Joining the dots on data, transport, health and air quality

Data has been all over the media recently, from the Cambridge Analytica scandal to the upcoming changes to data protection rules. And here at the Urban Transport Group we’ve been talking about transport data for some time: our Getting Smart on Data report identifies some of the issues and barriers for transport authorities to capitalise on emerging data sources, and our Data Hub and associated Number Crunch report analyse trends in the transport sector.

The Institute for Transport Studies (ITS) at Leeds University recently held a workshop exploring how new and emerging data sources can help to support policy making in relation to transport, health and air quality – connections we at UTG have been exploring. Health has been rising up the transport policy agenda in recent years, accelerated by the forward thinking Healthy Streets approach emerging from Transport for London. And air quality is a pressing challenge for city regions, as they are mandated by Government to reduce levels of air pollution in the shortest possible time frame. The recent joint inquiry by four House of Commons Select Committees into the Government’s failure to improve air quality in the UK shows just how serious this has become.

The ITS event included outputs from the EU Horizon 2020 project ‘EMPOWER’, which explores how people can be encouraged to make more sustainable transport trips through incentives. This has been trialled in Newcastle, along with six other European cities, using their ‘Go Smarter’ App, and has generated positive results for participants and useful data and insight for the City Council.

Spring Walking Weekend 2

Challenges yet opportunities

All of this got me thinking about the role of transport authorities, the issues they face, and the opportunities data presents for them:

  • Local and city region authorities can undoubtedly benefit from this deluge of data, but often lack the resource and capabilities to deal with and fully capitalise on large volumes of data that are coming from these new and emerging sources.
  • Data quality remains an issue even where you have transport tracking data, as entries can be missed where participants turn off trackers. However, tracking data can be really useful for filling in the gaps in other data sets, such as trip lengths for smart card journeys made with only one tap in or out.
  • The focus so far has largely been on personal travel and exposure to air pollution. Our recent report ‘White Van Cities’ showed that vans now make up 15% of traffic in urban areas and contribute 30% of harmful NO­2 emissions – yet we know little about the cause of this rise in van traffic, for example, what’s in these vans. We need to examine ways of using new and emerging data sources to explore non passenger transport as well.
  • Making the case for investments in transport, which deliver benefits for health, can be challenging, but there are ways to push the agenda forward. Newcastle City Council has established a Healthy Streets Board which will help to deliver transport and health improvements.

So what are we doing at UTG?

Following our 2016 Getting Smart on Data report, we set up a group to look at some of the challenges facing transport authorities relating to emerging data. These include:

  • Sharing and integration;
  • Ownership and privacy;
  • Quality and standards; and
  • Skills, capabilities and capacities.

We have also developed our own online, interactive Data Hub, which brings together a range of data sources on a host of transport topics and allows you to generate your own bespoke analysis, graphics and charts.

On health, we are working with public health and transport expert Dr Adrian Davis to renew and re-launch the Health and Wellbeing hub on our website, with the aim of being the UK’s best online resource on the connections between transport and health.

We are also focusing on promoting the Healthy Streets approach, pioneered by Transport for London, outside of the capital. The brainchild of public health and transport specialist Lucy Saunders, Healthy Streets is a system of policies and strategies to deliver healthier, more inclusive cities where people choose to walk, cycle and use public transport. As part of this, we will be looking at developing resources and learning opportunities as well as sponsoring the 2018 Healthy Streets conference, on 12th October.

Clare Linton is a Researcher at the Urban Transport Group

How will the National Infrastructure Assessment shape the future of urban transport?


When the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) was established back in 2015, researchers such as myself took note. This non-ministerial Government department is charged with producing a key document, the National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA). To be published once in every Parliament, the NIA will analyse the UK’s long-term economic infrastructure needs for the next three decades, including transport, and set out recommendations for how these needs should be met. What’s not to like?

I was therefore delighted to be invited to a recent ‘Future Cities Transport’ workshop, hosted by NIC and the Institute for Transport Studies (ITS Leeds). With topics such as ‘addressing urban transport pressure with a sustainable vision for future mobility in cities’ and ‘how we better integrate transport and housing’ on the agenda, this seemed like my kind of workshop!

The aim of the workshop was to test and hone the NIC’s thinking prior to the publication of the NIA this summer. Bringing together national, regional and local policy and decision makers, with academics and Commissioners, the event was a high profile opportunity to hear about the forthcoming assessment and feedback into those plans – with participants asked to respond to questions from the organisers.

So how might the NIA shape the future of urban transport?

We’re unlikely to know until we see the full document later this year, but a number of aspects from the discussions and the presentation of the NIC’s vision for transport were particularly refreshing to hear.

