Andy Peart outlines how local authorities can utilise tech and data to inform their highways asset management decisions and bring in a new environmental dimension.
The science of strategic highways asset management is going through seismic change. Historically, the approach focused on gauging the financial impact of different road repair and maintenance decisions. Local authorities had to weigh up whether it made sense to save money at the outset by using a less expensive surface treatment, only to have to spend more down the line on road repairs or additional surface dressings. On the other hand, they had to assess whether using more durable but expensive materials from the word go would ultimately prove an economically-sounder decision.
This model is now rapidly evolving. There are a range of drivers. Residents are much more attuned to the importance of sustainable construction. They care about the highways development and maintenance process being environmentally efficient. They want the carbon footprint generated across the highways lifecycle to be kept to a minimum. But they also want councils to take a broader perspective and think about how decisions made about highways management and maintenance might impact the wider community.
Government is also becoming more cogniscent of environmental factors in the way it allocates funding to local authority highways departments. Questions relating to sustainability have recently been included for the first time in the Local Highways Maintenance Incentive Fund.
The impact of technological advances
To meet these kinds of drivers, new predictive analytics technology is now coming on stream, allowing local authorities to base highways management and maintenance decisions on their impact on the wellbeing of residents and the local economy and environment, as well as financial cost and road condition. Thanks to these advances, the authorities can move beyond a pure focus on road conditions to thinking much more about where roads are located, who is using them and what the overall environmental impact of their construction and maintenance will be.
Part of this may be around the ability to analyse where pinch points on the network are causing cars to idle at junctions for long periods of time. Part of it may be around better understanding how infrastructure decisions impact the quality of life in specific neighbourhoods: including projected job creation, support for economic growth, environmental impact, and changes in levels of access to important public resources such as hospitals and schools.
However, a key element of the equation will inevitably be around the treatment used on the surface of the road. Many local authorities are working with larger contractors. The local authority effectively manages the highway while the contractors go out and lay the tarmac, and, increasingly today as they are doing that, collect information about temperature and CO2 emissions from the scheme. Typically, they will have specifications around different treatments.
These might include assigning a carbon or NOx output to a treatment that can then get added to the overall lifecycle model. It is another example that demonstrates how highways lifecycle planning is becoming ever greener today.
Many councils are still in the early stages of trying to roll put this kind of approach and currently, they are still trying to understand what their baseline is. They need the ability to model these kinds of factors quickly in order to be able to support the decision-making process on new road builds. It may be a nuanced final decision if, for example, one choice may be more expensive financially but also likely to deliver lower carbon output over time compared to the alternatives.
Flexibility of choice
The aim of any asset management solution in this space is not to drive the council’s end decision in any specific direction, it is more around giving local authorities the ability to run different scenarios and then put those options in front of their senior decision-makers. This need to be done as part of an approach which effectively says – ultimately it your decision but we are giving you the best available information to make it.’
These are complex judgements, after all. Low carbon treatments for highways assets are often cheap to invest in. They are therefore attractive to local authorities who want to go ahead quickly with an environmentally-friendly approach. However, if the council is going to have to re-apply the treatment every year, it is going to end up costing more and it is going to output more carbon. So authorities really need to look beyond short-term gains. In this case, for example, they need to consider whether it might be better to stick to the original road surface, which may be higher carbon at the outset but require much less carbon to maintain over a 30-year lifecycle.
To properly assess that decision, local authorities will need to have the right data available to them, together with the relevant skills to assess that data and the ability to spend time on it and deliver it. Most importantly they will need the right asset management software solution delivered by a vendor they can trust and that can also deliver expert consultancy on top. If they get that formula right, to broaden the overall picture that informs their highways asset management decisions, including bringing a new environmental dimension into it.
Andy is a marketing leader and business strategist with 30+ years’ experience in the AI and B2B software sector. Working with connected asset management leader, Yotta, Andy heads their marketing function and helps ensure the company’s innovative software drives business benefit for its 200+ public and private sector customers. www.weareyotta.com
Yotta are exhibiting once again at Highways UK this year on 2-3 November at the NEC in Birmingham on stand I4