valuable feedback to planners how to improve the design before it is actually built.
Exploring Virtual Reality as a Planning Tool
We all are very familiar with the maps and renderings planners and designers use to communicate development plans. But imagine if you could explore future planning scenarios in Virtual Reality!
At the occasion of this year’s Park(ing) Day in Singapore, the Future Cities Laboratory will set up a digital peephole into the future to test new possibilities in engaging people for street design and urban development projects. The technology combines the latest 3D modelling and traffic simulation techniques in Virtual Reality to showcase how streets can be re-designed to make cycling and walking a more pleasant experience
Join us in Tiong Bahru on Friday, 16 September 2016
Visitors are invited to cycle in Virtual Reality through three local streets: Lim Liak Street – Kim Cheng Street and Seng Poh Road. Each street features a particular re-design to make cycling and walking more attractive. After the virtual ride, a short survey will be conducted to better understand how Virtual Reality applications can help planners getting feedback from local stakeholders: What are your needs? What do you like in the new design? Which design elements could be adapted or improved?
We are looking forward to welcome you at our parking lot on the 16th of September from 9am to 8pm! All visitors taking the survey do not only take part in a lucky draw with exiting give-aways, but also will have for the first time in Singapore the chance to test both the latest Virtual Reality goggles HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.
Date: Friday, 16 September | Time: 09:00 to 20:00 | Where: Lim Liak Street (Opposite Tiong Bahru Market)
PTV, one of the market leader in software solutions for traffic and transportation planning, regularly organises the so-called Innovation Days. The aim of those events is to provide the users of their software products a forum to broaden and share their transportation knowledge and modelling expertise.
We took the opportunity to present our software pipeline to create Virtual Reality application using Vissim at the PTV Innovation Day in Singapore on the 22th of July 2016. The slide of our presentation titled Using Vissim for Virtual Reality Applications to Evaluate Active Mobility Solutions can be found here. It was great to see and hear that the presentation was well received as Alastair Evanson, Solution Director at PTV Vissim & Vistro at PTV Group, noted:
“The use of PTV Vissim in their project Engaging Active Mobility, which models and visualises streetscape designs to understand people’s preferences to cycle infrastructure, is just the sort of innovative application that we at PTV like to see our software being used for. The audience at the event found it a very interesting subject and PTV look forward to further co-ordinating on the topic to enhance the application of PTV Vissim in allowing people to ‘experience’ proposed designs through interacting with micro-simulation models in virtual/ augmented reality.”
Click here to access the slides of the presentation.
With this blog post, we also would like to summarise the other interesting presentations at the event and share the respective slides.
Cycling is one of the most space efficient and sustainable mode of transportation in cities. Indeed, these pedal powered two-wheelers are faster than our own two feet, and can be as flexible as cars, without the emissions and noise. So why does cycling remain a less preferred mode of transport in Singapore?
“Because the city is not designed for cycling”
This is a common concern of potential cyclists in Singapore. Urban development patterns and morphology can hinder or facilitate active mobility. Indeed, a growing body of research provides evidence of a link between the built environment and active living (see also Ewing et al., 2003). Empirical evidence has shown that mixed use compact cities are more attractive for pedestrians and cyclists while low density mono-functional sprawls deter active mobility (see also Saelens, Sallis and Frank, 2003). It follows that in order to reduce our dependence on automobiles and move towards a car-lite future, dense mixed use urban development designed for human scale and walking speed is essential.
However, typical new town developments in Singapore are influenced by mid-20th century modernist planning principles like segregated zoning and traffic networks. There is very little to no mixed use developments, large distances between crossings, homogenous housing types, which are connected by wide high speed roads. These streets and neighborhoods appear to be designed for the convenience of cars, where being a cyclist is clearly uncomfortable (or unsafe). Despite Singapore’s well-intentioned efforts to become a cycle friendly city, the existing urban development patterns and street design do little to support these efforts. This mismatch is also one of the main raison d’être of our research project Engaging Active Mobility at the Singapore ETH Centre.
