Using big data to improve transport’s green credentials

Professor Susan Grant-Muller

One of  a series of podcast interviews (audio only) by the Transport Systems Catapult, entitled ‘Exchanging knowledge and sharing ideas on Intelligent Mobility’ in which experts highlight key areas on the road to Intelligent Mobility and to discuss their visions of the future.

The kind of research that I do concerns mobility profiling and the use of intelligent incentives, so that people can make more sustainable choices about the way that they travel and if they travel at all. It concerns the Big Data picture within the whole scenario that goes with low carbon futures, the green agenda, eco-savings and so on. I’m very keen that within this we do actually engage with real–life people because, in my view, too much Big Data experimentation is taking place with so called friendly-users, who are people in the same work place as the people doing the research or students and so on. So I’m very keen that we get out and really engage with real-life members of the public.

One of the questions that is asked of me sometimes by members of the public is: ‘What do you think would incentivise me to change, I have a routine and I have a habit in terms of the transport choices that I make?’ Here are some examples of the kinds of things that we do; I think we are all familiar with things like Nectar and the points system, where we are rewarded from the consumer choices that we make within the supermarkets, also some train operators use it as well. Now points are very nice because it actually gives the choice of reward back to the person who is earning the reward. That means that we don’t have to struggle with what kind of person this is, what their likes and dislikes are. People like to accrue points. We know this from different schemes that are out there, ranging from making transport choices, booking particular services online to making choices in supermarkets. So points are one (type of incentive).

We also talk about information as being a positive incentive as well. People who are properly informed about the choices that are available to them actually feel very well incentivised to be able to reconsider the way that they’re making journeys. We have  done serious games – Gamifications. These are challenges for the section of the population who really like to engage in this way.

We feedback information to people as well, which is a different kind of incentive. For example, knowing what your carbon footprint is for a particular kind of journey and knowing that you could halve it, through making a different kind of journey or a journey by a different mode – for some people that actually is the clue to triggering them into reconsidering their situation.

Then there are a variety of other things that we have used and maybe will use, so things like a free muffin and a coffee at a local café or a restaurant could be an incentive. We have also played around with things like cinema tickets, so we work with a variety of third party suppliers in terms of what these things could be and we are very keen to engage with providers of incentives and to explore what the business model is for people to be a provider of incentives in this kind of transport scheme.

The Challenges 
It is about different kinds of people working together, rather than us doing research in our particular niche, because we are all experts in our niche and we are all keen to continue as experts. But, actually we need to broaden our horizons and work with people who are legal experts or ethicists, specialists in different kinds of technology. People work in different modes. I think that we have got a lot to learn from the aviation sector for example about automation and we need to start to have that dialogue rather than seeing that community as doing its research (separately to us) and ourselves looking at highways and road surface transport related research. So really a lot of the blockages I think will start to become unlocked by us working together.

The Future
In terms of Big Data I think we will continue to collect it.  I think many of the debates that are running at the moment will be closed down very, very quickly. Even over the last two years I’ve seen the agenda shift very quickly in terms of some of the issues. But I think that we will see far more in the way of embedded sensors around the (transport) system and a real stripping out of the tangible visible evidence of those sensors being around us. I think we will see a restoring of the landscape, motorways for example, will be stripped of their gantry’s, a lot of the urban spaces will be greened and the traffic signals and lights and so on will be gone and we will be back in, it sounds a little bit utopian and maybe this is wishful thinking, but I think we’ll be back in some very pleasant liveable cities and communities.

Chair in Transport and Energy

The Institute is delighted to announce the appointment of Professor Jillian Anable to a Chair in Transport and Energy, beginning in January 2016.

Jillian joins ITS as a key figure in the debate around how best to approach the decarbonisation of transport and the challenges associated with developing effective policy for behavioural transitions. Professor Greg Marsden, Institute Director said:

“Jillian is a recognised leader in the transport and energy debate and will be a major addition to the critical mass of energy research underway at Leeds as well as broadening our team looking at behaviour change.”

Jillian’s research addresses the potential for demand-side solutions to reduce carbon and energy from transport; her intellectual interests span the social sciences. She joins ITS from the Centre for Transport Research at the University of Aberdeen.

Having completed her joint honours degree in Geography and European studies and an MSc in Urban Planning, she undertook an ESRC PhD Studentship at Imperial College (Centre for Environmental Technology). Her doctoral work applied social psychological theories and market segmentation techniques to assess the potential to influence patterns of leisure travel. She is now an expert in travel behaviour, car ownership and vehicle choice and the implications of these on the energy system. This includes the evaluation of policy interventions at local and national scales designed to influence private and business travel behaviour involving the design, management and analysis of large mixed methods studies involving primary and secondary datasets. The latter has had particular impact on scientific and policy thinking related to ‘Smarter Choice’ (or ‘soft’) interventions with evaluation work including Scotland’s Smarter Choices, Smarter Places Programme, the Energy Technology Institute’s Plug-in Vehicles and Infrastructure Consumer project and a large segmentation study across six European cities to understand the impact of this approach on the design and effectiveness of mobility management strategies.

