Active Travel Podcast
Active Travel Podcast - data in active travel, part two
Data in active travel is big news right now, and this is our second in a two-part series discussing some of the latest research in the field.
When a global pandemic required us to avoid public transport and, ideally, cars, making cycling's usefulness for everyday trips even more apparent, transport authorities needed to know quickly where a network of cycle routes might be built. In a country with no historical cycle network, let alone a current one, this was a challenge.
Enter Dr Robin Lovelace, with Dr Joey Talbot, at the University of Leeds' Institute for Transport Studies, part of a crack team commissioned to work out where cycle lanes could be installed, both in terms of where there's physical space on the roads, and where protected space would be useful for people looking to get cycling for everyday trips.
So it was, over four weeks, the Rapid Cycleway Prioritisation Tool started life. Robin and colleagues' open data was added as a layer to Widen My Path, which lets people say where they think local cycling and walking infrastructure is needed in their area. Within the first week and a half this function received 30,000 interactions - perhaps indicating the demand from citizens to get involved in improving their local streets.
Robin Lovelace talks about the potential, and the limitations of this new tool, the role it gives citizen activists in shaping cycling and walking policy, and what it was like being part of the project.
You can find it, and have a play with the interactive map, here: https://www.cyipt.bike/rapid/
And on Widen My Path, here: widenmypath.com
Laura Laker [00:00:00] Hi and welcome to the active travel podcast. A brand new podcast brought to you by the Active Travel Academy. It's part of the University of Westminster in London and works in collaboration with people from inside and outside the university. I'm Lauren Laker, I writes about cycling and walking as a journalist, and I work with the Active Travel Academy. On this podcast, amongst other projects, we have. Robin. Robin. Robin.
Robin Lovelace [00:00:25] We have Robin Lovelace with us for the second half of our two part on data in active travel.
Laura Laker [00:00:31] Robin is associate professor of Transport Data Science at the University of Leeds Institute of Transport Studies. Robin is a geographer and environmental scientist by training with expertise in geographical information systems, data analysis and modelling. And that and his knowledge and love of active travel helped him to co-produce the Rapid Cycleway Prioritisation Tool with Dr Jerry Talbot. And he's here to talk to us about that today. Welcome, Robin. Great to have you on the podcast.
Robin Lovelace [00:01:05] Hi, Laura. Hi, everyone. Listening.
Laura Laker [00:01:08] So podcast time. Has your week been?
Robin Lovelace [00:01:11] So far, it's been a good week. It's been a great week because I fell way off my shoulders after this very intense contract with the Department for Transport to develop the rapid cycleway prioritisation tool. And certainly, the infrastructure side of it has to be done in a very tight schedule. But the same is on the research side. We were kind of round the clock to go from a prototype to national deployment in four weeks. So, I think a lot of the COVID-19 response stuff, especially in the medical sector, has been very, very impressive. And I'm so glad that we delivered something that hopefully will be useful. This week, I've got my head down in marking. So, it's gone into a more tranquil routine of working from home. But yeah, I think it's been it's been a good week here in North Leeds, where I am based.
Laura Laker [00:02:14] Can you just start by telling us a bit about the ITS Institute for Transport Studies?
Robin Lovelace [00:02:20] Yeah, sure. Say ITS is a longstanding research department focused on transport. I think it's one of the longest standing, if not the longest standing in the UK and certainly the largest in terms of postgraduate torts. And we have a long history of engagement with policy makers and doing high impact research. So it very much feels like the place to do transport policy research. It's had a huge influence on transport planning, both in terms of the kind of established motorised transport planning, but increasingly this stuff on transport decarbonisation and active modes, which is what I'm interested in. The other thing I should say is that ITS is part of the University of Leeds and it's quite unique in a way, because it's one of the few universities that's got a really big quantitative geography department and it's also got a transport department. And as someone who's at the interface, it's a good place to be. You've got both sides and they can be kind of mutually reinforcing.
