Port city of Ashdod seeks to be at forefront of ‘smart city’ push

Ashdod, which aims to become a test bed for smart transport solutions, calls on cities to join forces to crack puzzle of future mobility

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

The port city of Ashdod (Adi Israel)
The port city of Ashdod (Adi Israel)

The city of Ashdod is calling upon cities globally to join it in its efforts to solve the “soon-to be-crippling” urban issues of road safety, congestion, accessibility and pollution.

“We want to create a networking of cities and tell them, Let’s solve problems together,” Smadar Itskovich, the head of Industry Development Division at the Ashdod Municipality, said in a phone interview with The Times of Israel as the city held a roundtable on smart and autonomous public transportation as part of The Fuel Choices and Smart Mobility Summit being held in Tel Aviv on Tuesday and Wednesday.

At the event Itzkovich will present Ashdod’s Smart Mobility Living Lab, a joint venture it has set up with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and tech and smart transportation firms like Mobileye, a Jerusalem-based developer of advanced vision and driver assistance systems, Microsoft, and Gett, an on-demand mobility company, to make the city an international transportation lab for developing and testing advanced transportation systems.

The project will collect data from a number of sources — transportation apps, GPS navigation firms, on-demand mobility companies, and sensors set up on city streets and in bus stations and buses — and set up an open database that will be available to startups, government offices and academics who are interested in working on technologies to create future smart transport systems.

The project will also digitally map out the city that will enable it to serve autonomous vehicles in the future, Itskovich said. The city is also planning to launch a pilot project with Gett and Tel Aviv University to run on-demand transit vehicles, each holding 14 commuters in each, that will run in parallel to the city’s public transport system.

“We want to see how traffic can be reduced,” she said.

The port city of Ashdod, the nation’s sixth-largest city with 250,000 inhabitants, has a higher rate of car ownership than other Israeli cities and is thus fertile ground for smart transport experimentation. Israel ranks poorly in the use of public transportation compared to other developed countries.

In 2014, Ashdod was chosen by the Israel Transportation Department to be an $85 million test case for a reconceptualization of city mobility, called the ReWay. The challenge: to reduce car-ownership by increasing the use of walkways (ReWalk), bike paths (ReBike) and “smart” public lanes (ReBus).

As part of this project, the city is laying out fiber optic networks, setting up digital bus stations, installing sensors and traffic cameras on streets, buses and intersections, and installing smart traffic lights and a digitized control system for buses on what the city says will be the smartest road in Israel — a 10 kilometer strip (six mile) in the heart of the city. All this will connect via the cloud to a city control center centralized system connected to the Living Lab project, which will operate 24/7 and enable researchers and entrepreneurs to get data about traffic and driving patterns and test out their technologies locally.

Smadar Itskovich, the head of Industry Development Division at the Ashdod Municipality (Courtesy)

“It will be an open data source on human behavior that will belong to the public and be open to the public,” said Itskovich. “The idea is to create an infrastructure of information to change human behavior.”

As part of the project Ashdod is also deploying Mobileye technology on public vehicles to gain data about accident-prone areas in the city, similar to projects Mobileye has set up in London and Brooklyn.

Future innovation will be city-driven as cities are at the intersection between politics and policies and the “harsh realities of the urban experience,” said Itskovich.

“What we’d like to see is the setting up of an international consortium, with cities joining forces from all over the world, sharing solutions for common transportation problems, without being bound by politics, ideology and geography,” Itskovich said. “It is our hope that US cities, as well as other cities in the world, will join the Ashdod Smart Mobility Living Lab, so we can learn from each other’s successes and failures and develop the transportation system of the future together.”

The round table will be attended by municipal smart mobility specialists from London, Nice, Munich, Warsaw, and Helsinki in Europe; Ashdod, Jerusalem, Netanya, Eilat and Haifa in Israel; and Surrey in Canada.

Hosted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the fifth Fuel Choices and Smart Mobility Summit will assemble for two days in Tel Aviv decision makers and business leaders from around the world to discuss new approaches to transportation technologies and to promote Israel’s goal of reducing 60 percent of its oil consumption by 2025, according to the summit website.

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