Putting the ‘where’ into transport

Nigel Robbins, Association for Geographic Information, looks at how transport and geography are inseparably linked

It is often stated that 85 per cent of all business information has a geographic context and the recent growth in the use of map-based applications has been a major emerging technology in the transport sector over the last decade. Just as in the property market, the understanding geography is equally valuable within the transport sector. This article explains the importance of geographic information to the transport sector, how such information can be used to the benefit of businesses and government and the issues this presents.

Why geography?
Management of transport-related information is vital to the effective planning and on-going operation of both passenger and freight transport. Demand for travel continues to increase and this brings pressures on the operation of our transport networks.
The efficient operations of these networks have become more critical to society and the economy, information management, including geographic information will play an increasing role. Geography and location are at the core of many of the issues currently confronting the transport industry. Understanding the importance and role of geographic information within this process can help bring better decision-making and efficiencies in the planning and operations of transport.
The Association for Geographic Information (AGI) is the UK body representing the professional interests of those working within the geographic information market. The AGI defines geographic information as ‘Information about objects or phenomena that are associated with a location relative to the surface of the Earth’. This is very generic statement.
Within transport, geographic information is normally associated with the presentation of supply (such as transport networks and their assets) and demand (such as customer locations or addresses). By integrating electronic mapping ranging from portal or in-built satellite navigation system through to Intelligent Transport Systems, including traffic control monitoring centres, geography can help underpin better-decisions.
In order to bring together mapping and geography-based data, software tools included within geographic information systems (or GIS as it is commonly termed) are increasingly being used to support the analysis of data and help improve the quality of decisions relating to, for example, transport network assets. The use of GIS technologies applied to transportation problems provides a rich toolset to help transport professionals manage and integrate supply and demand information (typically held in databases) linked to geographic features. For example, information on traffic flows could be portrayed within a GIS showing the associated road network links coloured according to flow level. The Highways Agency Traffic Map website provides such an example of an application where a GIS is used to show traffic delays on the network managed by the Highways Agency.
The decision to investigate the use of and implement a solution using geographic information will ultimately be driven by the need to solve a specific problem. There are several examples where geographic information is helping to solve real world problems.
Within the UK, retailers are utilising a range of computer-based vehicle scheduling technologies to plan and track deliveries from their warehousing facilities to the retail outlets or consumers. These tools use geography to support the calculation of routes and the associated schedules. Logistics companies may even use satellite navigation to track in real-time the progress of the delivery.
These powerful tools are helping retailers push down their costs of operation and improve service levels. Typically reductions in fleet size of 5-15 per cent and upwards of 20 per cent mileage savings are consistently being reported through numerous implementation case studies.

GIS technologies transcend government by supporting a range of decision-making processes. At the strategic level, geographic information can be used to support and inform a range of strategic options. During the planning process to assess network changes, accessibility measures may be developed and used to quantify the potential impact associated with network and route improvements. The Department for Transport in the UK, for example, has developed a toolset to assist local authorities to quantify measures of public transport accessibility. Within London, Transport for London uses two models to support accessibility – PTAIs and CAPITAL – both of which have been used to support the case for specific and significant transport capital investment programmes.
Likewise, the power of GIS to collate and analysis demand data (such as traffic movement data) and readily visualise changes arising from network amendments is significantly helping highway and public transport modellers and planners better understand the resulting potential network performance. Indeed, a recent award by the AGI for the innovative use of GIS technologies went to the Department for Transport for its Matrix website (www.dft.gov.uk/matrix/) which provides traffic flow information to support local, regional and national transport policy and planning.

At the operational level, GIS solutions are highly beneficial in supporting the management of transport networks – they help to answer a number of the ‘where’ questions. In England and Wales, for example, the new Traffic Management Act (TMA) legislation came into force in April 2008. The TMA is specifically designed to help reduce disruption to the road network by consolidating maintenance effort associated with street assets.
To ensure coordination of works on the highway network, the local authority and statutory undertakers (water, gas, electricity and telecoms companies etc) are required to share with each other the geographic location on where they propose to carry out works. This aims to provide improved coordination of asset management activities on the road network and reduce travel delays. The UK is now starting to see the development of solutions using embedded GIS technologies to show the location of these works and support the delivery of these coordinating solutions.

What are the challenges?
Geographic information is rapidly becoming a pervasive enabler of many different forms of transport-related applications from in car navigation through to national transport web sites (such as www.Transportdirect.info). Knowing the ‘where’ in response to questions about transport decisions will continue to be an essential information dimension. However, this poses potential issues, namely:

  • It is vital that a convincing business case exists to demonstrate the value of the expected investment. The extensive work of the US-based Geospatial Information and Technology Association (www.gita.org) as well as more recently AGI (www.agi.org.uk) can provide case examples of the financial business case for geographic information.
  • Sharing of geographic information will become more prevalent as the number of technologies consuming geographic information increases. This in itself creates challenges to ensure that this information sharing occurs within a standards-based and data-centric geographic framework. This will ensure that any form of collected data – for example, road incidents, asset locations – can all be shared and analysed with confidence by sharing, for example, the same positional accuracy of the captured datasets. In 2007, the EU introduced INSPIRE (Infrastructure for Spatial Information in Europe) directive, which will directly impact UK government with a transport interest by seeking to establish a framework for the sharing of geographic information.
  • Adoption of a single network model still eludes a number of transport authorities. The technology, rather than the data and information contained within the application are often seen as the main issues. However, creating unified networks is vital to the success and sharing of information within transport authorities. By adopting a standard referenced network model to which a variety of transport-related information can be linked will make the process of sharing information across and between the organisation much easier.

Supporting industry
The AGI has recently established a Transport Special Interest Group. It is clear that the AGI has an important role to play in helping organisations understand the value of geography within the transport arena, to raise awareness with key decision-makers, particularly in government, as well as promoting best practice. Whether it is in the strategic planning or operational management of transport operations and networks, geographic information and its associated technologies will become increasingly important to helping to create and sustain efficient operations. By putting the ‘where’ into transport decision, geographic information within the transport arena has a vibrant future.

Nigel Robbins is managing director of GeoSolveIT and Chair of the AGI Transport SIG. The views expressed in this article are his own. Contact details – tel: 01372 825 184, e-mail: nigel.robbins@geosolveit.com

For more information
For those interested in participating, information about the AGI Transport Special Interest Group can be found on the AGI website www.agi.org.uk or e-mail info@agi.org.uk

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