Laura Laker [00:03:43] And so at the moment, there's obviously an enormous push for a new kind of infrastructure on our roads in terms of cycling, pop-up cycling lanes and pop-up walking infrastructure. And you've been up to your neck in this project for the last four weeks, it sounds like and it's only really just come out. So what we are here to talk about today is the RCPT, which which is using data to identify roads with the highest cycling potential, which is those that can carry the most cycling trips and those with enough widths to accommodate new protective cycleways. And it's really cool, it's got this interactive map, hasn't it? And it's got different layers, it's got the existing cycleways, which are quite often disconnected, disjointed, mixed quality, and then you've got the top ranked cycleways, which is where the greatest demand for cycling is, a cohesive network, which is where you link them all together; roads with spare lanes and then roads with an estimated width of more than 10 metres. How did you go about doing this? Because it's quite it's quite a task, isn't it? When you look at the maps of the UK and then you zoom in and there's all these different coloured lines that you can click on, it's quite a thing you've produced.
Robin Lovelace [00:04:57] Say it. We certainly had a very clear brief. I think it's useful to have general purpose tools to inform transport policy because transport shouldn't be seen in isolation. Modes of travel like walking, cycling, cars, buses shouldn't be seen in isolation. So, in the long term, I'm actually in favour of quite general tools. But the Rapid Cycleway Prioritisation Tool was really developed to tackle a very particular question, which was how to invest most cost effectively, the 250 or part of the 250 million pounds that's part of the emergency active travel fund. And that was only announced, I think maybe it was the 9th of May when this was announced by Grant Shapps and it was suddenly clear the councils needed something on which to base their submissions. I think another bit of background is the fact that new statutory guidance has been created by the Department for Transport to support the COVID-19 response, so it's not just the funding it's also the statutory guidance. And this is quite a big departure from the status quo in terms of transport planning. So for the first time ever, to my knowledge, anyway, the Department for Transport has provided advice on what to do in terms of creating extra space walk in cycling, and it specifically said that there should be road space reallocation and that something hasn't been on the table, so to speak. So most of the tools that I've been involved with are assuming that you are going to build new infrastructure either parallel to or in a separate place from the existing roads, whereas this is very much focused on road space reallocation and it's designed to inform rapid decision making. So rather than this tendency of making tools more complicated, we needed to make to simpler so that people could use it to inform their policies as quickly as possible. So that's the kind of policy context, there's also a bit of an advocacy angle because the first early prototype of the work was done in collaboration with Cycling UK, and we did a sketch up. Well, we did some data analysis of major cities in England and we found that most of them have major roads that have this kind of spare space for cycling. So the idea actually came from an advocacy angle. We did a bit of a description of the methods and the Department for Transport picked up on this and eventually commissioned this research to support that emergency active travel fund.
Laura Laker [00:08:17] And it's striking, isn't it, when you look at the maps that you've produced, all of these dark blue lines that you see across different cities that represent the top ranked cycle ways that could be built, and they are everywhere. And like you say, it just allows a council to look at a map of the road that they look after and say, "this blue line is where a cycle way needs to be to get the most people travelling for cycling trips". So, the data behind the maps, that was a mixture of things, wasn't it? Was the propensity to cycle tool, which is another thing that you've worked on, which takes data on which journeys people are doing where, and then kind of works out which of those journeys can be cycled.
