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Keeping the road user satisied

Can open data help us balance user needs with other competing objectives and deliver proactive highways maintenance?

Teresa Jolley
27 May 2016

The need to prioritise user needs for our local roads has been gaining momentum over recent years. The challenge is how do we best understand and capture these needs, and balance them against other competing objectives such as financial, political and technical requirements?  

A simple answer would be to ask people, but as I heard from Nic Cary, head of digital transformation and open data at the DfT, that doesn’t deliver the best results. Speaking at the Smart Internet of Things event at London ExCeL on 12 April, Nic quoted Peter Ayton, professor of psychology at City University, London, explaining that “To understand user need, the last thing you should do is ask them. Focus groups don’t get the best results. Opinion married to behaviour is more reliable.” 

The TRL Highways Service Levels report, Project Report 251, published in 2007 (authors Vijay Ramdas, Craig Thomas (TRL) and Carole Lehman, Dan Young (Ipsos MORI)) explored the relationship between user survey results and engineering standards. The purpose of the study, on behalf of the DfT, was to ascertain the likely levels of service the public expected for the surface of local carriageways, cycle tracks and footways, and to explore correlation between this and the results of condition surveys and engineering standards. 

The study found that, whilst there was overall consistency in the general expectations of users, user responses based on recalled attitudes were different to more considered views. The initial response at the start of the discussions tended to be more negative than the views expressed later in the discussion. e.g., regards levels of satisfaction, initial response of “poor” and “unsatisfactory”, changed to “fair” and “ok”. 

The study concludes: “This has implications for routine customer satisfaction surveys, carried out by local authorities and the Highways Agency (now Highways England), where only initial responses are captured. This suggests there is a need to re-examine the design of questionnaires for future surveys.” 

As to the correlation between user experiences and engineering standards, the findings in the West Sussex test area were mixed: 

  • Locations of bumps and jolts aligned well with high values of 3m and 10m LPV, and the bump measure 

  • No rutting present, so not possible to correlate with user perceptions

  • Lack of grip was an issue of concern for all road users (drivers, cyclists and pedestrians), with some alignment between user experience and lengths where the measured texture was low

  • Transverse unevenness, and Edge Deterioration Index did not align with user perceptions, and may be appropriate only as engineering parameters.

So, if asking users directly what they need doesn’t give us what we’re after, and there isn’t a clear and obvious correlation from engineering standards we can rely on, what should we do?

As Nic Cary pointed out, we already have quite a sophisticated series of monitoring and sensoring equipment within our local road networks. If user needs are best understood by monitoring and observing behaviours, then can we not make more effective use of the existing and future sensor and monitors available to us to capture, model and understand user needs? 

The data from asset-based sensors and monitors could give congestion and traffic flows, whilst anonymised data from users could give behavioural context/experiences e.g., mobile phones, vehicles, satnavs, social media, personal monitoring equipment etc, when mapped to specific geographic locations. 

Instead of data on road condition and engineering standards being separate from user and behavourial experiences, we’d be bringing these different datasets together in new and novel ways to gain a much deeper understanding of how local highways networks work. In turn, this would enable us to predict and forecast more easily, and plan the works and maintenance required to meet users needs. 

To bring these multiple worlds together requires several things to happen:

  1. more complex models available to crunch and model the data 

  2. data available in accessible, usable and shareable formats 

  3. data accessible to the people with the skills and capabilities to bring this data together in new ways and solve challenges.

Local highways authorities and their suppliers are already compiling and utilising highways asset condition and inventory data into virtual models to help prioritise, plan and fund highways maintenance activities. 

The next natural evolution along this path is to make the highways asset condition and inventory data available in accessible, usable and shareable formats so it can be combined with behavioural and use data to provide intelligence on user needs. Of course this needs to be supplemented with capturing user opinions and aligning this with the raw data to assist in understanding, but this is much more robust and evidence-based approach to understanding and utilising user priorities and needs.

Whilst of course there are technological challenges to overcome to achieve this, the most significant challenge we face are cultural ones, in particular, as summarised by Nic Cary:

  • shifting from our traditional hierarchical organisational structures and behaviours to a flatter, collaborative open approach within, across and between businesses and sectors

  • working from an evidence base rather than business need, and being mindful of using business need as a proxy for user need, when we really need to be working directly with users. 

All those working in the local highways sector are rising to this challenge, and it requires a new set of skills, capabilities and understanding to make sense of it. We’ve created the Future of Local Highways Delivery conference 2016 to help meet these needs.

Teresa Jolley is Future Highways programme lead at Landor LINKS, and secretariat for the independent, not-for-profit Future Highways Forum.

The ‘Future of Local Highways 2016: transforming delivery models to prioritise user needs’, conference is being held in central Birmingham on 5 July. 

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