Keeping an eye on the roads from the kitchen... and milking parlour
The current lockdown has had a major effect on everyone’s lives.
And while there’s many things people will be missing right now, congestion on the roads surely won’t be one of them. But despite traffic levels being at an all-time low as far as many people can remember, there still needs to be a team of people keeping an eye on things.
Ordinarily the county council’s Urban Traffic Management Control (UTMC) team, normally based in Kidlington, would be keeping watch on around 60 cameras on our roads and another 12 on Highways England routes looking out for traffic jams and problems on 3,000 miles of Oxfordshire road.
Their eagle eyes sometimes pick up dreadful driving manoeuvres and occasional police chases, and their oversight of the 52,000 cars that use Oxford’s Southern Bypass alone every day shows the true scale of traffic in and around the county.
But surely now, with the roads being almost empty, the UTMC team will be taking it easy?
Not at all.
Keeping connected from the kitchen
The technology now used by the team means that the council’s nerve centre for monitoring travel is now doing its work remotely from living rooms, kitchens and studies across Oxfordshire.
They can often see when there’s a breakdown, crash or set of traffic lights not working. That means they can swing into action and inform partners like the emergency services and bus companies and also alert the public via Twitter and BBC Radio Oxford.
Amy Clark, one member of the team, currently has a mini nerve centre set up in her kitchen where she, and her dog, watch out for crashes and other blockages that could pose a safety problem or might impact on public transport.
From there she helps to keep the public informed via the twitter page @oxontravel, and the digital message signs which are located on roads around the county.
She explains: “We are all set up to be agile workers, this is to ensure we have resilience all year round, especially in severe weather conditions and now, pandemics.
“Wherever we are, we are in constant contact with the bus companies, police, Highways England and our own traffic signals teams.
“On a normal day I like the excitement of it all and having a hand in reducing delays for users of the network. It can be very busy at times and if there are incidents and long tailbacks it can be stressful.
“What has struck me is how everyone is sticking to the new rules, I am so used to seeing traffic on the screens I don’t think I expected the roads to be so clear.
“With COVID-19 the roads are very quiet, lots of roadworks have been postponed, so although it’s very weird seeing the roads clear on our camera, we appreciate that everyone is helping to keep each other safe by only making essential journeys.
“Even with the lack of commuters and general public driving round, the roads still need to be kept safe especially for the emergency services and public transport which is currently vital for many key workers.
“The biggest change is working from home. We have access to systems available in the office, such as remote viewing for our cameras and sensors, but it’s not the same as having the communication with other teams in an office environment. Being at home with my dog all day is lovely but am looking forward to get back to normality with my team.”
From the motorways to the milk shed
Al Ryan, one of the BBC’s traffic report team, is also working from home. He has a studio set up in a former milking parlour at his home in Wantage. He explains: "Working from home has taken a bit of getting used too, as there are so many distractions, like will I have another cup of tea, or will I just give the grass a quick trim!
“I quite like it, now that if gotten in to the routine. It's become the new normal. The technology has really surprised me and the ability to have meetings and broadcast from a shed in quality has been life changing.
“I miss the interaction with the team in Kidlington and the laugh that we all have, plus I miss my cooked breakfast on a Tuesday morning that is lovingly prepared and delivered by one of our most loyal listeners - Maggie of Kidlington.
“As the weeks have rolled on, you can see people’s attitudes changing, mostly for the better although clearly some people have issues with social distancing in supermarkets and only making essential journeys. It's getting a lot busier again on the road network.”
Cars are only part of the story
One of the lesser-known duties of the traffic control centre team is to maintain the publicly accessible details of bus timetables. Working with all the bus operators in Oxfordshire and some from neighbouring counties, they amalgamate the timetable data and push it out as a single source of information through Traveline.
This in turn then feeds out to Google and other centralised journey-planning transport databases.
Chris Spry, traffic control centre manager, said: “One new challenge is that there are changes in the way the bus operators’ schedules and fares are expected to be put together and published in the future. This is the Bus-Open Data model and we are spending lockdown-time changing our operating procedures to accommodate these changes.
“Of course, bus timetables have all been dramatically trimmed or suspended as a direct result of Covid-19 and this has meant a very high throughput just to keep things up to date.
“A second, more direct outlet for bus passenger information in Oxfordshire is Oxontime Real-Time Information and the team is also responsible for maintaining and operating this complex system. This has included a complete revamp of the www.oxontime.com website which has recently been rolled-out.”
It is fair to assume that the work of the team will fundamentally change over the next few years, not least because of technological advancements, but also due to wider changes in the world – including climate change, and as travel patterns change following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chris explains: “It’s likely that our focus will turn to monitoring air quality and energy consumption as much as traffic on the roads. Equally, our role will be to provide an information service to the entire travelling public – including cyclists, pedestrians and those that use shared transport such as buses or trains – helping to influence and promote more sustainable travel choices.
“We’ll continue to use our physical control room but increasingly automate and virtualise the way we work to manage incidents, accidents and events more efficiently. This includes utilising current and emerging technologies to achieve widespread understanding of what is happening and likely to happen on Oxfordshire’s network. We use a wide range of real-time and connected data sources (including CCTV, sensors and real-time bus information) to help us make operational decisions and to implement strategies which improve traffic flows.
“The future is uncertain but as ever, it is staff on the ground who are key to providing an excellent customer service.”