Robin Lovelace [00:09:05] Yes. So the tool is very much building on the strong foundations of previous work. So essentially there's two main input data sets. One of them is on cycling potential at the road network level. So that is every cyclable road, more or less, across the country has got a level of cycling potential that we have calculated in a great multi-disciplinary and muti-university team, including Rachel Aldred at the University of Westminster, James Woodcock at the University of Cambridge, and Anna Goodman, at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. And that is really important for long term strategic planning. But if you have a very specific need to identify where you've got extra space, to make more space for walking and cycling, you also need data on the infrastructure that you've got in your city. And that's where the other side of the coin, which is the infrastructure side, comes in. And as you say, we worked on a previous project, which is called the Cycling Infrastructure Prioritisation Tool —lots of acronyms! — and that contains estimates of road widths. And then we also took data from Open Street Map that gives you the number of lanes on the roads, according to citizen contributors. We put those three together, and we basically found a way to group together roads to identify continuous sections that may be strong candidates —or at least promising candidates at an early stage in the planning process— to look at to see if they would be feasible for these pop-up interventions. And it was an amazing project because as we were developing the tool, these pop-up cycle ways were going in, and myself and Joey in particular kept an eye on where they were going in and how they were matching with our tool. So it's quite exciting. We could say, "oh! in Jamaica Road, there's been new plans for a Cycle way in London, another one in Bristol..." and we were kind of doing this data analysis on the fly. It was a very exciting time. We also ensured that we had quite close contact with local authorities when we were developing it and also having this kind of vital sense checking. So a good example of this is Wakefield Road in Huddersfield, where one of my colleagues lives near. And he was saying that "I really think that's your tool should be flagging up something here" and we looked at it and basically found a bit of a kind of bug in the algorithm that we changed and then it kind of flagged up that particular road and all other rates that were like it. So compared with the work that we did with Cycling UK, that was only looking at roads on which we had a spare lane. And by that we mean any road where there were at least two lanes of traffic going in one direction. And that means that you can take out an entire lane without affecting the navigable network from the perspective of a car, which makes things simpler from a kind of transport planning perspective, especially if you want to act quickly. But we also added in this additional parameter of width it where we classified roads as having spare width if they were over 10 metres wide, which is probably close to the minimum of what you want your carriage way width if you're going to put in protected cycleways on both sides of the road. So combine those two things, the cycling potential and road width and spare lane data and then use data analysis tools that took some refinement to, firstly groups together road segments into cohesive groups that could form part of a coherent network, and then rank them in terms of cycling potential. And the result, as you say, is now freely available online at cyipt.bike/rapid. Primarily transport planners are using this to inform their thinking about pop-ups. But as we've seen online, anyone can go and just have a look and use that to inform discussions about how to respond to COVID-19 on the transport network and this specific question of how we can create extra space for walking and cycling.
Laura Laker [00:14:01] Yeah, and it's it's arguably particularly useful for councils who don't have— some councils have created local cycling walking infrastructure plans, or L.C, which is known, but many haven't. And this is particularly helpful for those ones. If they haven't already gone through this process of saying, well, which roads could have, or would need a bike lane in terms of the trips that people would be doing by bike and then which have got the space so they can just look at it. And you talked about citizen contributions and and a major thing that's part of this is that people can feed into it, can't they? They can get involved via widenmypath.com, they can suggest locations for cycleways and wider pavements and your data feeds into that somehow.
Robin Lovelace [00:14:41] Yeah. So there's actually links here to the point made by David David McArthur in the previous podcast series, as he was saying that a big challenge facing researchers and also public transport planners is that a lot of the best data sets that we have are actually licensed in a way that it's difficult even for people who can get access —because you're an academic or because you work for a local authority. It's very difficult to use that data to inform wider debate because I can access ordinance survey data, for example, but if I can't put that out in a tool, it's difficult to inform the decision making process, which as part of the democratic process, has to have many, many different people involved. So that is certainly one of the great things about the tool, because it's primarily based on open street map data, which has an open data licence we could publish the data sets and that allows anyone to do what they want with the data, download it, you can do additional analysis— and I know some local authorities are certainly doing that. Another thing that happened, because it's open data, is that the people behind widenmypath.com, added it as an additional layer into this pre-existing kind of citizen science mapping place. So, where you've got an automatically generated kind of top down approach to planning, which is what we've done in the rapid tool, you can then enrich that data set by looking at what people have got to say on specific roads. So if, for example, you have a more promising route that goes parallel to one of the roads flagged by the tool, but not actually on it, people can say "well actually this would make more sense to have it away from the traffic" and those kind of things are happening at the moment. So, yeah, the open data angle is certainly an important part of what we've done. And in a way, they are the two sides of the same coin that we've got the very much data driven top-down approach. But you also need this bottom-up citizen science approach, and when the two come together, that's quite powerful. And I think local authorities will now have quite a rich evidence base, including other things like cycle counters and obviously engagement with the wider community to inform that decision. So I'm quite hopeful that the infrastructure that goes in as a result of this emergency active travel fund will be quite good and hopefully a bit better, thanks to our tool widenmypath.com.
