Using Big Data to reduce congestion - Northamptonshire County Council

The use of data has the potential to revolutionise our understanding of congestion and provides new ways to prevent it. As part of the Total Transport initiative, Northamptonshire County Council have successfully used a 'Big Data' set to analyse local travel patterns.

Based on ideas generated by local government, the Government launched the Total Transport initiative in 2015. A key aim of the initiative is to explore the feasibility and benefits of pooling public money that is spent on transport in a locality and spend it jointly, rather than different parts of the public sector securing their own transport needs, based on the principle that joint procurement can lead to fewer journeys, better coordination and less expenditure on transport by public services. 

Incentivised by a need to respond to financial pressures and achieve greater operational efficiencies, Northamptonshire County Council have pushed the boundaries that this opportunity offered. The initial desktop exercise revealed tremendous opportunities for enhanced service provision at lower cost as well as making journeys more efficient.

The University of Northampton was commissioned to lead on the process of data collection and analysis. For the first time extensive travel data from the County Council, University of Northampton, Northampton General Hospital, St Andrew’s Healthcare and the Northamptonshire Health Foundation Trust was consolidated into a single data set for Northamptonshire as a ‘place’.

A new social enterprise board was created, which now had access to live travel information on around 32,000 travellers, covering almost 38 per cent of all trips in the county carried out by employees and students associated with the parent organisations. This ‘Big Data’ set allows individual travel plans to be combined into a single virtual picture without compromising the sovereignty of any of the individual organisations. Planning for transport was now in a new realm.

The outcome of the analysis was both revealing and remarkable. By way of example, it was discovered that up to 43 per cent of patients provided with dedicated transport to medical facilities had conditions which meant that they could have used other forms of transport. At the same time, an analysis of just one county council transport contract suggested that almost 1000 spaces were available on their vehicles which were potentially suitable for such patients during this down time as a more cost effective alternative.

Moreover, an assessment of home to school transport indicated that contracts could be rationalised by as much as a third if considered holistically with other transport provision, including university travel, further education and voluntary services.

It was discovered that the partnership accounted for over one million cars on the road each month, generating over eight million kg of CO2 emissions. Around 700,000 square metres of car parking spaces are needed (102 football fields) to accommodate this demand. Nearly 43 million miles are travelled each month by the combination of staff and students – accounting for almost 30,000 workdays. Around 10,500 employees of the cohort live within five miles of their work place and 99 per cent of employees could rideshare with at least one co-worker living near them. The potential for change is great if the approach to travellers is correct and they can see, and share in, the social benefits that a social enterprise could bring.

All, of this, and much more, was emerging at a time when the university was in the process of building a new campus for over 14,000 students – with no car parking spaces. The county council was moving into a new building for access by around 2,500 staff, with only 134 dedicated car parking spaces. The hospital and other medical facilities had car parks at capacity and with little scope for growth.

A new solution was needed and the social enterprise model provided a fresh approach that was both affordable and sustainable for the partners if they acted collaboratively. No single organisation can deal with these pressures in isolation.

Northamptonshire have taken the concept of the original programme, looking at public sector procurement, and are now pushing it further to examine any employer or service provider in the area that is willing to contribute. They are doing this by mapping a substantial number of journeys that can provide targeted interventions to encourage more journeys to be combined.

This and other case studies related to reducing congestion can be found in the LGA publication 'A country in a jam: tackling congestion in our towns and cities'.