The impact of automated planning tools on transport planners

Comparing modern route planning tools on transport planners with Computer Aided Design (CAD) software used by architects

It wasn’t too long ago when huge technical-drawing boards, pencils, rulers and set squares were the go-to technology for drafting architectural drawings.

As computers enabled drawings to be captured on-screen, there was a shift away from mechanical to digital. No doubt there was resistance and even rejection but ultimately the power and flexibility of computer technology won.

Mapping data

In a similar way, digital tools are now available for transport planners to create routes using Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping data. Another development is Computer Aided Route Design (CARD) software which can show mapping information relating to trips, routes, destinations and pick-up points.

These systems are able to handle complex combinations of the requirements for managing transport. For example, when planning Special Education Needs and Disability (SEND) journeys, where it’s vital to ensure the most appropriate vehicle is used to suit the needs of the child; or when routes are planned for mainstream schools, where it’s important that pupils’ walking routes to bus stops are safe.

Expert knowledge

It goes without saying that transport planners are the experts, with knowledge and experience gained over many years. But increasingly they are being told to reduce the cost of transport provision and their decisions are under constant scrutiny concerning the efficiency of contracts.

Many consultancy companies claim to be better than local authorities’ in-house planners. And planners often have difficulty justifying their position to chief executives as data is held in spreadsheets or information systems.

Unlike CAD, where it was recognised that experts were required to create accurate technical drawings it seems almost everybody thinks they can do better when it comes to route planning.

Visual solutions

A CARD tool, like QRoutes, visualises solutions on a map and quantifies the difference between different options.

It helps planners communicate the rationale of their decisions, and it helps chief executives and other stakeholders quantify the cost benefit of in-house planning compared to consultancy.

So, what does all this suggest for a planner trying to adopt a CARD tool?

Firstly, getting the data. Ideally an export mechanism should be developed from an existing system. This is the ideal way forward as the planner can focus on the routing task at hand rather than playing with data files.

Data export and reporting

In many cases this is quite easy – most systems have tools to support data export and reporting. However, it’s likely to require expert support and that can be scarce with queues for assistance stretching out over many months.

But interim solutions are possible. For example, if there’s a standard report which has the basic data but not in the correct format, then an Excel Extractor can be developed to get the required fields.

Failing that, some sort of Excel manipulation of whatever data is available might be required.

Lack of training

So, the first requirement of the ‘new planner’ is perhaps a better understanding of data manipulation. Managers should be aware of this and be prepared to support with additional training if necessary.

There seems to be very little further education training or university courses for route planning, particularly based around routing tools as they are so new. But it could be facilitated by bodies such as the Association of Transport Co-ordinating Officers (ACTO).

Such accreditation becomes possible when tools are available to support planners and to allow them to demonstrate their skills in a more measurable way.

Sharing best practice

It should also become much more feasible to develop industry metrics to enable comparison of solutions across the country and to encourage sharing of best practice.

To conclude, CARD tools not only help with the planning process but also with the end-to-end process of capturing requirements, developing solutions and communicating results to stakeholders.

From the planner’s perspective it helps them to show they are indeed doing the right things and may assist with career development and recognition.

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