Laura Laker [00:17:31] Yeah, it's fascinating, isn't it? I Remember there's something similar in London, the Strategic Cycling Analysis, and there was some scepticism about it when it first came out. Andrew Gilligan, who is the cycling commissioner of London and is now Boris's cycling advisers, he said, " Well you can see where people want to cycle, just look out the window!" And I wrote an article for The Guardian about his kind of comments and other people's comments on it, but it has actually proven for campaigners, for example, to say, well, these are the top 10 highest unmet demand routes in London and going to their councils and saying this is where you need to be building the cycle routes, and here's the evidence to show why and the kind of impact that that will have. And you said yourself that transparency leads to better decision making, and I guess this citizen science thing is part of it. It allows people to take the data and it comes alive bit more and to play with it and to come up with things. Different people have different expertise. and there's a lot of passion in the cycling community, isn't there? You know, people want to get other people on bikes. They realise how good it is and they kind of want to get involved themselves. And we see a lot of we've got a lot of evidence around why cycling is a good thing and yet not a lot happens. And this is almost another tool in the arsenal, isn't it? And just, you know, the evidence of why it's good, but also where it needs to be built. So you said that you've seen some of that citizen involvement in the tool since it was launched. Have you had some feedback from local authorities?
Robin Lovelace [00:18:56] So I certainly fed into the decision-making process because I'm on a kind of citizen advisory group for with Leeds City Council. And it's been really interesting to see how they created this new forum that contains academics and advocates and also councillors. And we've each been able to input ideas and to some extent hold them to account. So just earlier this afternoon, I saw some feedback from someone on that group, that's in open discussion with the Council and they actually had a ride on Kirkstall Road, which is one of the routes that has been flagged up by our tool, and I'm very happy to say has received new segregated cycleway. However, she flagged up that there were still issues with it. Obviously, when you do things very quickly, it's unusual to get things perfect the first-time round. So she sent round photos and said, "yeah, I think this is a problem, there's lots of old leaves in the road here and also parts of the pop-up cycleway are quite narrow" and I've just been looking at the design manual for roads and bridges, which clearly states that the desirable minimum width for cycleways, cycle lanes, which are painted lines, is two metres. But when you have light segregation, which also creates a potential hazard for cycling, even with those ones, the recommended minimum width is 2.5 metres. So I think it's one thing to have strong evidence, but to some extent now are at this stage and we have a lot of good evidence, in most cities there's quite a movement to get these going. The devil will be in the detail and it's the design standards that actually come out. So at this stage, I think to a large extent that citizen engagement is really important. And the ability of local authorities to adapt and to change that designs based on feedback will be key to seeing how used and how high quality these new cycleways are in the long term. So, yeah, I think for most people, probably the best way to get the tool and see everyone else's comment and to get involved is probably through widenmypath.com.
Laura Laker [00:21:30] Yeah, it's a nice map, isn't it? You can still go on there and click on it and there's little bicycle symbols and there's little shoe symbols for walking and then there's bits where people are said they need more space.
Robin Lovelace [00:21:42] Yeah. And you can type in it. You can kind of go into whatever town you like. And I think the example of Kirkstall Road is, is really shows that the best people to give feedback on a particular piece of infrastructure or or even an infrastructure plan are the people who actually use it day to day. So I would really recommend everyone to take a look and think about what —you know, the great thing about a tool is that you can actually imagine what you would like to have and make suggestions on that. It's also got the update capability so you can look. So rather than duplicating. "Oh, we need a cycleway on this road that would clearly benefit from a cycleway" you can, in addition, kind of update on them. And one of the amazing things is that, yeah, they've had over 30,000 interactions with this map and it's only been up a short while. And I think that shows that there is this really strong latent demand to get involved in transport planning. And to me, it highlights the fact that's quite fundamental, that transport planning is actually part of the democratic decision-making process. It's about the public allocation of resources. So at some level, it must be informed by the citizens. And usually, historically that's been done in quite a narrow and prescribed way, where you put out a consultation and then it's closed and only certain people contribute, whereas this citizen science aspect really broadens it out and allows many more voices to come in and much more diversity of opinion. So that's great. I think the combination of far and objective data—which is our role in this is— is really a powerful combination. But I certainly urge listeners to go out and give it a try, and I've added a couple of comments on there for my area. So, yeah, hopefully local authorities will pick up on this and use it. That's another question.
