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On Bachelor’s Walk on Friday, a tall pole stretched taller than the traffic lights but shorter than the heritage lamps, and at the top was a camera.
Underneath, between 2pm and 2:35pm, three private vans, five private motorbikes and 16 private cars slip by in the 24-hour bus lane, skipping the slow line of traffic in the private vehicle lane.
As well as that, two heavy-goods vehicles pass through on the private vehicle lane, neither registration plate matching a permit on the HGV permit tracker app.
Keeping bus lanes like this clear for vehicles allowed down them – at the moment, buses, bikes and taxis in businesses – is key to the success of BusConnects, the overhaul of the city’s bus system.
With that in mind, in late 2019, Dublin City Council announced a pilot using cameras to automatically detect vehicles illegally using or parked in bus or cycle lanes.
In 2020 and 2021, the council ran that trial, testing how well cameras and artificial intelligence technology could classify vehicles.
If it worked well, they could possibly use it in the future to, among other things, enforce bus-lane usage, said a brief for the project. But it didn’t really test out using it for enforcement in the trial.
Critics of the project say it tested a complicated technology anyway, when a simpler one is already available: automatic number plate recognition (ANPR), which the Gardaí already use.
In June 2020, the council’s environment and transportation department team, made an application to the Smart City innovation fund, for €10,000 to use for a trial of AI cameras that would classify vehicles.
“The vehicle classification project would be a great benefit at allowing the city to classify vehicles entering and exiting the city centre on a continuous basis and would reduce delays to buses as vehicle classification could be used as an enforcement tool,” they wrote in the application form.
It aimed to use the technology for two projects: expanding its canal cordon count, where it counts pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles crossing the canal, and for enforcement to prevent traffic congestion.
“Time lost to traffic congestion in the greater Dublin area is costing the economy €350 million per year,” read the application form. “It remains a key objective of Dublin City Council to promote and facilitate the development of an integrated public transport network.”
Enforcement will be key to the success of BusConnects, the redesign of the bus network, it says. “This enforcement will help to reduce bus journey times and improve safety for cyclists.”
Dublin City Council ran the trial between September 2020 and January 2021, installing one camera on Bachelor’s Walk, and another on St John’s Road, next to Heuston Station.
The cameras and AI technology scanned a “detection zone” – the roads – and analysed the images and tried to categorise the objects that it spotted.
The objects were divided into categories like pedestrians, bikes, cars, and taxis, motorbikes, vans and so on.
By the end of the trial, and rounds of training, the AI was able to recognise the objects correctly to within 10 percent of the count that was done manually, by a human, says the final report on the trial.
There were still issues such as rain and sunlight distorting the images, or counting vehicles twice in thick traffic, or telling the difference between taxis and vans for example, the report says.
The trial ended, but if they kept training the AI using a larger and more varied dataset, perhaps it could improve, the report says.
The report’s conclusions were that the technology could be developed further to be used for general traffic-law enforcement, for HGV monitoring, environmental monitoring, and crowd management and safety.
“To provide learning points and information to DCC in their assessment of the best strategies to adopt for the management of the city and the use of AI based technologies,” it says.
How and Who to Enforce?
Despite initial ideas to do so, the pilot didn’t directly test using the cameras and AI technology for enforcement.
Nicola Graham, a Smart City operations manager with the council, said on Tuesday by email that the council isn’t responsible for bus-lane enforcement under national legislation.
“Enforcement was outside the scope of the pilot. This is under the remit of An Garda Síochána,” she said.
Emails about setting up the project suggest that the council’s internal legal advice was that it couldn’t alone include any enforcement aspect.
“The meeting with the law agent went well and they seem ok for us to proceed with the vehicle classification part of the project, says an email from Niall Bolger to Aaron O’Connor, both council executive ITS officers in the transport department.
“Bus lane enforcement can be added at a later date in cooperation with the Gardai and other relevant authorities,” it says.
Ray McAdam, a Fine Gael councillor, says the council needs to team up with Gardaí to help make sure traffic moves smoothly around the city, as only Gardaí can fine people.
“We probably have to introduce legislation to amend that in order to enable local authorities then from an enforcement point of view of misuse of bus lanes,” he says.
The technology should be improved too, he said. “It has to be as foolproof, as bulletproof as possible.”
“Once that happens, then I would welcome the introduction on a trial basis from an enforcement point of view,” said McAdam.
A Different Way?
Feljin Jose, spokesperson for the Dublin Commuter Coalition, said bus-lane misuse could be enforced in simpler ways than cameras on poles with AI technology recognising vehicle types.
Cities such as Belfast use number-plate recognition to fine drivers caught in bus lanes, using on-street cameras, and a car with a camera that drives around to capture drivers misusing bus lanes.
A bus driver who heard about the pilot also wrote in to Smart Dublin to ask why it couldn’t use the existing cameras on buses to do it, show emails. The response isn’t in the documents.
Janet Horner, a Green Party councillor, says there’s technology out there already that can scan and fine registration number plates.
“We already know enough to know there are a lot of cars in bus lanes and people are regularly flouting the bus lane use, to drive their private cars in it, because they know there’s no enforcement,” she said.
Gardaí already use automatic number plate recognition for speeding, says Horner. “But they’re reluctant to roll them out further for privacy reasons, which I don’t really follow.”
“I just think, you know, your car does not have more privacy rights than you do as a human,” she says.
The Department of Transport’s National Sustainable Mobility Policy, published in April, has a commitment to “further develop camera-based enforcement by the Gardaí, including at junctions and for management of bus/ cycle lanes”.
Hugh Creegan, the chief executive of the National Transport Authority’s (NTA) in an Oireachtas meeting on 27 January, said he was confident that camera-based enforcement would be rolled out before BusConnects.
Ethna Brogan, an assistant secretary for the Department of Transport, said privacy concerns will have to be addressed. “It is a specific action that we will be bringing forward under the new road safety strategy.”
[CORRECTION: This article was updated at 8.40pm on 13 July to correct how Belfast enforces clear bus lanes.]