Why road safety and data will take the front seat in 2024

Mark Nicholson
CEO, VivaCity

There is still a great need to improve road safety, with Vision Zero still some way off. When it comes to active travel, while the number of cycling miles travelled has increased from pre-COVID levels, safety remains a major concern for many – and it’s widely accepted that improving safety is a key route to unlocking more cycling and active travel.

The role of data in road safety

Improved cycle infrastructure is a visible effect of interventions aiming to both make roads safer for cyclists and encourage more active travel – the number of cycle lanes continues to rise and will do so at an even greater rate in 2024.

Traffic monitoring plays an essential role in quantifying and measuring the effectiveness of such interventions (e.g. using datasets that can show near misses and track road user pathways) and assessing modal shifts (e.g. using classified counts of different travel modes). This data is also necessary to gain a more holistic understanding of the impact of interventions on the travel network, such as understanding how it affects overall congestion and journey times.

As more travel modes enter the road space, we can expect authorities to increase their use of technology such as AI-powered sensors to understand such trends in real-time, helping to preempt near miss incidents and guide safety interventions.

How road safety (data) also supports Net Zero

For authorities, the pressure on achieving Net Zero will continue to build with even greater impetus next year. We know the transport sector is the single largest contributor to the UK’s CO2 emissions, accounting for over a quarter. We need to accelerate decarbonisation to mirror the success story of the energy sector over the last decade. AI within self-driving cars seems to get a lot of attention, but we know AI can help fast-track Net Zero and Vision Zero with this real-time data, something we expect more cities to capitalise on in 2024.

The ULEZ expansion, alongside the rollout of low-traffic neighbourhoods, has certainly been one of the talks of 2023, drawing both critique and encouragement. These schemes have the potential to reduce congestion and emissions and make roads safer. But they can also be used little by active travel modes and cause more congestion and pollution in other areas.

The common denominator in schemes that fail is low-quality data. Accurate data provides evidence: it informs decision-making on how to implement schemes and whether to keep them, and it also provides objective reasoning to policymakers and stakeholders for the changes. 

Roadblocks to achieving these goals

One of the greatest challenges for authorities has been – and will continue to be – ‘doing more’ with tighter budgets. As staff numbers are cut, authorities have the task of balancing personnel, time and resources alongside funding budgets. In fact, a report published in November by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) warned that DfT funding cuts could impede objectives to increase levels of active travel.

In particular, the PAC Chair’s comments that the DfT is not providing enough evidence on the efficacy of active travel schemes shows that deciding to collect data and monitor in a forward-thinking way isn’t just helpful for stakeholder management in the short term, but can meaningfully influence the direction of investment and funding in the long term as well. Unfortunately, we’re seeing some of the consequences of a lack of this accurate monitoring and insight.

Decisions made when designing or implementing schemes can impact the future of active travel, transport and safety. So, taking care of this future with robust monitoring programmes is key. We believe that ‘smart’ doesn’t always have to be shiny, new and innovative. Smart has to be thinking about how best can you build for the future – and that can be as ‘boring’ or ‘prosaic’ as setting aside time to plan how you can show the success of what you’re doing.

Vision Zero and Net Zero goals unite all councils across the UK – but the big question is how we can accelerate hitting these goals. Removing data boundaries will allow analysis of nationally representative datasets in order to share lessons learned on macro and micro behaviours much faster. We believe that the sector is at an inflection point, where we can choose to be open or closed – and the time has come to open the floodgates and enable collective learning.