Bus was highlighted as a key component of future urban mobility, which is deeply encouraging as this mode of transport is often overlooked. Despite recent rapid declines in patronage, 70% of public transport trips are made by bus – as we outlined in our recent ‘Number Crunch’ report, which explores some of the trends emerging in travel behaviours.

There was a lengthy discussion on what can be done to increase the attractiveness of the bus, with consensus emerging around the need for better integration with other transport modes and improvements in information for users.


National Infrastructure Image workshop

Another interesting dimension was the discussion around autonomous vehicles, which – rather unusually given the usual focus around tech – was framed in the context of sustainability. The point was made that autonomous vehicles need to be electric (otherwise we’ll be replacing like for like) and that they should feed passengers into public transport networks rather than replace them. Sensible thinking.

Connecting housing and transport is another key aim of the NIC, along with improving wellbeing through high quality placemaking. And it was good to hear that the NIA will be considering the potential interactions between its infrastructure recommendations and housing supply. These connections are something we at the Urban Transport Group will be taking a closer look at in the coming months, in our forthcoming report about Transit-Oriented Development.

There’s undoubtedly further thinking to be done between now and the publication of the NIA, but it should help to set national strategic priorities for government, while ensuring that projects and decisions remain devolved to local and regional governments. And we’ll be on hand to further analyse those transport recommendations once they’re available. Until then, I’ll have to wait patiently.

Clare Linton is a Researcher at the Urban Transport Group

We need to talk about vans


Van traffic is the fastest growing section of road traffic. There are 3.8 million vans registered in the UK, with these vehicles now representing 15% of all motor vehicle traffic, compared to just 10% 20 years ago. There has been an astonishing 70% increase in van mileage over the last 20 years and the Department for Transport’s road traffic forecasts project further growth in the future. What’s more, vans are increasing in numbers in city regions too. Our new report White Van Cities explores some of the key questions, challenges and options on the rapid rise in urban van traffic.

Knowns and unknowns

A van is defined as a vehicle weighing under 3.5 tonnes. These can be small vans, not much bigger than a car, through to large ‘Luton style’ vans.

While we know that van traffic is increasing, there is a lot that we still don’t know about vans, including:

  • Who owns and operates them – though we do know that 51% are privately registered and 47% are registered to companies;
  • What they are being used for – there is limited data on van journey purpose; and
  • How fully loaded they are and what is in them.

We do know that increasing van traffic impacts on a range of policy issues and challenges in our city regions. These include:

  • Congestion – as increasing urban van traffic can exacerbate existing congestion problems;
  • Air quality and carbon emissions – given the majority off vans are diesel fuelled;
  • Urban realm – as cities seek to prioritise people over traffic;
  • Safety – even though vans tend to be involved in fewer accidents per mile than other vehicles; and
  • Data and technology – which could help to maximise van efficiency.

Leading by example

Addressing these issues in the context of rapid growth of van traffic can seem challenging. That’s why our new report highlights some of the leading best practice case studies which are seeking to address this issue.

Transport for London have a number of schemes in place to mitigate the negative effects of traffic in the city, including vans. The Congestion Charge, introduced in 2003, charges vehicles £11.50 a day to enter the zone between 7am and 6pm. This is now supplemented with the T-Charge for the most polluting vehicles; for vans this costs an additional £10 for those earlier than Euro 4 standards. The Ultra Low Emission Zone is also being introduced from 2019, covering the congestion charging zone, and will levy further charges on vans. These schemes will encourage fleet managers to switch to lower emission vehicles and re-time journeys, thus improving air quality.

Fleet managers, in both the public and private sectors, are being encouraged to switch to lower emission vehicles. UPS now uses electric vehicles for many of its delivery routes in central London. Leeds City Council has shifted to electric vans for their fleet vehicles. This improves local air quality and builds public awareness of alternatively fuelled vehicles.

Given that 63% of vans stopped at the roadside have serious mechanical defects and 89% are overloaded, there are safety issues. The Freight Transport Association (FTA) runs a ‘Van Excellence Scheme’ which helps to promote improved safety, and its ‘Van Excellence Code’ sets out a code of practice, covering areas such as behaviour, licensing and maintenance.

Dealing with the growth in van traffic can seem challenging, especially as vans contribute to valuable economic activity in our cities and because many of the causes of van growth remain under-researched. By setting out options and approaches for managing the growth in van traffic, and presenting a number of areas for further potential work and research, we hope our collective understanding of increasing van traffic can be greatly improved.

Clare Linton is a Researcher at the Urban Transport Group