Roads are nothing if not connected – they begin in one place, travel through many other places and end up at a different place. Along them now travel intelligent computers on wheels, multi-tasking travellers people connected to their in-car SatNav systems, radios and via their mobile phones to the internet. The technology is there, and the expectations are there, for instant communication of road information – closures, officially designated diversion routes, advanced warning signs, advice on driver behaviour.
Yet our physical network’s connectivity is not yet matched by a similar information connectivity. A visitor to Traffic England, our national flagship travel site, must choose in which Highways England contract areas to look at its map – even if travelling cross country from Bristol to Newcastle.
Traffic Managers wishing to optimise a diversion off the strategic network often don’t have an up-to-date route to choose, nor one that is automatically pre cleared of being free form Local Authority roadworks. Utilities interface with dozens of local, regional and national Highways Authorities with their different interpretations and applications of noticing and permit permissioning.
Access to critical data is available but in multiple places via different routes and regimes, or worst of all not available at all (yes still – even form public bodies). And attempts to create ecosystems of inter-operability across the boundaries of our highways infrastructure have resulted in that bane of public sector investment – the ambitious IT project which over-runs its time and costs and is not fit for purpose when it finally is completed.
The roots of this systemic information weakness are not difficult to analyse. First, the fact that our highways network is actually managed by over 200 different organisations does not facilitate the free movement of data – the fuel of information systems – across boundaries.
Second, the grip of a public sector contracting culture, focussed necessarily on long term infrastructural projects, driven to look at their own areas and economies of scale, means that information projects come a long way down in interest for senior decision makers.
And finally there is that peculiar fusion of the public sector, civil engineering and contracting cultures that favours large capital expenditure projects and really doesn’t understand anything more modest or agile.
However just as Government is now focussing on physical transport Infrastructure (launch of National infrastructure Commission under Lord Adonis) there is also the beginning of a focus on National Information Infrastructure. The Department for Transport has recently invested to create through Ordnance Survey the new Mastermap Integrated Transport Network layer, Local Authorities have created through an innovative public-private venture a national database of roadworks at roadworks.org, Highways England is working to fix the issue of Alternative Diversion Routes across the boundaries of the scores of Local Highways Authorities they affect, and the SatNav industry is making huge advances in taking official information sources and rendering them noise-free and real-time in such ways as to give practical benefit to motorists.
Representatives of these initiatives are coming together at Highways UK to debate Data as National Infrastructure and to offer a challenging view as to why data interoperability and infrastructure sits so low on the priorities of public transport infrastructure decision-makers and influencers.
Shane O’Neill is chairman of Elgin, the creator of roadworks.org – the local and national communications hub for live and planned roadworks, road closures and traffic disruptions.
Shane O’Neill – Chairman, Elgin