Around the town

Wherever you’re driving, cycling, walking or taking public transport, Reading Council’s traffic management system will help you to get around more easily

Written by Simon Beasley, Reading Council

Where was a time when the challenge of building a real time travel information system was accessing the necessary data. Today, with data quite literally available in abundance, the challenge is delivery. At a time of dynamic change in the way people access information, the question facing local authorities is how the data that sits within their central systems can be made available to the widest possible audience.
Universal Traffic Management Control (UTMC) Authorities have been collecting a mass of data from their traffic management, real time bus information and car park management systems for some time. For Reading Borough Council who also collect train information all of this information has been presented to the public via a website, Whilst councils realise the value of this information within the greater traffic management context it is not easily located or usable on the move.
For Reading the implementation of digital media is now underway. An early initiative that has been used by many UTMC authorities is to incorporate still CCTV traffic images on the website. SMS text service has also been used for car park alerts and in many cases payment. RTI systems traditionally deliver their information to bus users via screens at bus stops and on buses.

Real time information

For a public for whom information channels were at that time more or less limited to paper and the telephone, this is all exciting stuff. The challenge is that the expectations of the community have changed dramatically over a relatively short period of time. When the SMS service was launched it was genuinely pioneering. In an era of iPhones, it seems positively clunky. The same can be said of still CCTV images that appear on websites. In the era of webcams, still images no longer excite.
The introduction of live travel information has seen CCTV stills replaced by live video clips. Websites offer a range of cameras and views making it possible for the traveller to select the camera/junction that they wanted to view. Live traffic views in the form of video clips has increased interest in council traffic websites and through the use of Windows, QuickTime and Real Player this is boosted further. Click and play has a dramatic impact on web stats with an immediate uplift of between 10 and 15 per cent. When there are problems or events affecting traffic visitor figures on council web services can reach record levels.
Whilst there is a focus on web services councils are also conscious that there are those who have not yet engaged with the Internet. Within Reading, InterGlossa’s voice response “Call Your Stop” service was introduced for travellers on the move wanting car park, rail or bus information.
Live data can now be presented to the travelling public via an interactive map solution that can be accessed via mobile phones. This solution provides comprehensive multi-modal data on departure times, routes etc, accessible at a click of an icon. And it is possible to build your own personal bus departure board. So, for example, if you want to know the time of the next bus from a particular bus stop, you can find the stop on the map and click or put in your postcode. Either way, the system will tell you what time the next bus will arrive, even how far away the bus stop is.
Other services being developed by councils include a journey time planner function that allows the traveller to pick a certain route and collect a basket of relevant information, for instance journey times, which bus to use, how far to walk, modal choice options, bus and driving time predictions with alerts to issues that may affect that journey such as road works.

Challenges ahead
The challenge moving forward is trying to present RTI in its various forms as an integrated whole. Through UTMC a more holistic approach can be taken to the various strands of information and presented to the public as whole. UTMC is a set of standards and specifications that offers data through a common framework making it easier to get a single picture.
This holistic approach can be presented on digital screens offering traveller information tailored to the specific location or user. For instance, digital screens within a public building such as a theatre, swimming pool or library can offer traveller information alongside event information specific to that establishment. By using digital screens an element of paid advertising can also be incorporated creating revenue that helps to fund the roll out of such technology. For pioneering councils coverage can be extended through Section 106 agreements helping new developments offer traveller choice.
Smart info pods can also be found around the retail areas within our towns and cities. These can be developed to incorporate UTMC traveller information alongside localised information to that specific area or facility. Once data is in a web page it can be easily fed into a whole variety of delivery channels. With a template system for the digital media screen advertisers can create their own promotional material without the need for additional staff or training. The final display, which allows data to be selected and allocated to various parts of the screen can be deployed on a calendar type schedule so events and transport data can be uploaded in advanced. Once the template is set up there is a continuous data feed from the UTMC database to the web page. Screens can be refreshed regularly to ensure that the information displayed is always fresh. The attraction of digital media is that it allows information from a variety of sources to be displayed together. UTMC has brought travel data together with web providing a platform to present it in an integrated way. By pulling everything together on one screen it gives much greater flexibility in providing traveller information in places and to people that need it now.
By embracing digital media systems within RTPI systems information can be delivered to public transport users in a clearer more informed way with the potential to include local information and advertising.
With so much effort going into delivering ITS, the big question is whether it actually makes a difference. Many councils are confident that it does. Many will point to the value of variable message signs (VMS) that provide driver information to the roadside. Equally, web stats show that when there is a big event or major traffic issues people do check travel information online. Councils will also point out that delivering ITS is not just about network management, business continuity is a big issue for all and if there is a major incident getting information to the public is vital.

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