Up-to-date geographical information is allowing global technology firm CGI to promote new walking and cycling routes that encourage ‘active travel’, reveals Nan Spowart

ACTIVE travel is a concept that has become increasingly important in recent years and the pandemic has made it even more relevant. 

It is the name given to all journeys that involve physical movement such as walking and cycling and is seen as a way of promoting good physical and mental health while also reducing carbon levels as people walk or cycle to work or school rather than use motorised transport.

The onset of the pandemic has highlighted the need for active travel in order to slow down the spread of the virus by preventing buses and trains becoming crowded but at the same time it has revealed weaknesses in the existing network as some paths are too narrow for proper social distancing and some have become muddy and eroded through overuse.

It has quickly become clear that new routes are required to ease pressure on existing ones, along with more up-to-date information on their location and condition.

And now, geospatial data gathering is being used to improve information on active travel routes. Pioneering its use is the Welsh Government which has been exploring its potential with global technology  firm CGI, with the other UK nations closely watching its development.

In Wales the project is a result of an act passed in 2013 promoting the use of active travel. Under the act, local authorities and the Welsh Government have a duty to promote active travel journeys, create new routes and improve existing ones. 

The Act also means they have to improve route maps and integrate existing and future paths with transport policies.

In order to keep on top of where the routes are, the Government has turned to geospatial technology to create maps similar to Google Maps but with more detail about local areas.

The technology means that local authorities can understand where changes are required so they can make improvements where necessary, create new ones and give the public digital access to a route map which will give helpful details on paths, cycleways and bridleways in local areas – even showing which are muddy and where public toilets can be found.

The advances of technology mean it is now possible to use location data to find out where networks are shrinking, for example, or where they are growing.

CGI has now created a data sharing platform called DataMapWales which is used as a one stop shop to manage active travel routes. It allows the 22 local authorities across Wales to manage their own routes but makes sure they still connect at a national level.

“Prior to this, the ageing previous system had created a disjointed approach , and there was no way to know a footpath carried on from one local authority area to a neighbouring one so this helps to create a more connected active travel route across the country,” said CGI Director Consulting Expert Pascal Coulon.  

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Using the active travel data portal, local authorities are able to edit their networks with the aim of eventually being able to present them in an accessible way so people can easily find out where their nearest active travel routes are. It will also allow the public to notify authorities on the state of active travel routes.

“It is a nice way to interact with the public and means this valuable source of data can evolve and be more fit for purpose,” said Coulon.

For the platform to work well, Open Architecture – a technology infrastructure with specifications that are public as opposed to proprietary – is used so that data can be shared and pumped into the system from multiple locations and sources, such as Sustrans, the charity that manages cycle routes across the UK.

“In my view the way to really promote and successfully manage your data in a digital way is by implementing Open Architecture: maximising the sharing of data – this way you will really favour data sharing and the reuse of IT infrastructure,” said Coulon.

“Active travel is very much an evolving sort of domain and industry leaders like Sustrans and Strava, the fitness app, have a huge amount of data on where people are walking, cycling and running and where a given cycle path or route is most used. 

“You can see ones that are not used and so you can look into it and maybe find a fence has been put there so it is not suitable for cyclists. Or you might find one is being used more than another because it is better lit and so on.

“This is something that could be used across the UK as it is a great way to help local authorities understand the impact the current pandemic is having.”

He added:  “However the key message is that the management of this type of data can only be achieved if the concept of Open Architecture is used along with data federations – using data from different sources without duplicating the datasets. This needs to be centrally managed but managed by multiple stakeholders.Open architecture means the data can be kept up to date as people have direct access to input knowledge.”

CGI has already completed much of the work and the next phase is to enable the technology to allow public consultation. “As part of the 2013 Act any active travel route needs to be presented to the public for consultations and the digital platform means this can now be done more effectively,” said Coulon. 

For more information on CGI’s geospatial services, go online at www.cgi.com/uk/en-gb/central-government/environment-and-agriculture

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Staying active works with a ‘fake commute’

PASCAL Coulon already uses the concept of an active travel route to begin his working day – even though he has not set foot in the office for ten months. 

When the first lockdown hit back in March, he had to begin working from home but rather than go straight from his bedroom to his laptop he decided he would still commute, doing what he calls a  ‘#FakeCommute’.

Pre-pandemic, his working day began with a half hour drive to the office so Coulon decided to use that time to walk to work.

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Now every weekday morning he sets off from his front door and walks for half an hour using one of the active travel routes in his area.

“Yes we are in lockdown but it doesn’t mean I can’t do my commute every morning and thanks to the route network I can do a fake commute,” he said.

“From my bedroom to my office takes seconds but I make it last half an hour because I use the active travel network around my estate following the footpaths.”

With gyms and swimming pools closed, more people seem to be cycling, running or going for walks in order to get some exercise and break up the monotony of lockdown. 

Coulon said central governments could capitalise on this by continuing to promote active travel. Active travel is not an ephemeral trend, it is there to stay and it is backed-up by government policies, he says. 

This domain is an example where the use of geospatial technologies and data are key to establish the link. In the context of active travel, route networks cannot be used in isolation. While the route forms the basis of the solution, it needs to be developed in conjunction with other factors (for example, pollution, route condition and public facilities). 

As often in the world of public transport and health policies, the role of geospatial technologies is pivotal in bringing different actors and data together. 

“Maps are often a chosen means to display the result of a study as a picture is worth a thousand words,” Pascal says. “The Department of Transport is investing in mapping the cycle route so there is a big move there but disseminating the data is the next challenge and that is where geospatial technology can help.” said Coulon.

This article appears as part of The Herald's STEM campaign, in association with CGI

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