Laura Laker [00:23:54] I guess another thing you can do is flag that to your local councillors. Thirty thousand a week and a half is really an astonishing number. It is so easy to use, isn't it? And I've had these conversations before about the way that we discuss particularly cycling, new cycling routes and often the sort of meetings that are held around and what's going to happen or what's being proposed are held at sort of times when people are young families say are putting kids to bed or that, you know, people with busy lives don't have time to attend meetings in person. And so it does widen it out a bit more and gives people the real benefit— you know, with busy lives, with young kids, maybe— the option to say, well, actually this bit of my street is dangerous, pavement is too narrow, I'd like this two way for cycling or all of those things. It's just super easy, just to click on or like you say, and like other people's comments. And so you can see one comment has like 20 likes or something. And you see you're not the only one that thought that about that particular location.
Robin Lovelace [00:24:55] Yeah, and another thing to say is I think the widenmypath.com isn't designed to replace existing structures for engagement. So it would be two use in addition to the usual way of communicating. And that's the same concept with tools such as the Rapid Cycleway Prioritisation Tool and the propensity cycle tool, which our new rapid tool builds on. It's certainly designed to complement, not replace existing processes. And I think at the moment, local authorities have so much to deal with. The fact that there's now a national, will certainly in England, we'd like to extend it to other countries evidence base. That can mean that they can make good rapid decisions based on evidence more quickly. So, yeah, and the more citizens that get involved and kind of try to highlight the evidence to a broader range of people as possible, the better. And I've seen loads of examples. It's been really good just seeing on Twitter, for example, I'm from Hereford and seeing people flagging up cycleways in Gloucester saying, look, this much is the cycle campaign's perception of where you have need for pop-up cycleways and then using that to try and get a debate going in the local authority. So, yeah, I think certainly better decisions can be made when more people are involved and certainly when more evidence is available. I think there is a danger that if there's too much evidence there, it becomes overwhelming. But the good thing about these interfaces is they kind of condense down a lot of information into a map so you can make sense of it all.
Laura Laker [00:26:41] Yeah. Now, here's the line on the map. This is where the bike route. This is where you'd be best off building a fast bike route. This is where you need to do more routes to make network. And there is this very simple, isn't it?
Robin Lovelace [00:26:51] Yeah. And that's another thing. As academics, we like to always make things more complicated and add features and refine the model. But with the rapid tool, because it had a different purpose, we wanted to say, okay, let's condense all of this information down to literally the top ranked cycleways. And I should say on that you can also rank it not just by cycling potential, but by the continuous length of the road as well. So if your priority is to build slightly longer distance routes, you can also use it to try to find continuous sections. But like with any data driven approach, no data set is perfect, so it's got a number of limitations.
Laura Laker [00:27:39] It's not just a short-term thing, obviously. You know, this can keep being used in the long term. There's going to need to be a gradual rollout of ideally of a cycle network across the country, not only in towns, but linking in between. So I guess it could just keep on going. In terms of areas further study, you mentioned you like the idea of general tools. You mean that across different transport modes, not just cycling?
Robin Lovelace [00:28:05] Yeah, definitely. So like many areas of government transport planning tends to be a bit compartmentalised and even tribal in some cases. I've seen various examples of local authorities where you have the active travel team that's kind of put in a box and then they don't often talk to the highways people. And then there you've got the the bus people in London,I know, and there's not enough cross mode or communication. And I think that's bad for everyone. So regardless of which mode of transport you use, it's certainly important to have a joined-up network so that public transport connects well to walking and cycling networks say. That's certainly something that I'm aware of and being the lead developer of the propensity to cycle tool, which is just focus on one mode, I'm acutely aware of the need to broaden it out to become more multimode. So that's just the kind of policy need that I've seen. Yeah, and I think like taking into account walking and cycling, like walking is the foundation, I think, of a healthy transport system and ensuring that walking and cycling are kind of taken into account together I think is really important. So that's something that I'd like to look into more in the future.
Laura Laker [00:29:37] Yeah. And it doesn't always have to be big things as that. I think one of the most successful investments that the government has made in the last 10 years is is cycle parking at railway stations, something that's like super simple, but just allows people to ride a bike to the commuter train and then get on it. Was there anything else that you wanted to say that you feel like we've skipped over, or not covered yet?