“Because tropical weather is not suitable for cycling”
Singapore’s geographic location close to the equator means a humid and hot climate all year round. Popular perception is that the weather is too harsh for cycling. But according to some, this is only a matter of expectation and conditioning. Most of our team cycles to work on a regular basis, as do a number of cyclists in cities around South East Asia that share the same weather concerns.
The scientific workshop ‘Creating Healthy Places through Active Mobility’, initiated by the Centre for Liveable Cities in 2014 in Singapore, also arrived at the same conclusion. The international expert team asserted that tropical climate conditions are not a limiting factor for establishing a bike culture in Singapore. More than ever, technical and operational measures should be taken to ensure the connectivity and the continuous movement in order to reduce the physical effort. In addition, ancillary facilities like showers, lockers and changing rooms can be provided at workplaces for the convenience of cyclists.
“Because policy and public behavior does not support it”
Even though owning a car in Singapore is restrictively expensive , motorized car traffic still enjoys a privileged status on Singapore streets. Traffic lane widths are generous, the roads straight and traffic signals are programmed to maximize car throughput while pedestrians must cope with waiting times beyond 90 seconds. In addition, most motorists do not seem inclined to share their space with cyclists. Hence, there are plenty of reasons for cyclists to shy away from roads and pedal along sidewalks instead. Frequent conflicts on the sidewalk with pedestrians and cars at garage entrances restrict continuous movement of cyclists who need to repeatedly break and accelerate, which can be particularly strenuous. While cycling on the sidewalk currently still illegal but remains largely unenforced, the government has recently accepted the recommendations of the Active Mobility Advisory Panel to legalise cycling on sidewalks and expects to put the new regulation in effect towards end of 2016.
Given that the amount of people who are cycling in Singapore is very small, neither the car drivers, nor the pedestrians are really aware of the presence of the bicycles. As Figure 1 shows, pedestrians often encroach upon designated bike paths.
Of course a behavioral change is called for, and there have been many efforts lately to institute this change. For example, the OCBC Cycle Singapore festival runs a ‘1.5 meters matter’ campaign encourages drivers to give cyclists more room. More recently, URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority) launched the monthly car-free day, to sensitize the general public to active mobility. LTA (Land Transport Authority) will launch an Active Mobility Campaign to increase awareness of the new policies, rules and codes of conduct.
Existing bicycle infrastructure in Singapore
To surmount the shortcomings related to cycling on the road and on sidewalks, Singapore’s planners have so far put forward two types of design bicycle infrastructure: Park Connector Networks and Intra-town cycling. The Park Connector Network connects parks through a continuous network, exclusively for cyclists and pedestrians. The usage of this network is mainly limited to leisure activities. The paths follow a scenic, sometimes circuitous route instead of the most direct one, guiding people along rivers, parks and residential areas. Shelters are provided frequently for weather protection (see Figure 2).
Even though cycling on Park Connectors is a pleasant way to discover Singapore, it is not suited to commuters needs. On a sunny day, the detours and recurring interruptions as illustrated in Figure 3, can take a toll on the rider.
A second type of cycle network – intra-town cycling in specific neighborhoods with social housing (HDB) – focus on short distance trips to reach popular destinations such as subway stations, schools or shopping centers. The Land Transport Authority of Singapore selected 7 HDB Towns to improve cycling infrastructure by the end of 2015. Recently, a bicycle network was constructed in Pasir Ris, mostly consisting of bike lanes that are well segregated with directional signage and contrasting paving material (see Figure 4).
However, by putting the bike lanes between the footpath and adjacent buildings, any building entrance becomes an area of conflicts with pedestrians and hence only allows cycling at low speeds (Figure 5).
In addition, bicycles do not have priority at any time, as prescribed in the cycling rules, causing many speed interruptions (Figure 6). At some places, a sign asks to the cyclists to dismount and push the bike through the conflict area.
Bicycle lanes sometimes end abruptly near obstacles like overhead bridges and lack of priority on intersections impedes a continuous cycling flow (Figure 7). Reduced speeds and added discomfort makes cycling a less than ideal transportation option on these networks.
