Congestion challenges can be overcome by collaborative approaches and better use of data

Profile picture for user Mark Samuels By Mark Samuels July 12, 2018
While traffic problems mean big costs for UK businesses and citizens, smart use of big data can help reduce the long-term damage

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Public sector and transport industry IT leaders must make the most of the big data they collect and work collaboratively across organisational boundaries to help solve the UK’s congestion crisis.

That was the conclusion from a recent roundtable held in London by geographical information systems (GIS) specialist Esri UK, which brought together mapping and data technologists from across Britain.

Estimates from the Centre for Economics and Business Research suggest traffic congestion will cost the UK economy about £307 billion by 2030. Financial costs are not the only potential danger, with experts suggesting the congestion crisis also leads to damaging social effects, including increased pollution and decreased wellness.

While concerns associated to congestion are acute, the evidence presented by technology leaders at the roundtable suggested there are reasons to be hopeful. These executives demonstrated how their organisations are using a combination of data and collaboration to reduce the risks associated to congestion.

Finding the catalyst to help the business believe in technology

Fiona Clowes, GIS manager at Transport for London (TfL), said her organisation has been using big data to help manage congestion. She said TfL uses enterprise GIS as-a-service capability to deliver web-based maps and high-quality data to help executives make better decisions:

As much as possible, all individuals work together and share data. We’re trying to create one source of the truth and remove data duplication. Before we introduced the technology, information was disparate and people were working in silos. We needed to create an enterprise-wide view of data so we could work more efficiently.

Clowes said TfL worked with Esri UK in the build-up to the London Olympic Games in 2012 and realised the organisation needed tools to help with traffic management. That realisation was the catalyst for creating a web-based platform that all users could log into and see what was happening in terms of transport management across London, said Clowes:

The success of that development opened the business’ eyes to the capability. Now we have a playbook of business cases and users have an information portal that gives them information to plan changes to the road network. They get visibility of potential changes during the next ten years and we can co-ordinate roadworks.

Clowes said TfL is keen to do more work in terms of sharing information. The first aim is to implement GIS as-a-service capability across the whole business to help improve access to data. Second, Clowes said it would be good to increase cross-organisation information sharing – but she says key challenges remain:

We can readily share information with government partners but it’s tough externally. We want to use open source technology, so we can share information with satellite navigation companies, the public, and anyone who wants to use it. We wouldn’t push out everything – not everything is ready for public consumption. But we’ll make the right decisions at the right time.

Using data to underpin work on congestion management

Stuart Lester, data innovation lead at Transport for West Midlands, said his organisation has a wealth of transport management projects taking place due to the construction of high-speed railway HS2, Coventry being named UK City of Culture for 2021, and the 2022 Commonwealth Games taking place in Birmingham:

There’s lots happening and it’s a chance for the region to shine. But we don’t have a well-developed regional transport network, so we must focus on connectivity. The existing network is heavily congested and we need to reduce capacity to increase it – the West Midlands Mayor is currently working on an action plan, which will include things like more trains at peak times and improvements to the bus network, which will provide an efficiency boost in terms of transportation.

Lester recognises congestion is a big issue that his organisation must mitigate. Demand management is key and traffic data will play a crucial role, said Lester:

Data underpins our work. The key benefit of a technology like GIS is collaboration between bodies and that creates new benefits for the public. We’re creating events, so we can talk with businesses and inform people of changes in the network. That creates a sense of trust and makes people realise that co-ordination makes sense. If we do that successfully, it might lead to a permanent change in commuter behaviour, too. The technology’s there to enable positive change – it’s just taken a long time to get there. Public sector organisations have matured and recognise the importance of using technology and sharing data.

Bringing everyone together to develop a clear view of targets

Daniel Irwin, GIS manager at Crossrail, says he has used information to help manage traffic and reduce the impact of the construction of the new high-capacity railway. The amount of work that has taken place on Crossrail during the past 10 years has been huge but the public and often unaware the work is happening, said Irwin:

So much has been done in the background in terms of planning to reduce the impact. We’ve used spatial analysis to identify schools and sent mails shots about potential disruption. The same is true with members of the public – we could use the technology to identify who we needed to talk to quickly, rather than a long-winded, logistical process. The key is making data more accessible to people. Having information held in one place – where it isn’t locked away and you can self-serve – is crucial.

Irwin gave other examples of how Crossrail used data to reduce congestion during the construction process. The organisation used GIS capability to track and trace the movement of spoil from construction sites to the coast in Essex. The approach helped reduced congestion across London. Irwin says Crossrail continues to use technology to pay close attention to traffic management in the run-up to the opening of the railway later this year:

Because we’re a project with a laser focus on delivery, we only have one set of systems. We can’t have disparate systems – we must have one central portal that everyone goes through and that means we can’t have data sitting all over the place. Contractors, for example, could log into our systems rather than passing data to us. That meant we could all collaborate internally and externally with contractors, ensuring that there were no issues or clashes. It made everything work a lot cleaner than might otherwise have been the case.