She has authored or co-authored over 50 academic peer-reviewed journal articles and research reports with projects mainly funded by UK Research Councils, the Energy Technologies Institute, the UK Department for Transport, Scottish Government and the European Union. Recent work has been aligned with EPSRC’s emphasis on interdisciplinary research addressing end use energy demand including Motoring and Car Ownership Trends in the UK (‘MOT’),  Dynamics of Energy, Mobility and Demand (‘DEMAND’), the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), and Disruption. She has sat on a number of advisory boards and strategy panels for UK Government Departments, National Research Councils and NGOs, including the RCUK’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Energy, The Commission for Integrated Transport, Greener Journeys, Carplus and the Campaign for Better Transport. She is a founding editorial board member of the journal Energy Efficiency.

Why adaptability is the key to coping with transport disasters

Article by Professor Greg Marsden for The Conversation.

Floods caused by Storm Desmond left more than 2,500 homes without power, washed away bridges, closed schools and hospitals and caused serious damage to homes and businesses across swathes of northern England and Scotland.

Meanwhile, the closure of the Forth Road Bridge due to structural defects has left 100,000 people, along with major corporations such as Amazon, facing large diversions and substantial delays. At times such as this, a cottage industry in back-of-the-envelope calculations rushes to estimate the disastrous costs to the economy.

Infrastructure failures and natural disasters are facts of life. While the agencies responsible for maintaining our infrastructure such as Network Rail and Transport Scotland seek to protect us against the biggest and most common problems, it rarely stacks up economically, financially or politically to guard against low probability, high risk events. And even if they did try to do this, they would be unable to cater for all possibilities. The risks posed by climate change and terrorism are notoriously difficult to predict, so significant failures of some kind would still occur.

Of course, the responses of emergency services and public transport providers do have a big impact on how quickly things can return to normal. Providing extra bus or rail services, and dedicated lanes for buses or goods vehicles, can help people to resume their daily routines. For example, in Edinburgh, an extra 11,000 bus seats and 6,500 rail seats are being provided to cope with the Forth Road Bridge closure. Even so, these measures are unlikely to match up to the numbers of people that would normally be on the roads, and train and bus stations probably are not ready to cope with such a big surge in demand.

Silver linings

So, instead of just trying to maintain our usual routines in the face of huge disruptions, we should see these events as opportunities to try out new ways of doing things and getting places. Indeed, there is a significant body of research which tells us that, if well managed, major changes to the availability or quality of transport and infrastructure services need not be catastrophic for quite so many people.

A good example is the success of the travel management strategies put in place for the London Olympics in 2012, and the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014. In both cities, significant efforts were made to adapt transport services. But these only worked when combined with the adaptability of businesses and the flexibility shown by commuters.

Yet this capacity for social adaptation can’t simply be switched on and off – it needs to be developed. Most of us have regular and clearly defined travel patterns, developed around the demands of our day-to-day lives: we base our home, work, schooling and leisure choices around an increasingly complex and time constrained pattern of journeys. And for each of these journeys, we have a set of expectations as to its likely length and quality, based on different modes of transport.

If we can relax some of the constraints around which we structure our everyday lives, then it will be much easier for us to adapt when things don’t go according to plan.

The path less travelled

For one thing, we can exercise a surprising amount of flexibility just by drawing on our social resources. Recent research on transport disruptions found that, for disturbances lasting up to a week, people were as likely to postpone and rearrange trips as to cancel them. Asking colleagues to assist with work trips, coordinating family or neighbours to help with school runs, and shopping in new locations can all help us to deal with disasters.

Likewise, where personal circumstances allow it, rearranging schedules and leaving earlier or later from jobs or activities can go a long way toward making disasters manageable. Workplace flexibility is crucial here: bosses must be adaptable when it comes to the timing of shifts, tolerating lateness or encouraging working from home.

It is much easier to take alternative routes or means of transport when you’ve tried them out before. Those who are already familiar with more than one way of getting to work are better able to adapt. The good news is that two-thirds of people already use more than one means of transport each week. And planned outages, such as strikes, can also offer less chaotic opportunities to experiment with new routes and modes of transport.

We will be more resilient to a range of problems if we foster a future where everyone is a little less dependent on their cars, and a little better equipped to manage without them. The added appeal of this approach is that travelling less by car more generally would also help us to tackle congestion problems, long-term climate change obligations and the obesity crisis, in ways which suring up our infrastructure will not.

There’s no doubt that engineering solutions such as flood defences and investment in preventative bridge and road maintenance have a major role to play when it comes to trying to prevent catastrophes. But as a society, we should also be trying to make it easier for people to be more flexible and also more multi-modal, more of the time.