Understanding the “roadscape”, the answer to life, the universe and everything?


(Definition- Roadscape ‘the area around the road in the public domain, or ‘between the fences’’)

What are roads?

Whatever they were originally built for, the roads we use today are a constantly changing corridor of activity. How they are used varies through the day and with the seasons, depending on the communities and places which they connect, the development which has built up alongside, above and even below them. Consider a village high street and how different it looks on the day of the local carnival, during digging to install new fibre broadband or on the first day it rains after the schools go back in September, with parents ferrying students to an unfamiliar place. The groups of people interested and active in the roadscape changes significantly over time and also and rapidly with events, but does anyone take a strategic view?

Economists discuss how efficient transport links (including roads) give people “access to economic mass”, through which they are able to reach training and opportunities to earn and spend money. Roads, however, are more than economic assets, they provide space and access to social infrastructure too, places like playable streets and attractive pocket parks. Efficient high streets, as the research from Space Syntax shows, are both a destination and also a route to other places.

Whatever functions it fulfils, the roadscape is first and foremost a useful space. On the surface, roads are, relatively, clear patches of land that we use for cars, and other modes of transport. The space above and below the road surface is used for other pieces of linear infrastructure. Underground, the area uncluttered by foundations is used for pipes which bring us water and power, above our heads that building free area is used for telephones lines and CCTV cameras to connect people in other ways with the rest of the world.

Whilst heavy traffic has a known impact on air quality and noise levels around roads, the footways and cycle paths are important contributors
to human health. These active travel routes provide interesting locations for exercise and safe walking routes for vulnerable groups such as the elderly to reach their destination independently.

In both rural and urban areas, roads act as population concentrators. In a given space on the road you are much more likely to encounter people than on the same amount of space either side. As a result, it is the area around the road where there is the greatest demand for phone signal and information about air quality and noise levels, keeping people safe both during normal times and, in particular, in the event of an emergency.

Finally, roads can also be more than the physical feature. Because roads have developed in sympathy with the geography of a place, they follow rivers, crossing them where it is safest to do so, as a result, roads are a natural choice as a boundary between areas of responsibility. In most cases this division is entirely sensible, but when population density is high, people access services on both sides of the road. So, unless different authorities can easily access and aggregate information, services risk being in the wrong place and people risk being poorly served.

Until now we’ve just thought about existing uses for roads, but there are new technologies emerging which will generate new questions about how we use the roadscape in the future. Questions such as;

  • Should electric scooters use the cycle lane?
  • Where should autonomous vehicles park whilst the occupant is meeting a friend?
  • What restrictions should we apply to the flying and parking of drones (unmanned aerial vehicles)?

The need for a strategic view of how and who uses the spaces on and around our roads is only going to grow. Roads and the roadscape constitute a large part of what we might describe as the public realm, where there is a high concentration of people and services delivered to them. Those people and groups represent a complex stakeholder ecosystem that is also worth examining.

The Stakeholder Ecosystem

If we limit ourselves to thinking about who is responsible for a road solely for the purpose of surface transport we are already navigating between a network of councils (parish, county or borough), highways agencies and transport authorities. As we broaden the consideration to the space above or below the surface, the verge, run out, pavement, cycle and bus lanes and increase the scope of use of the space beyond surface transport, we see a steep rise in the number of interested parties. There are the groups whose businesses, homes and assets are adjacent to the roadscape public realm or perhaps puncture the road surface. All of these groups care deeply about parking restrictions, traffic calming measures and cycle lanes and also need to use the space to service the signal cabinet or cordon off a section to clean the care home windows.

By definition, stakeholders contribute to and benefit from the existence of the roadscape and we hope that they will all be using accurate and relevant information to derive insight, make good decisions and take in to account the needs of others. As more information and data becomes available from a vast array of new sensors, the risks grow that those different stakeholders are unaware of the data which has been commissioned, collected and paid for. As a result, stakeholders might spend money on collecting the same information or risk not using all the best and available information to make decisions because that’s the way it has always been done. In such a complicated stakeholder ecosystem how do these different groups decide on the best course of action for themselves and for the whole roadscape? For example, is it best to be sustainable or economically efficient, should we prioritise cars or pedestrians and what is the difference between the options? If such a person existed, charged with making the best decision, do they even have the information available to them that they need in order to take a truly strategic view?

Doomsday, everybody knows about their thing, but nobody knows about everything

We have learned that the roadscape is a space that delivers many different services to many different groups of people who do not necessarily have the means or motivation to collaborate. If they were all able to start on the same page, using common, high-quality data to make decisions, how might people use and change the roadscape and the services which the space provides, for the better?

Sadly, we have evidence of the results when information sharing should have but didn’t happen. In the serious floods of December 2015, several roads including the A591 and Tadcaster bridge were damaged. Transport links were lost, communities were divided and, in addition, vital elements of the communication and power infrastructure were affected. As often happens, pipes and cables were concentrated alongside the road and on to one of the few accessible river crossings. Everybody knew that their pipe was on the roadside or on the bridge but sadly no one knew that everybody’s pipe was on the bridge. As a result, the risk of the road becoming inoperable was managed as a risk to the transport system rather than taking a strategic view of the risk to critical infrastructure, considering system interdependency and protecting the population appropriately.

More recently, during the first lockdown of 2020, service providers were seeking to support vulnerable customers. However, the definition of vulnerable had changed with the onset of the pandemic and teams found themselves with insufficient information on households and how to access them. Councils were short of the skills, equipment and information they needed to form a complete picture about individual and community needs. Information silos in different sectors and authorities with different areas of responsibility struggled to get services to those in need of reliable phone signals and healthcare whilst local authorities and national bodies had to make decisions based on an incomplete picture.