Another popular way to expand the bicycle network in Singapore is widening sidewalks, for example the new infrastructure in Tampines (Figure 8). However, this design with mixed zones also evokes frequent interactions between pedestrians and cyclists. But interestingly, according to our observations cyclists and pedestrians self-sort to a certain degree as cyclists chose often to pedal towards the side of the road.
An important support infrastructure for cycling is parking facilities at destination. Due to the efforts of the city authorities and the transport companies, the capacity of parking amenities close to train station has augmented considerably over the last years. Nowadays, bicycle parking, sometimes covered as shown in Figure 9, are available on most train stations. However, given that flat tires are frequently observed, a fair share of the parked bicycle is probably not very frequently used, but calls for better parking management solutions.
The next generation of cycling infrastructure
Even though public transport remains the main focus in the Land Transport Master Plan 2013 the Land Transport Authority of Singapore plans to expand the network of sheltered walkways and dedicated bicycle paths considerably by 2020. The efforts are directed at completing the Park Connector Network reaching a network length of over 700 km by 2030. The announcement of works to transform Ang Mo Kio in a new model walking and cycling town in December 2015 earmarks the start of a new generation of intra-town cycling infrastructure and serves as a pilot for similar schemes for all public housing (HDB) neighbourhoods. The renderings show that the cycling paths adjacent to the sidewalk closer to the road, which will reduce the number of potential conflicts with pedestrians. Near bus stops, ‘Pedestrian Priority Zones’ are proposed where cyclists are expected to slow down or dismount and push. On road cycle lanes are only planned along minor roads which means that cyclists are expected to share pedestrian crossings to turn or change lanes. While they are allowed to cycle across mid-block crossings, they are required to dismount and push at junctions which hinders continuous movement. However, a new segregated cycling highway cutting along (and below) an existing MRT corridor will allow continuous and sheltered cycling to the MRT station.
For longer-distance connectivity, the planned North-South Expressway will be reconfigured to be part of a “North-South Corridor” that will include express bus lanes and a cycling trunk route to the city (Figure 7). Again, the cycling lane is planned adjacent to the sidewalk towards the road which generally lowers the number of conflicts with pedestrians but requires well thought out design solutions around bus stops.
The research puzzles that lie ahead
While the growing interest in cycling and walking, and the commitment of planning authorities to providing support infrastructures in Singapore are promising, there are several open questions that remain unanswered, opening interesting avenues for research.
Cycling city role models such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam or more recently also New York and London are very different from Singapore with regard to the urban fabric and climatic conditions. The hierarchical street network restricts connections between neighbourhoods along low-traffic roads. At the same time, the main arterials are usually characterised by several rather wide lanes inviting motorists to speed well above the allowed 60km/h. Frequent bus services and stops cause additional challenges to fit in appropriate cycling infrastructure.
Park Connectors seem ideal to overcome those challenges. Once the network gaps are closed, the segregated bicycle paths ensure stress-free and continuous movement through pleasant environments. Unfortunately, the origin or destination of a utilitarian (not leisure) cycling trips seldom is located directly along a Park Connector but usually within a town.
This raises the question how existing roads can and should be redesigned to address cyclists’ concerns of perception of safety and continuous movement. In particular, previous and ongoing initiatives to improve the cycling infrastructure clearly struggle with the question whether and when cyclists should belong to pedestrian or vehicular realm. Based on the experience in other cities, it is clear that the propensity to cycle is directly related to how well the infrastructure caters to a cyclist need for safe, direct and comfortable routes. When designing such infrastructure, planners face recurring dilemmas and trade-offs. A cycling route along a major road might serve directness, but designing it to be safe and support continuous movement can be very challenging as potential conflicts with buses, cars and pedestrians must be considered. To meaningfully do so, we must understand how people perceive and react to different design options.
