What does the Big Data revolution mean for the future of highways?

What does the Big Data revolution mean for the future of highways?

Volume, velocity, variety, variability, veracity… These words can only be describing one thing – the dimensions of Big Data. The prospect of using Big Data is intriguing and innovative as it offers previously unimaginable advantages in comparison to traditional data sources. Like the Internet, Big Data is another game changer that will revolutionise the way businesses and society operates. Continuous advances in Big Data architecture and technology have increased the potential for businesses and governments to analyse their data, and to use actionable insight to make informed decisions.

Big Data is being used by public agencies and consultancies to answer numerous transportation questions. In addition to estimating origins, destinations and routing patterns, such as where vehicles join and exit roads, the high degree of spatial and temporal accuracy of some data sources makes it possible to precisely pinpoint the location of vehicles. As such, real-time data can be used for incident detection, queue monitoring, congestion alerts, routeing, and planning and performance measurement.

Off-the-shelf and custom products for Big Data offer excellent tools to compare traffic patterns and conditions on roads or geographical areas for road planning and analysis of improvement schemes. Different data sources can also be combined providing invaluable information for transport planners, for example, the ability to assess the level of risk posed by the incursion of HGVs into cycle routes.

Securely stored and correctly understood, Big Data is a treasure trove that can improve day-to-day customer experience and business needs. But with such an enormous amount of data pouring into organisations, the question arises of how to present Big Data in a way that decision makers can understand. Although the promises and possibilities of Big Data are evident, the challenge is extracting the right information, for a reasonable cost and in an appropriate timescale.

As good as it seems, can Big Data succeed as a wholesale replacement of traditional methods in transport planning and operation? Our current challenge is to integrate Big Data analysis into traditional systems in real time, for example to set and adjust thresholds and tolerances to reflect behaviour. In the future we need to see how we can better use Big Data in a cost-efficient manner to prime and monitor operational systems with significant learning capability for operating and managing our transport networks. This will help the systems become far more agile and responsive to changing conditions and be much better at optimising the results.

A lot of work still needs to be done to realise the potential of Big Data; there is no one-size fits all approach to its application and use. Careful consideration needs to be given to which data-sets can be used and how to derive the information sought.

This blog is co-authored by Arcadis’ Olga Feldman and David Threlfall. Olga is the consultant’s big data and land use analytics director, David is its innovative highways technology director. The pair will be expanding on these ideas in an industry briefing session on 16 November, part of the extensive free-to-attend fringe programme at this year’s Highways UK


Olga Feldman and David Threlfall

Olga Feldman and David Threlfall – Directors of Big Data, land use analytics and innovative highways technologies, Arcadis

Strategic alliance at the heart of transport infrastructure

Strategic alliance at the heart of transport infrastructure

Together our networks form a transport system that is itself part of a much wider infrastructure system, one that helps define the fabric of our society. We all know that a failure to invest in maintaining our existing infrastructure leads to decline, not just in terms of infrastructure quality, but also economic competitiveness. It was no surprise that when reflecting on the Government’s focus on productivity many commentators focused on the critical importance of transport.

Increasingly our expectations as businesses, as individuals, as consumers of transport is for a transport system that provides us with choice, that is reliable, one that has the capability to deal not only with growth but also changes in the way we conduct our lives.

Little surprise then that our transport infrastructure has to cope with so many pressures – the need to cater for longer-distance movements whilst respecting local priorities and sensitivities; the need to manage the impact of existing movement whilst also enabling growth to take place; the need to maintain what we have whilst also investing in the capacity required to support growth.

These pressures are played out no more explicitly than across England’s Economic Heartland Strategic Alliance – a partnership of Local Transport Authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships.

Originally an initiative of the Political leadership in Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire, the partnership has recently welcomed Milton Keynes, Bedford Borough, Central Bedfordshire and Luton as the added value of strategic, sub-national planning is recognised more widely.

The Alliance area is at the heart of science and technology enabled innovation in the UK. It is an area of economic success, one in which investment in infrastructure delivers higher returns faster, an area that makes a financial contribution to the Chancellor that benefits UK plc as a whole. This success brings with it pressures on the transport networks that criss-cross the Heartland area; notwithstanding our economic success the productivity gap with global competitors remains.

In addition, our transport networks need to accommodate the flow of goods and people associated with growth right across the UK. Think of it: the flow of material through our international ports along the south coast from Southampton right round to Felixstowe, the overwhelming majority of it has to transits through the Alliance area – truly our transport networks are at the heart of the UK.

The Strategic Transport Forum is the Alliance’s response to the need for leadership on strategic infrastructure: a new sub-national partnership, one that comprises local partners, Government, its agencies, infrastructure owners and transport service providers.

Our purpose is simple: to provide the strategic leadership that enables our networks to be planned and developed as a transport system. It is our opportunity to provide clarity on strategic priorities that gives confidence to our existing businesses that their transport needs will be met, as well as encouraging new investors to come to the UK.

Working collaboratively we can ensure that the transport system is greater than the sum of the individual networks, that we share knowledge and experience to simplify processes, that we draw on the experience of the private sector to complement that of the public sector.

The Government’s introduction of an amendment to its Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill to enable sub-national transport partnerships is recognition of the added value of strategic planning.

The commitment to establish a National Infrastructure Commission on a statutory basis with a remit to consider transport infrastructure needs alongside those of digital infrastructure, energy supply and distribution, water and waste infrastructure is further acknowledgement of the critical importance of co-ordinating investment at scale.

Sub-national partnerships have the potential to use their experience on strategic transport to develop a comprehensive approach to strategic infrastructure more generally. That in turn would help the Commission ensure the UK plans for and delivers the infrastructure required to improve productivity to that of our global competitors.

Sub-national partnerships, such as England’s Economic Heartland Strategic Alliance, are opportunities for genuinely collaborative working across levels of Government, between public and private sectors. The opportunity is right here, right now.


Martin Tugwell

Martin Tugwell – Programme Director, England’s Economic Heartland Strategic Alliance