Conservative Party Conference – What’s your number one priority for improving transport in cities?

This week it was the turn of the Tory Party conference to share their transport priorities with us on our board. And participants took up the challenge, sharing a range of ideas for improving cities. For an overview of our work on the directions for transport policy in cities, check out Policy Futures. Let’s take a look at some of the suggestions, and our work in these areas, in more detail.


You may, or may not, be surprised to find that there were a lot of similarities between the transport priorities raised at both the Labour and Conservative party conferences. Buses were a recurring theme, and seem to bridge the political divide. You can find more in our Bus Policy briefing, where we argue the importance of buses to public transport.


Increased oversight of bus routes and ticketting was highlighed as a priroriy for improving cities transport, and the forthcoming Buses Bill will devolve more powers to city regions. You can find out more about this in our Buses Bill FAQ.


Integration of bus routes is something else that was raised as a priority for city transport, something which the Buses Bill should also help to address.


Congestion was raised as a challenge for urban transport. At UTG, we argue that greater priority for buses is a key strategy for reducing congestion in cities, and the Case for Bus Priority can be found here. You can also find lots more work on the value of buses to our city regions here.


Electric Vehicle Charging was a point that came up at the Conservative Party conference, and you can find our work on transport sustainability here.


Lots of people across both conferences highlighted cycling as their number one priority for improving urban transport. Our Cycling Hub shares our work on this area, as well as providing direction to other organisations who are delivering evidence on the case for cycling investment.


Finally, we were thrown a bit of a curve ball, with the question of ‘Where are the canoes and kayaks”? This isn’t something that we’ve looked at, but it did spark a debate in the office about the possibilities of kayaking for commuting in Leeds!

Hopefully, for those of you who shared your transport priorities, across both conferences, this is a useful way of finding out more about our work on these areas.

Getting smart on data

The last five years have seen a growing interest in the concept of big data. Transport is no exception, and there is a real sense of anticipation about how new data sources could help deliver more efficient and reliable systems, better informed passengers and new products and services. Whilst there has been significant progress already, are these high expectations justified? And what can transport authorities do to help realise this vision?

Figure 1. Number of google searches for ‘big data’

google trends big data

Big data is commonly defined by the 3 Vs of volume, variety and velocity.

In a sense, transport planners have been doing ‘big data’ for decades, at least since the computer made it possible to develop complex models to simulate the operation of transport networks across large urban areas.

Building these models has traditionally required large scale, expensive and time consuming data collection exercises to describe the behaviour of individual households and the characteristics of transport networks.

So the underlying data certainly had volume and variety, if not quite velocity.

Since around 2000, the development of real time information began adding ‘velocity’ to the mix. This went hand in hand with a growing interest in journey planning information and the development of more sophisticated traffic control systems.

So what’s happened in the past five years to justify all the new excitement around data?

The key to understanding this lies in the way in which a combination of relatively recent technologies have changed the way information is collected and the type of information that is available. Advances in mobile computing, telecoms, remote sensing and cloud computing mean that large volumes of digital information on individual movements and preferences are now being collected passively at very low cost.

Some of this information is generated by transport authorities (smart ticketing, traffic sensors, GPS tracking of public transport vehicles, journey planners, real time information systems). But an increasing proportion relies on private devices, as well as infrastructure and software owned by third parties. [examples of Google maps and Strava].

Figure 2. Google Maps – Birmingham

google map directions v2

Figure 3. STRAVA app cycle ride density


strava heat map

New data sources can offer a cheaper alternative to traditional transport surveys. In some cases, they can actually give a richer picture about individual behaviour, the current performance of the transport system and even insights into how things are likely to change a short time into the future. In the right hands, it is easy to see how this can help transport users, decision makers and society at large.

But along with opportunities come some challenges.

One is that new data requires new tools and skills. Early experiences with bluetooth data illustrate the problem well. Inferring directionality, determining sample rates, identifying unique devices, converting the number of detected devices to number of vehicles are all new problems that require innovative solutions.

The highly analytical transport community is well placed to tackle the challenge but this will require an open mind, a degree of risk taking and some investment in staff development, at a time when transport authorities are facing severe financial constraints.

Another challenge is that new data requires new ways of working with an expanding community of data users and providers, which includes transport authorities, telecoms companies, academia, traditional transport consultants, analytics specialists, hardware providers, transport operators and a growing echo-system of independent app developers and tech start-ups.

This is beginning to throw up all sorts of questions around open data, data ownership, data integration, data quality, privacy, intellectual property, commercial confidentiality, profit v not-for-profit models and public v private ownership.

A fundamental question for transport authorities is what role should they seek to take – data creator, data integrator, commissioner, seed funder, entrepreneur, honest broker? Needless to say, this is an evolving debate.

Over the coming year, we will be engaging with the challenges and opportunities created by emerging data sources, starting with a workshop hosted at the Future Cities Catapult in mid-May. Exciting times ahead so expect more posts on this topic.