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INNOAIR – The future of urban transportation is already here

INNOAIR – The future of urban transportation is already here

On May 18, 2023, the final conference of the InnoAir project "Innovative public transport responding to consumer demand for cleaner air in the urban environment" was held in Sofia. The project is implemented by Sofia Municipality in partnership with research institutes, academia, business, civil society organizations and NAMRB. The program of the forum was focused on innovation in urban mobility as one of the tools for improving ambient air quality in cities. Representatives of municipalities from all over the country, universities and many civil society organizations showed interest in the innovative solutions that are already used in the management of public transport in the capital city.

The Deputy Mayor of Sofia Municipality Doncho Barbalov, who is also the project manager, stressed that a significant part of the results achieved are demonstrated for the first time in Bulgaria, and some are innovations at European level. This makes the project a suitable platform for the development of cooperation between municipalities and cities and the transfer of experience, knowledge and information. The Deputy Mayor of the capital highlighted the active support of citizens and NGOs throughout the project implementation period, which in the end turned out to be a co-creation process and ideas generation in the decision-making process.

Sofia is the first municipality to develop a White Paper on the introduction and effective operation of low emission zones for motor vehicles and has already developed local regulations for the introduction of low-emission zones for motor vehicles. The first such zone will be operational as of this autumn and will impose rules on car access, the deputy mayor said. At European level, this will be a test model for implementing such measures in the effort to reduce harmful emissions in large cities. In the next stage a green zone for domestic heating will be introduced.

As a result of the efforts of experts from different structures and the administration of Sofia Municipality, the academic community and the non-governmental sector in Sofia, a new mechanism for last/first mile transport in the neighborhoods is already being implemented – on request. The new transport service is equipped with a dynamic traffic control system, route planning, load control and a mobile application for requesting.

Sofia Municipal Council supported the practical implementation of the results of the project, as Barbalov emphasized, by drafting and adopting amendments to the relevant normative documents. Thus, in practice, the local parliament also took part in the work on the project. One of the most valuable features of the outgoing InnoAir project, in addition to the experimental approach, is the broad horizon for other innovations in public transport in Sofia.

The future is for the brave. Anyone who is not afraid to make bold decisions today is tomorrow's winner. InnoAir project is exactly this kind of bold decision that opens up a large array pf possibilities for the development of various sustainable practices, said the Executive Director of NAMRB Silvia Georgieva in her opening speech. She congratulated the project team and Sofia Municipality for taking the risk of committing to an entirely new concept for public transport and the practical testing of the chosen approach in a real environment. The project also demonstrates the successful implantation of modern technologies in the dynamics of urban life, Georgieva stressed.

We live in times of rapid and radical changes, with new opportunities, but also emerging risks before us. That is why it is extremely important to be able to test our innovative ideas. Public administrations often refrain because they operate with public funds, and that is exactly why the support of the EU through the initiative "Urban Innovative Actions" is important, emphasized Georgieva. Social, economic, environmental and technological challenges have also led to a significant change in the way we see and think about mobility, and there is no doubt that it will continue to change in the coming years, she added. The Inoair project tests a complete set of innovative solutions. At its core, on the one hand, are the people and the process of co-creation, on the other, there are the technologies and data, without which no solution and model will be able to be understood and reasoned, emphasized the executive director of NAMRB - a partner in the project.

Our contribution will be to spread this model among all municipalities and to think about how this practice can solve the problems with public transport in smaller or remote settlements, said Silvia Georgieva and noted that this project emphases on the task of completely rethinking the philosophy of supporting and subsidizing public transport. This project shows that in many respects legislation is a thing of the past, while technology has long taken us into the future. Public managers are so overwhelmed with tasks, duties and responsibilities that they have too little time left to look away and notice how much knowledge and discoveries that can transform life already exist, she added.

The InnoAir project offers a comprehensive set of measures that are interconnected and carry a solid charge for development and scaling. In addition to the specific on-demand transport service and provision of environmentally friendly vehicles, the project develops entirely new for the Bulgarian context concepts for green corridors, low-emission zones, automated congestion reduction system, etc.

"The project is extremely challenging not only for the partners, but also for the team of Sofia Municipality, because it involves the creation of innovation and its adaptation on the field," said Ivan Nikolov, Director of Transport Directorate at Sofia Municipality. He emphasized the important role of citizens in the process of arranging the new transport service and planning all accompanying elements, choosing an approach to work and synchronizing management decisions with the specific needs of people.

In addition, an analytical system has been developed within the project that helps the municipality develop and optimize its urban transport. Since its operation, more than 300 public transport optimizations were made in Sofia. The system provides both historical data on each urban line and information on passenger traffic and traffic congestion in real time. "We already have eyes without being constantly on the ground," said Ivan Nikolov and added that these technological innovations have made artificial intelligence their "colleague" and make it possible to think about both the development of the entire transport system and the transport policy of the municipality.

"Every decision to change cities requires a change in the habits of each of us. If we really want to change the environment in which we live, everyone should contribute," said Dimitar Petrov, Director of the traffic management and analysis Directorate in Sofia municipality. He presented within the conference the concept for the introduction of low-emission zones, which is at an advanced stage in Sofia. One of the important achievements of the implementation and monitoring of the effects is the conclusion that the measures implemented to improve urban transport traffic have a direct impact on the remodeling of citizens' preferences for mobility. The more seamlessly public transport develops, the greater the majority of residents prefer the opportunities and forms it provides. This is a slow but steady change in behavior patterns that directly affect the improvement of urban environment parameters, including ambient air quality.