Similarly, when designing a network of cycling routes, key planning questions are also where to invest and how much. Cycling demand not only directly depends on the quality of the infrastructure, but potential flows are also contingent on land use and the distribution of origins and destinations. In addition, how far people are willing to cycling is dependent on the required physical effort which again is dependent on the type of cycling infrastructure, climatic conditions and bicycle technology. Integrating all those factors in a consistent planning framework makes cycling network design can be a daunting challenge.
Our research project, launched in February 2016, aims at answering these questions and challenges. By employing Virtual Reality applications in surveys we attempt to distill behavioral evidence that can guide planners through these dilemmas when designing future cycling infrastructure. By providing new spatial analysis tools that integrate with existing transport demand models and also harness big data sources such as public transport smart card records, we aim at solving the puzzle of cycling network design and find out how cycling can become a viable commute option in Singapore. As we embark on this journey, we welcome very much your comments and suggestions to support an engaged discussion!
Experiences from a pedestrian counting experiment with Placemeter
As soon as a pedestrian or cycling planning project appears in the pipeline, you have to think about counting methods. Knowledge of flows and densities is essential for an intelligent and safe infrastructure design and before and after evaluations. The traditional method to perform such evaluation is to conduct manual counts: a labour intensive and therefore costly endeavour. Emerging technologies promise to cut down on counting cost. The folks at Alta Planning did a great job and published a White Paper which covers key emerging technologies in addition to the existing NCHRP 797 guidebook on pedestrian and bicycle volume data collection.
For our ongoing research project Engaging Active Mobility at the Future Cities Laboratory in Singapore, we are interested in testing the viability of some of those new technologies to count pedestrians and cyclists. Four our first test, we used sensor products of Placemeter, a startup founded in 2012 in New York. Placemeter positions itself as an ‘urban intelligence platform’, which ‘ingests any kind of video to analyse pedestrian and vehicular movement, revealing hidden patterns and strategic opportunities’, to help ‘build stronger businesses, efficient cities, and innovative neighbourhoods worldwide.’
Placemeter’s counting technology
Placemeter currently supports two types of counting devices: the Placemeter Sensor, which contains a camera and on-board processing unit, and an off-the-shelf IP camera (see Figure 1). In the case of the Placemeter Sensor, the video data is directly processed in the sensor, while the video stream of the IP camera is broadcasted to the Placemeter servers which run the algorithms that extract the count information. In both cases, the algorithms are able to identify counts by the direction of movement across used-defined measurement points. However, currently the Placemeter products do not allow to differentiate whether a pedestrian, cyclist and motorized vehicle crossed a measurement line.
We ordered both type of Placemeter Sensor products in October 2015 at the price of USD 90$ each. Delivery to Singapore was another 30$ each. While Placemeter promises that measuring with your very first sensor will be free forever, for any additional sensor they charge 100$ per measurement point and month, but allow you free counting during the first month.
The Placemeter Sensor arrived within a few days in beautifully custom-designed cardboard box while the IP camera by DLink got shipped in the standard wrapping.
The technical equipment is principally very easy to install. Nevertheless, some issues appeared when connecting the Placemeter Sensor to our WLAN. This step is necessary to connect the sensor to to Placemeter’s servers and to specify the measurement points through Placemeter’s web-based interface. We then tried to narrow down the problem by setting it up within other WLANs, but without success. Raising the issue to the helpful Placemeter customer care, they offered to replace the sensor at free cost and to cover any shipping expenses.
The setup with the replacement sensor was then straightforward and did not take more than 10 minutes. After connecting, the live stream of the sensor is displayed online and user-defined measurement points can be drawn as a line direct on the picture.
Besides access to WLAN, both the IP camera and Placemeter Sensor require electric power supply. The enclosed power cable for the Placemeter Sensor is about 5m long, the standard cable delivered with the DLink IP camera is about 2m. While you obviously always can use a cord extension to extend your setup range, it also means that you need to have access to a power outlet near your count location.
While the Placemeter Sensor was being replaced, we started to install our IP camera and decided to place it in front of our main meeting room, the ValueLab. Figure 2 shows the indoor setting and the three measurement points (screenlines) placed in order to count people coming from left and right and entering the meeting room. We can see that our office is brightly lit with artificial light, but also bright daylight as is typical for equatorial regions. However, the combination of the dark floor, white walls and bright windows plus some obstructing furniture create a situation that is characterised by high contrasts.
