Why can’t roadspace booking be more like booking an airline ticket or a hotel? James Harris says the technology exists today to drag streetworks into the digital age.

This is an age when everyone can order or book anything online, such as holidays or hotels or cinema tickets. At the click of a button or on a voice command we can do our banking, book trains or have a home delivery.

Why should booking roadspace be any different? There is a product (excavation or traffic intervention). There is inventory (the amount of roadspace available). There is an order (a notice). There is a wide variety of variables that impact upon the planning of your trip (roadworks) including costs, taxes, conflicts of dates, and so on. Above all there is the need for some transparency of schedule and planning so that friends can meet you at the airport, business appointments can be arranged, or in our case: so that motorists are informed and traffic managed. So why can’t booking roadspace be more like booking an airline ticket or hotel?

It is worth stepping outside our industry sector for a moment to contemplate how booking systems and global transaction systems work and how they came into being.

Books were first traded globally thanks to an invention in 1967 by WH Smith. The company introduced the first EPOS (electronic point of sale) system and needed a common identifier for its main product, which was books. WH Smith invented the ISBN (international serial book number), which became the basis not just of its own trading but of all international book trading ever since. Without the ISBN, Amazon could never have started trading books and then other merchandise in the 1990s.

Or take the example of airline and hotel booking. American Airlines launched its Amadeus booking system in the 1980s purely for its own operations. But it became so successful and was so obviously of mutual trading interest that the system was shared and used – just like the ISBN system – across the whole of the industry. Amadeus is now at the centre of every Expedia or Trivago booking you make online.

Two points to note: first, both these initiatives began as private sector initiatives and were then adopted across their sectors because it made sense; second, these transactional booking systems require enormous amounts of data to inform every stage of the decision-making process.

So how are we in our industry set up for roadspace booking? We know that roadspace booking is complex. It is not necessarily a linear activity and often occurs in parallel, or even in retrospect (in the case of emergency works). It is a complex regulatory environment with local environmental variations. But we do have many of the component parts to begin to make roadspace booking more efficient and akin to our online transactional experience.

Streetworks have a common regulatory regime, unique works numbers which function like the ISBN, and we have the electronic exchange protocols which move information across networks.

We have a national database of roadworks, updated in near real time, giving information on more than 2.5 million noticed works and operating under a system of public-private governance across both England and Wales.

But we also need, on a commonly shared platform, even more data layers which can inform planners of other environmental factors that influence applications for roadspace booking. Efficient roadspace booking and planning requires, for example: “points of interest” information – locations of schools, hospitals, bus stops, etc. It requires present and historic traffic conditions and bus route information. It needs to make sense of local permit conditions – often rendered in free text that needs to be parsed into data that booking systems can read.

That is why Elgin has announced this month the launch on the national roadworks platform of a new Streetworks Planning Portal, because data to support intelligent decision-making in real time is at the heart of any roadspace booking system. And which this addition to the national roadworks portal will address.

However, it is also critical to be able to see the impact of roadworks on traffic in real time. We can do that nationally now with the launch of the Real-time Traffic mode on roadworks.org. The number of roadworks noticed each year is around 2.5 million but the actual number which appear to cause an appreciable slowdown in traffic is c 120,000. Going forward the industry will be able to focus on these at the click of a mouse and track the impact of roadworks on actual traffic flows and take action in time to have a real impact.

The streetworks industry already has many of the component parts of the information infrastructure required to begin building a world class streetworks system. Like other industries, we now need to harness the initiatives and innovations of the private sector to the power of government and make this happen.

This is an edited version of the address given to the NJUG 2017 annual conference on 17 October 2017.

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