Building back better with CO-APS: Interview with Sofia

The CO-APS pilots are in full swing: currently, the app is being tested by real passengers in European cities. One of the pilot cities is Sofia, where the Sofia Development Association and the Urban Mobility Center join forces with CO-APS. We spoke to Tsvetan Tsolov, Head of International Projects Department about how his city has dealt with recent challenges due to the COVID-19 crisis, and how he expects CO-APS can help to keep the city moving.

The last 6 months have been challenging due to the COVID-19 crisis. Can you tell us a bit more about how you have experienced recent times and some of the initiatives you have taken to meet the ongoing challenges in public transport and urban mobility?

The past six months have put to the test not only the public transportation system but all public services in the city. The public transport companies serving the population of Sofia have incurred significant losses during the two-month state of emergency declared by the government in March to limit the spread of COVID-19. The Urban Mobility Center, the municipality-owned company which is in charge of the public transport management, will need to secure additional funds to be able to service its debts to transport operators serving the municipality and to reduce economic losses. Despite the prevention measures taken, many drivers fell sick which put additional strain on the public transport system in the capital.

Nevertheless, Sofia like other cities, has continued to mobilize human, financial and technical resources to respond to the crisis caused by COVID-19. Several types of measures were taken by Sofia Municipality and the Urban Mobility Center in an attempt to mitigate the crisis:

1. Measures to make public transport safer

  • All public transport vehicles are being disinfected at least twice a day. Disinfection is obligatory for all ticket offices, the metro lines, depots and garages.
  • Regular checks are conducted by employees of Sofia Urban Mobility Centre and the municipality to ensure passengers are wearing masks. The inspections are supported by the municipal police, who have the right to impose sanctions (currently, the fine is BGN 300 or 145 euro).
  • Voice announcements, posters and information signs are placed in the metro trains, on buses, trams, and trolleybuses reminding passengers to keep physical distance and to weak masks.
  • Plexiglass partitions have been installed on vehicles to separate the drivers’ cabins from the passenger area.

2. Changing schedules and adding more trains and buses to reduce overcrowding

  • During the lockdown, the number of buses, trams, and metro trains running was reduced and the schedules of many intercity lines were changed (for instance, the night bus lines stopped running), to ensure that citizens would stay home.
  • After the lockdown, additional vehicles were put in operation in order to reduce wait times at the stations, to provide the necessary distance for passengers and to prevent overcrowding. A new metro line M3 was launched in June 2020, with an additional capacity of a 100,000 passengers daily.

3. Making traveling around the city easier by reducing paperwork

  • All school and college students can get their monthly travel passes without extra paperwork, only with an ID card. This eliminates long queues in front of the ticket offices around the city.
  • Starting in July, 2020, all 114 offices of the Bulgarian Postal Services in Sofia, in addition to the 65 points of sale of the public transport department and over 200 trade centers throughout the city will begin selling travel passes and parking vouchers.
  • The Urban Mobility Centre has launched a new communication channel. Through the interactive Viber ChatBot, the passengers will receive city traffic news, real time public transport schedules and routes, information for transportation documents and parking. The joint initiative of the leading communication platform, SUMC and Mastercard® provides for the first time the possibility to pay for BLUE and GREEN zones through Viber.

What do you expect from your participation in the CO-APS project?

The CO-APS project is an opportunity to collaborate with experienced partners and to test innovative and easily accessible solutions to keep our cities and economies moving. The mobile application and the analytic tool to be developed by the partners will help the city get real-time information about the crowdedness of public transport vehicles and take relevant measures to respond to the situation. Without the support of all citizens it will be impossible to limit the spread of the coronavirus in the city. We believe that engaging citizens is an important sign of solidarity in times of crisis and we hope that this project will help the city authorities make better informed decisions how to make the public transportation in the city safer.

What is your exact role in the CO-APS project?

Sofia is one of the pilot cities in the project and we are proud to be in the company of cities like Barcelona and Istanbul. The Bulgarian partners – Sofia Development Association and the Urban Mobility Center – will coordinate the pilot test of the mobile application and the analytic tool in the city. At the end of the project we will share the results and the experience with other cities around the country, so that they can improve their systems of prevention and protection against COVID-19 with the help of modern technologies.

Finally, the COVID-19 crisis is ongoing, but fortunately we know a lot more than we did 6 months ago. How do you see the future of the city and its public transport network?

Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria and the country’s largest city, with close to 1.5 million inhabitants. It is the only Bulgarian city with four modes of public transport such as buses, trams, trolleybuses and metro. Major investments for the construction of the metro, renovation of public transport vehicles and infrastructure have been made over the last years with the support of EU funds. In view of the city’s existing transport and mobility challenges, in addition to the new difficulties posed by COVID-19, one of the local authority’s main goals is to improve the conditions for strategic and spatial planning for urban mobility by improving urban logistics and introducing modern ICT technologies.

The city aims to develop a new mobility concept, being not only up to date with the dynamically transforming reality, but also exploring and presenting new scalable business models. Electric cars, car and ride-sharing applications, digital shift of transportation, mobility services based on electrical/autonomous vehicles etc. are some of the options being discussed.

Sofia Municipality is one of the cities that was awarded a project under the 5th call of the Urban Innovative Actions program in 2020. Between July 2020 and June 2023 the city will launch “On-demand green public transport”, which will shift the way public transport works. Instead of driving on pre-defined routes, the new e-buses will create route maps based on citizen demand submitted via mobile application. The app will leverage machine learning and advanced data analytics to create the most efficient path for each ride, collecting as many passengers as possible. This innovative public transport service will be implemented together with a wide array of initiatives: expanding the green and blue parking zones in downtown Sofia in order to create low emission zones; more green corridors; introducing congestion charges and new more flexible tariffs. This coordinated effort of Sofia shall reduce pollution and protect the air we share, while also modernizing and innovating our public transport.

In this respect, CO-APS fits very well with the city’s efforts to provide modern and safe transportation solutions to its citizens. We believe in the success of the initiative and strongly hope to continue the cooperation with all of the project partners in the future.

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