Exploring the smarter network at the end of the tunnel


Earlier this month the announcement that Highways England is considering building large tunnels over the most polluted sections of UK motorways prompted a mixed reception from the public and infrastructure officials alike.

One thing is certain: pollution is a pressing issue that needs to be controlled, and maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised by this announcement since similar schemes to deal with the issue of noise pollution in Australia have been initiated using canopies and special sound-blocking fences.

Simon Topp, director of international business at Yotta

The key is getting hold of the data needed to understand pollution levels and where the biggest issues are. This is now feasible with sensors.

Our own Alloy solution has the potential to be integrated in the future with noise and nitrogen dioxide sensors that could then be attached to street lights.

When highways authorities start to understand the importance of being able to collect this data and analyse it once it is collected, they will be well placed to begin planning what kind of schemes are required and where they will have the greatest benefits.

Having timely information is critical in this context. The authorities need to be able to make a decision based on reliable data so they can assess the cost of implementation against the benefits of the scheme.

Having access to this information will then allow them to present plans to the public in a precise way that could demonstrate that the level of investment is worthwhile and effective.

However, while short-term pollution solutions can and should be considered, the need to control pollution at the source by providing innovative, sustainable and future-proof infrastructure cannot be underestimated.

The Government’s plans to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars in 2040 is one example of this long-term commitment.

Road pollution will be greatly reduced with more electric vehicles hitting the road in the future, so it might be that a large-scale and significantly expensive short-term solution such as these tunnels does not ultimately prove to be the most beneficial way of tackling this pollution.

A key question for the UK road infrastructure authorities to consider is how do we prepare the network for the inevitable increasing growth in traffic volumes in the future and come up with solutions that will not just reduce pollution but also benefit road users?

To do this, we must begin to make our roads ‘smarter’ and learn lessons from other nations. Smart technology is already being widely used to drive down urban congestion. We already have traffic loops and sensors embedded into many UK roads, generally at junctions - but in some areas of the world, notably the US, we are seeing new technology further pushing the boundaries.

Emergency service vehicles in some areas of the US are equipped with GPS devices, enabling them to be part of a smart network that then links up with local traffic signals, ensuring they are given a ‘green alley’, and lights switch to ‘go’ five or ten seconds before they pass by.

The technology to enable smart cities is typically available in the UK but there are logistical and political challenges in rolling it out. The challenge is often that decision-making is devolved but city wide transport bodies and consortia across cities like London and Manchester may help drive through change in the future.

In summary, while the need to tackle pollution is rightfully at the front of everybody’s mind, by investing in a long-term vision to upgrade our infrastructure and transport network to a smart setting, we could be tackling two problems at once, turning our roads into a more efficient and less polluted means of transport.

Simon Topp is director of international business at Yotta

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