The ValueLab, also serves as a venue for public lectures. These lectures offer the perfect opportunity to conduct manual counting and compare the results with the counts produced by Placemeter. Figure 3 shows the number of people counted at the door (horizontal screenline) with the IP camera as well as the manual counts. In order to simplify the manual counting, we simply counted the number of people who attended a lecture. By multiplying this number by a factor of two, we obtain a minimum value of the number of people who traversed the measuring point at some point during the measurement period.
In other words, the real value of the manual counts should be higher, taking into consideration that some people would enter and exit the room few times (e. g. to take a phone call or so). Nevertheless, in almost all cases the manually counted ‘minimum value’ was higher than the amount of participants recorded by the IP camera.
Another test was to compare the monthly data obtained from Placemeter for the IP camera. Since the ValueLab has a single entry point, we just compared the number of persons entering and leaving the room. During the period of 30 days, the IP camera counts in average 13% more people entering than leaving the room. We think this is because the arrival process is different from the departure process. People trickle in before a lecture, and rush out simultaneously to grab a coffee, challenging the Placemeter counting logarithms.
We also suppose that the IP camera has problems to count pedestrian just before or after a door, since in this case the camera angle is reduced and only one side is visible.
Not being truly convinced by the counting performance using the IP camera, we also tested the newly arrived replacement Placemeter Sensor in this challenging indoor setting. However, results showed similarly inconsistent patterns. Apparently, the the high contrast setting is beyond the operational limits of Placemeter’s video processing count algorithms.
Disappointed to not being able to automatically count the popularity of our main meeting room, but not disheartened with the potential of the technology altogether, we set out to give the Placemeter Sensor a second chance in a more conducive environment. The setting for the second experiment is the entrance to one of the CREATE buildings. The video frame is characterised by a rather homogenous contrast as shown in Figure 4.
The measurement points (which actually are lines) were drawn to form a measurement square which means that people entering the square should exit it again within a few seconds. This allow us to do a quick accuracy test of the Placemeter Sensor.
Figure 5 shows an overview of the manual count results and the data delivered by the Placemeter Sensor. Different to the outcome of the first experiment, the manual counts are exact (no minimum values). Manual counting was performed for the duration of one hour at three different days. Except for the measurement points ‘Door_Create_In’ and ‘Door_Create_Out’ the results match pretty well with the Placemeter Sensor outputs.
In general, the results from the horizontal measurement points are less accurate then the data from vertical ones. Thus, we suppose that the video processing algorithms can recognise pedestrians better on vertical measurement points, not least because of a favourable angle between pedestrian flow and measurement point.
Similar to the IP camera, we made also in this case a second sanity check by comparing the number of people entering and leaving the area between the four measurement lines; over a period of two weeks, the Placemeter Sensor counted in average 10% more people entering this area than leaving this area. Apparently, we have some sort of Bermuda square here 😉 !
In general, with both Placemeter Sensor and IP camera, the detected pedestrian count is lower than the actual count. With our small sample, we made the following observations:
Both the IP camera and Placemeter Sensor seem to have problems to deal with groups of persons.
Especially in the cases where people are walking through a door, the sensors seem to be less accurate than manual counting.
The accuracy of vertical screenlines is better than horizontal measurements screenlines.
Likewise, both sensors have problems in indoor settings consisting of furniture, high colour contrasts and changing lighting conditions.
Even though we see a demonstrable utility in the conceptual idea of Placemeter, we learned that the field of application of Placemeter Sensors seems to be limited by the visual setting and the requirement of having access to a power outlet and a WLAN. For peak hour pedestrian flows and public transport measurements, a shorter time interval might be necessary. However, if the situation where you want to count fulfils those criteria, you should definitely consider Placemeter’s products for your counting project as the setup is straightforward and data can be easily collected for long periods of time at marginal additional cost.