Robin Lovelace [00:29:59] Yeah, I think I think it's worth it, because at the beginning I was talking about the tool's focus on cycling potential and this idea of space race. And I think it's worth zooming in a bit on the concept of spare space. I mean, this was developed early on, earlier in the lockdown when road traffic levels hadn't rebounded. They have rebounded a bit. But the evidence that I've seen suggests that they are still below pre COVID-19 levels. And there's also evidence of many people switching to permanent working from home so that the long-term implications for the transport system are still uncertain. And in that context, I think it is good to think about why you might want to focus on road space reallocation in particular. And there's three broad reasons. The first is when you're looking at roads that are big and have this spare space, they tend to be along arterial routes where you've got high potential. Especially in Leeds, there's some key design lines that are very heavily reliant on buses. So if you're aiming to free up capacity on those busy public transport networks, building where there is high latent potential, which tends to be on those big arterial routes, is one reason. The second reason is that the nature of the cycle ways that you construct themselves, say you can build a big cycleway to allow physical distancing on these big roads and cycleways that have been created by reallocating a lane of traffic to cycling. And then finally, it's about the long-term change that you mentioned. This is part of a long, longer aim. And one of the main reasons for developing the tool is that I think should probably soon start to move away from the idea of pop-up cycleways just to new cycle ways. Many of these will become permanent and the better we can design them and the better that we can place them where there is most latent demand, the more chance they will have of being used in the long term.
Laura Laker [00:32:28] So, yeah, because the government money, specifically, the 250 million for the emergency active travel fund is the first branch is for pop-up cycle lanes and the second is explicitly for stuff that's going to be longer term.
Robin Lovelace [00:32:41] Yeah, exactly. And I think the Overton Window, so to speak, has shifted so that things that weren't necessarily on the table are now being discussed and are actually priorities. And a great example of that is this idea of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and road space reallocation that would not be discussed. pre COVID-19. But to me I think this could be a bit of crossroads in terms of active transport in the UK. And it's really exciting to see it all happening and to have so much evidence, like more evidence than ever before, not only of the benefits of walking and cycling, but where we need to intervene for maximum benefit. And it's certainly exciting to be a small part of that process.
Laura Laker [00:33:32] Yeah, certainly in terms of the main roads, there's a reason they are so wide and widely used, because they take people where they want to go. Isn't it? Just as a final thought. And quite often we kind of want to put cycling out of the way. But then I guess there's another argument about whether we want to actually cycle on main roads next to motor traffic, but that's probably another discussion.
Robin Lovelace [00:33:51] Yeah, yeah. But no, but I think it is actually relevant to this. When you put in pop-up cycleways, there are ways to change the speed limit through experimental or temporary traffic regulation orders. But also, and this is something that came out of a seminar that we did last week on the tool, which is that when you put in cones or other infrastructure, although the legal speed limit may be unchanged, the design speed changes and drivers do actually respond to infrastructure. And this is something that I see I mean everyone's got their personal kind of dream cycleway. Mine Scott Hall Road in Leeds, which is a big dual carriageway with a 40 mile an hour speed limit. And currently it does not have a cycle way on it. And I just think that reducing that speed limit could do so much. So it's not always just about infrastructure. It's about driver behaviour and a whole range of other things. And this, tool, going back to limitations, it can only do one thing which is kind of flag-up these arterial routes that have got high cycling potential. But you need a very broad range of interventions, I think, including road traffic speed reduction to make the transport networks more friendly for everyone.
Laura Laker [00:35:23] Yeah. Great. Thanks, Robin, for coming on. It's great to talk to you.
Robin Lovelace [00:35:28] Fantastic. Yeah, thanks for having me. And yeah, I look forward to kind of seeing how this rolls out and maybe even using some of the infrastructure that's going in that will hopefully be informed by the various tools that are going out. Yeah, thanks a lot and just for listeners, check out the widenmypath.com And the tool. And if you're interested in the data side of things, by all means, download the data and we are happy to take any kind of questions on the Website where we developed it, which is github.com/cyipt/ if there's any developers out there who wants to get involved in the technical side of things.
Laura Laker [00:36:17] Great. Thanks, Robin. You've been listening to the Active Travel Podcast. You can find us online on our Web site at http://blog.westminster.ac.uk/ata/podcast/ We own most podcasting hosts and you can follow us on Twitter and Instagram, both at @Active_ATA. Let us know what you think. Drop us a tweet or an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening. Until next time.