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Copenhagen lighting the way to smarter cities

COPENHAGEN — On a busy road in the centre of town, a string of green lights embedded in the bike path known as the Green Wave flashes on, helping cyclists avoid red traffic lights.

A string of green lights embedded in a bike path on a road helps cyclists avoid red traffic lights in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo: 
The New York Times

A string of green lights embedded in a bike path on a road helps cyclists avoid red traffic lights in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo:
The New York Times

COPENHAGEN — On a busy road in the centre of town, a string of green lights embedded in the bike path known as the Green Wave flashes on, helping cyclists avoid red traffic lights.

On a main artery into the city, truck drivers can see on their smartphone when the next light will change. And in a nearby suburb, new light-emitting diode (LED) street lights glow brightly only as vehicles approach, dimming once they pass.

Aimed at saving money, cutting the use of fossil fuels and easing mobility, the installations are part of a growing wireless network of street lamps and sensors that officials hope will help the city of roughly 1.2 million meet its ambitious goal of becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025.

Eventually, data captured from sensors embedded in the light fixtures will serve other functions, such as alerting the sanitation department to empty the trash cans, informing bikers of the fastest route to their destinations, better predicting where to salt before a snowstorm and, to the alarm of privacy advocates, picking up on suspicious behaviour at a busy street corner.

Cities worldwide are expected to replace 50 million ageing fixtures with LEDs over the next three years, with roughly half of those in Europe.

Some are mainly interested in switching from outmoded technologies to one that uses less energy and can last for decades. But many others want to take full advantage of LED electronics, which are more conducive to wireless communication than other types of lighting.

“The technology has ramped up. A lot of players are getting involved in network control and the numbers really proliferated from there,” said Mr Jesse Foote, a lighting industry analyst at Navigant, a research and consulting firm.

Said Mr Munish Khetrapal, who helps lead smart city efforts at Cisco Systems: “It is now or never.”

Cisco, which has been pursuing smart city applications for years, is working with more than 100 cities, Mr Khetrapal said. In October, the company entered a partnership with Sensity Systems, which makes advanced networks to help connect and coordinate the function of disparate agencies in cities.

Despite all the activity, no one has yet created a fully integrated network, said Mr Hugh Martin, Sensity’s chief executive.

In Albertslund, a suburb of Copenhagen, 25 companies are participating in the Danish Outdoor Lighting Lab, a project to test and showcase 50 different networked street lighting systems. The project has installed arrays of lights along the streets and bike paths that technicians can control and monitor. Government officials from cities all over the world examine different systems in action before deciding what might work at home.

In the city centre, traffic officials are testing a number of approaches, including one aimed at keeping trucks from making stops as they travel the major roads to save on fuel. On a recent morning, Mr Lennart Jorgensen, a long-time city driver, slowed and accelerated his truck as he kept an eye on approaching traffic signals and a bar graph on his smartphone that indicated how soon the light would turn red or green.

The city is also testing systems to prioritise buses or bikes over cars at intersections during certain hours and has already installed one that flashes a warning to truck drivers in a right-turn lane when cyclists are present.

But the adoption of the networks has raised concerns as well, particularly from privacy advocates, who say that the potential for misuse is high. The networks increase the risk that monitoring can cross the line into tracking one person’s actions, advocates say.

Mr Bjorn Kluver, 33, gave up his car for an electric bike fitted with a Global Positioning System tag handed out by transportation workers in the hope of helping the city upgrade the system. He said he had no worries about the increasing use of sensors in general or about the tag on his bike, because the workers did not take any personal information from him.

“I’m helping by giving them data on my travel times,” he said. “All they know is where the bike is.”

THE NEW YORK TIMES

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