All over the UK, roads which exist in different authority areas can be maintained to different regimes whilst the data necessary to make the best decisions is not shared, commissioned and paid for multiple times or made available only on restrictive terms. This waste of money is not only inefficient but risks the lives and livelihoods of people who trust business and the public sector to take a view on the best available data.

If that is doomsday, what is Utopia?

The roadscape has the potential to act as the hub of a community and an enabler for safety, efficiency and human happiness. In the way that services are integrated around the location of a road, common interoperable data about the roadscape should be used to enable strategic decision making. Information on everything from the condition of trees to the status of streetlights and the nature of the road surface, is available and can be used to help; drivers choose routes which give vehicles the longest battery range; maintenance workers arrive on site with the correct equipment; and passengers choose the safest location to leave vehicles.

A common data asset which is maintained as an infrastructure and made available to all users will enrich the trade-off discussions between economic efficiency and sustainability and allow collaboration on street works and future planning. It can support both functional decisions about response to Ash Dieback and location-based decisions which mayors might make about transitioning roads from serving primarily motorised vehicles in to quiet cycle ways and community hubs. This data asset should also allow people to peek over the border of their areas to get a better understanding of the whole roadscape; does the stretch of road on my side of the boundary have as many accidents as the same length stretch on the other side, for example?

Of course, different groups and individuals have very different appetites for data. Some like to wrangle with the original code and discover previously unconsidered correlations, others want simple alerts such as “the bus stop is standing in a pool or water” or a new structure is obscuring your asset’s view of the junction”. The trick is to collate data in a way that everyone is seeing a true, common and relevant picture that has been collated and maintained in an efficient way.

How to get there

Bringing all the relevant data together in the same way that roads bring all the various stakeholders and functions of the roadscape together has huge potential benefits to an enormous number of people. We see good examples already, of efficient “collect once, use many times” high definition, location verified image data, used to

  • prioritise maintenance interventions,
  • plan and measure the impact of active travel schemes, and

support drivers looking for safe places to collect and drop off passengers which don’t interfere with other road users.

The Cabinet Office trial, bringing together underground asset data from different suppliers to support safe working and reduce congestion is a terrific real life example showing that data has much more value when it is shared and used rather than hoarded.

The rate at which data is being created will continue to increase, being beamed from sensors on bridges, smart bike lights and with every key stroke of our smart phones. Some of that data is immediately useful, other data sets will need some exploration before they are found to be useful and some may never be exploited. As with all technology, data without a use case it is nothing but a toy. However, by playing and experimenting with data we might start to see that it is better than what already existed or allows us to meet a need that wasn’t described before.

Enterprises of all shapes and sizes are already struggling to learn how best to find, use and transact the data. Experience tells us that it’s easier to start collating and using data in a limited way, such as using internal data to efficiently extend the life of an asset (like a bridge or a pump) and understand how the same asset behaves in a variety of different circumstances and settings. (How much more rusty do seaside traffic lights get than those further in land?)

There are some great examples and we are most excited by people using new capabilities to combine data, showing the road as it is being experienced by users.

  • Image data [Mobileye] which is taking using the power of the crowd to regularly update information about the roadscape that might have previously only been surveyed annually.
  • Vehicle data [NIRA] which shows how vehicles are responding in different places and in different conditions to the road. This data which can be combined with accident statistics and customer complaints to prioritise interventions by authorities.
  • Data from scooters and bikes which contrasts the 2-wheel drive path with that of 4 wheeled vehicles and how these change following the addition of cycle lanes.
  • Information from drivers, passengers, cyclists and pedestrians and how they behave in a multi modal environment and how they might like to see it changed.

These are exciting and interesting times when we know it is possible to take a strategic view for the benefit of all road users. We can prioritise emergency vehicles and give them a green light journey through a congested city centre or advise goods vehicles the optimum speed at which they can do the same. Public authorities are seizing the initiative and working to combine data beyond silos to get better outcomes for people and in Greenwich we are seeing the live trialling of new technology to assess both that technology and community response to it.

But will it happen?

There is a risk that with all the excitement and discovery of the art of the possible that the missing piece of co-ordination never happens. As the price of capturing, storing and processing data continues to fall the marginal effort of co-ordination seems to increase; resulting in different people paying for slightly different, or even worse, the same, information which never quite joins up. Poor quality information which creates arguments rather than insight with people exchanging competing spreadsheets rather than exploring the data from different perspectives and making good decisions. There are promising signs that a well organised and tech savvy local or national entity could take responsibility for grounding a big group of interested parties with a common, quality and well referenced data set about the roadscape but it is also a risk that everyone waits for a tech giant to take on the challenge and keeps their fingers crossed that they make it available for a reasonable price with reasonable terms.

However big the risk of lack of co-ordination is, the risks posed by increasingly unpredictable weather events are much, much greater for humanity. Floods are often the problem we think about in this country, but what sort of flood? The flood that creates surface water and increases the risk of skidding or the slightly different type that soaks embankments and risks creating a landslide? Which road should we worry most about and invest most in securing? The road connecting a rural community or the one which supports medicine deliveries for hospitals, and what if that is the same road? Unless we consider the cross functional nature of roads and their role as a public asset we certainly won’t be having the right conversations about averting a disaster we could all see coming.

There are clear benefits in cost saving, increased asset life and public safety from collaborating across public and private sectors with data, from both new and existing sources, in the roadscape. Just think about the data you would benefit from having the next time you drive, walk or shop in a roadside location. It might not be the answer to life, the universe and everything but it will make a real difference to everyone.

To hear more about how Gaist contribute to a strategic understanding of the roadscape, contact jake.lawson@gaist.co.uk

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