The low-emission zone in Sofia will be the first in Bulgaria. Thus, the mathematical models for its application in Bulgaria will give a guide to what decisions cities can make when introducing such an approach.

Sevdalina Voynova, Program Director of Sofia Development Association, stressed that "no local government can cope alone with the development and introduction of innovations because it cannot maintain the necessary “army” of experts. Partnership with academia is key to developing innovative solutions, validating them, monitoring pilot schemes and involving citizens."

The concept for introducing low-emission zones in Sofia is based on a thorough analysis prepared by specialist from Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski", University of Plovdiv "Paisii Hilendarski" and the National Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology. The scientific teams have developed the algorithms for the study and monitoring of the effect and have prepared a comprehensive predictive modeling of all eligible options for its application. More than 11 valuable academic articles were created within the project, based on specific data obtained from the intelligent monitoring systems implemented by Sofia Municipality. The approach to the planning of low-emission zones is radically opposite to the authoritarian principle of introducing bans. It is based on creating more alternatives for citizens and stimulates the preference of sustainable and environmentally friendly solutions.

"It's hard to accept change. Our task is to arouse interest so that people can get acquainted with the data, understand the meaning of the changes and perceive them as their goal and desire" said Dimitar Petrov.

Metodi Avramov, Director of Strategies, Innovations and International Projects Directorate at the Sofia Municipality’s Urban Mobility Center, presented in detail the vision for the development of green corridors. These are the sections in the city's transport scheme that allow movement with environmentally friendly vehicles. An important condition for their introduction is the availability of a sufficiently developed public transport network that allows for overcoming long distances and intermodality – inclusion of more than one, different by mode of transport. He recalled that the public transport of the capital serves 8 cities and another 34 settlements. Good planning and systematic expansion and adaptation to new mobility models enables public transport to retain the largest share in travel in Sofia.

The Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan of Sofia sets all municipal structures the ambitious task to have 80% of the movement in the capital carried out by environmentally friendly transport by 2035. The green corridors can be used by all residents and guests of the city. The project has also developed a digital map in which everyone can monitor the actual movement of public transport and choose their own mode of transport, according to their specific needs. A special tab for alternative transport is also provided. The platform will also integrate all 6 shared mobility applications operating in Sofia and thus provide a global picture of all modes of transport that can be used. This is a first step towards mobility as a service that will provide the possibility of individual trip planning, of booking a seat or vehicle and of paying for the service.

Radoslav Rizov, Faculty of Economics, Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski":

It is extremely important for every city to work on innovative projects, this is a sign of the ambitions of the local government. With InnoAir, Sofia ranks among the most ambitious cities in Europe. Every completed project leads to the dream of a new one. The team from Sofia University, which is working on InnoAir, is already working on a model for the introduction of autonomous buses, following the example of Geneva.

Prof. Dr. Stanimir Kabaivanov, Dean of the Faculty of Economic and Social Sciences, University of Plovdiv “Paisii Hilendarski"

Sofia's experience in introducing public electric transport on demand is also met with good understanding and serious interest in the municipality of Plovdiv. In the course of the research and analytical work, students from Plovdiv University were actively involved. Young people can be highly involved when tasked with solving specific real-life problems. Apart from purely academic challenges, making decisions based on real data is the key to the resilience of these decisions. In addition to technology, there is always a human factor.

Prof. Dr. Dimitar Atanasov, National Institute for Hydrology and Meteorology

It is important that low emission zones are combined with other measures and the complex effect can be significant. The effect of InnoAir is expected to occur in a significant period after completion of the project and the effects of the initiatives created should be assessed in the future. This is the philosophy of strategic thinking. The experience of NIMH in predicting the effect of the introduction of low-emission zones can be successfully transferred to other municipalities.

Svetlana Lomeva, Executive Director of Sofia Development Association

In terms of communication, you can use standard approaches, but you will attract many more people if you approach non-standard, especially when talking about innovation. We should also be interested while working on the project. If we emotionally get into what we do, we will touch the hearts of many people.

Citizens are becoming an active part of the process, not only of the implementation of the project, but also of the development of the municipality. The most commonly used routes for healthy forms of transportation, for which the developed application provides information, are included in the investment program of Sofia Municipality as a priority.

Sevdalina Voynova, Program Director, Sofia Development Association

Access to open data is one of the most serious challenges for the development of innovative models. It is important to continue joining forces so that more people can access standardized data that can be analyzed and become the basis for innovation.

The project leaves a good legacy – an innovative service with a growth perspective, a model for local legislation, a model for introducing a congestion charge, a mobile application to reward active mobility, the ability to model urban mobility, many partnerships with academia, creative industries and citizens and documents, research and data that can be used other bold ideas to become a reality.

Romain Turminel, Permanent Secretariat of the European Urban Initiative Program

At European level, the InnoAir project is assessed as original, especially because of the complex approach to integrating the capacity of many structures and the clear orientation towards users. The interest in the project formed during the implementation is one of the guarantees for the sustainability of its results.

Such a platform has not been implemented on such a large scale in Europe, especially with regard to electric vehicles.

The European Commission is yet to assess the added value of the scientific developments created during the project because this is an additional contribution.

The European Urban Initiative will seek to develop the capacity of cities and in this respect, Sofia can be an inspiring example.

NAMRB thanks all partners in the InnoAir project - "Innovative public transport, meeting consumer demand, cleaner air in the urban environment" and the team of Sofia Municipality for the determination, energy and talent invested in the successful implementation of the project!