Public engagement as a solution in the quest for sustainable mobility
'If you want to improve safety on busy school routes, it is essential that government knows where the busiest school routes are and what sorts of problems are experienced there.'
For many years now, experts have been in agreement that to solve traffic safety problems attention should be focussed on the so-called 3 E’s: education, enforcement and engineering. But after years of effort it seems that the high expectations which this approach elicited have not been met. Meanwhile a 4th E, engagement, has come into the picture: intensify public engagement in the pursuit of more traffic safety. The high number of accidents, after all, is nothing more than the sum total of individual accidents.
We can draw a parallel with the current mobility challenge that we are all trying to solve—i.e., the increasing congestion. Here, too, a mix of measures within the areas of infrastructure, behaviour and enforcement can be very significant. But as with traffic safety the 4th E is pertinent here. Every journey which contributes to congestion and pollution is driven by a pattern of individual needs. If we zoom in on the role of the individual, then we find that the processes aimed at involving or informing the public at large go no further than awareness campaigns or small-scale public hearings. With present-day technology and communication media, however, there are plenty opportunities to take this a step further. But this remains a vacuum, receiving little attention, as not everyone seems convinced of the need for participation within the mobility policy domain.
The Voetgangersbeweging (Flemish Pedestrian Association), which for years has dedicated itself to promoting traffic safety and the right of movement of every individual, has been actively searching for methods to increase public involvement. Not only can this provide a wealth of information about popular transport habits; public involvement can also increase the engagement of ordinary citizens.
The Octopusplan©® which was launched in 2006 testifies to this. The plan arose from the desire to promote traffic safety and sustainable transport behaviour to and from school. At the time when the project was launched, however, there was no uniform approach to the simultaneous addressing of infrastructure, the link with education inside the schools, and the involvement of relevant stakeholders. Neither was there any coordination between these elements. Thus, concretely, internet-based software with an adapted GIS module was developed, in which every school could systematically work on its plan. Schools can add information about their situation, such as the number of cyclists on a particular school route, the distance to school, bottlenecks etc., but they also receive a great deal in return to support them in their key tasks. The integrated teaching method Octopus Traffic Land, for example, is a major stimulus for schools to do further work on the plan. Children or parents can likewise benefit from joining an Octopus Plan. The software, after all, offers concrete opportunities for simplifying the organisation of transport, and usually for the family as well, in terms of walking, cycling and car pooling. Computerisation also means easier processing of large volumes of research data, exploring relationships with other data, and thereby saving costs. Schools no longer need intensive support. As a result of this approach, 20% of the schools in Flanders have already joined the project.
Government, naturally, is also an important stakeholder in improving traffic safety and stimulating sustainable mobility. Adjustments made to school routes or specific traffic enforcement, after all, are part of government’s responsibility. It is, therefore, important that the information collected by schools is also made available to government. If you want to improve safety on busy school routes, it is essential that government knows where the busiest school routes are and what sorts of problems are experienced there. Only then can it take the right decisions to anticipate on problems.
Through its policy initiative Steunpunt Straten (Support centre Streets) the Voetgangersbeweging created the opportunity for municipalities to gain access to the information supplied by schools. The software allows information from different schools to be correlated and also be linked up with other policy data. For example, the integrated connection with speed cameras makes it possible to monitor the traffic situation along school routes automatically. Do lots of trucks pass along a busy school route? Are there many speed violations or is road crossability adequate? By bringing together information from schools (citizens) with traffic and policy data, government can better align policy decisions with the needs of larger groups. Government has every reason to involve as many stakeholders as possible in the process. Then, too, policy decisions would enjoy much broader social support.
Through this approach a new participation process was created that is not aimed at a handful of individuals. Children too, who are at present far less or not at all involved in shaping policy procedures, can make their contribution in this way.
The application of the Voetgangersbeweging was developed from an idealistic perspective. It is aimed at improving traffic safety on the ground and bringing about more sustainable mobility. All developments that happen within the framework of the project contribute to this.
We find a parallel in quite a number of commercial practices which make use of individual mobility data. For example, route navigation systems report traffic jams to other road users who are then immediately given an alternative route. Data from mobile telephones is used to calculate journey times. These applications are aimed at enhancing individual comfort, but also offer interesting opportunities for monitoring mobility policy.
On the other hand, these types of applications may at times also create traffic safety problems. Alternative routes through residential areas or village centres are happening all over, at the expense of people who do not make use of these systems. Not exactly an example of good practice that contributes to more traffic safety and liveability or sustainable mobility. While government could act in a very interventionist manner in these developments, we find only limited anticipation taking place from its side. The road sign databank which is currently being prepared by the Flemish government seems a step in the right direction.
Inspiring examples can also be found at a completely different level. Through computer games with accompanying pedometers children are stimulated to walk more. The steps (points) which they collect in this way can be used later in the game. In this way children are stimulated to move around sustainably and also to move more. The mobility data that could be obtained from this source might also be interesting to feed into mobility or road safety policy.
Provided the approach is good, further developments in this direction could have a very significant impact on our mobility in the future.
About Tom Dhollander
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