Evening rush hour traffic in Belfast

A green light to fight the traffic

There are a number of ways that open data can improve commuter journeys across the Northern Ireland road network.

Last week, road users in and around Belfast were twice caught in rush-hour traffic chaos as a result collisions closing major roads, causing massive tailbacks across the city.

We already know from the available traffic counter data that the Westlink and M2 are two of the busiest roads in Northern Ireland, between them seeing over 170,000 vehicles on an average weekday. Any need to close these routes, as happened last week, is obviously going to impact on peak hour congestion in a major way.

Though continual traffic problems require long-term solutions that aren’t particularly cheap (traffic management planning, quick emergency response, capital investment and better public transport). But for those caught up in the jams with no information, there were few options other than to wait until the traffic started flowing again.

Accurate, timely and accessible data is important in a number of ways, and not just for the daily commuter seeking a shorter journey time between home and work. Freight, delivery, public and community transport providers also rely on information to plan their routes and make their stops in time.

The key challenges are collecting the right data, opening it up for public use, and presenting it in the right way so that developers, road users and public agencies can gain from the direct benefits that this would produce.

And the good news is that there already are systems in place to collect and publish the data. TrafficwatchNI, the publicly managed service for traffic information in Northern Ireland, collect and disseminate plenty of information on live traffic disruptions online. The key is making this data as useful to as many users as possible.

Much of this data is published through RSS feeds, a travel information map and on the TrafficwatchNI Twitter channel. But it’s not easy to read websites and Twitter while driving (if not just dangerous and illegal), and for each road user there’ll be additional information to wade through that doesn’t relate to their particular journey. With more technology in cars, however, there should be better, safer, ways to get this information and beat the traffic.

The important data is there for people to read, but as its presented in one mass of information, its not easy to extract the right facts at the right time. Presenting the data in a format that computers can understand and process would be the first step to created an automated system of traffic warnings and improved route planning.

Transport for London produce exactly the same kind of roads and disruptions information as TrafficwatchNI do, but the data is made available in a different format. As well as the human-readable status updates for every area, TfL’s data (working in background of the human-readable info) is available for free in machine-readable formats that can be queried for particular roads and areas. Data on disruptions along roads and to public transport services are also accessible through one central service.

Thanks to this, London’s commuters are spoilt for a choice of apps, aimed at both public and private transport users. Importantly, none of these have actually been developed by Transport for London: instead, developers and app users have been able to benefit from the freely available and open data that TfL maintains.

Knowing where car parking spaces are available can also improve congestion and help commuters. Those orange signs in NI town centres displaying the number of free spaces in each car park? If this real-time data was publicly available it could be integrated into the information presented to travelers, reducing the lines of cars queuing to get into already full car parks. It should take just a small step to make this happen, as the data is already being collected and processed, if only for limited use currently.

Not only can this help minimise the effects of disruption, but it also ensures a better public transport system, leading to fewer cars on the road and reduced congestion overall.

Image: evening rush hour traffic in Belfast, by Jonny Baird [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
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