Remember your old commute? In somewhere like London, spending twenty minutes on a packed tube train, before fighting your way through a bustling train station, was once a part of daily life.
Commuting may have been on pause for many people over the past few months. But as the UK government encourages a gradual return to the workplace, with social distancing rules still in place, we’ll need to completely change our approach to getting to and from work.
Public transport systems and roads were already congested, but forecasts suggest that with social distancing measures, London public transport will have one fifth of its pre-lockdown capacity.
To adapt existing infrastructure, the government has announced £2bn for cycling and walking paths in major cities, as well fast-tracking statutory guidance for the reallocation of road space. At the same time, transport hubs are evolving to keep public transport safe.
Digital modelling will be crucial for effectively redesigning our infrastructure, in a tight timescale. With Building Information Modelling (BIM), advanced simulation tools and collaboration platforms, we can find the best ways to commute safely and evolve our transport system for the future.
Under government guidelines, local councils are tasked with reallocating existing roadways to cycling and walking routes. But identifying the optimum solution is a challenging undertaking – and understanding the impact on the movements of cyclists, pedestrians and motorists will be critical to evaluating the best routes.
Urban context modelling tools can be used to rapidly build urban environments from valid geospatial data and digital asset records. Civil engineers can then model potential changes and simulate traffic movements, to explore their impact.
For example, how will widening a pedestrian walkway and adapting one lane of road into a cycle path impact capacity on the road? Are there “quick wins” available in closing roads to traffic to create cycle thoroughfares?
By simulating and analysing each scenario, civil engineers can make recommendations on the options that will increase capacity, protect commuters’ safety and minimise negative consequences elsewhere. And with positive benefits for health and emission reduction, the potential benefits are significant.
Public transport hubs are already changing to support social distancing. London Bridge train station, for example, today looks very different, with closed entrances and new one-way systems.
Modelling tools can help planners to better understand these assets, by evaluating the capacity of a space and simulating people’s movements within it. With tools like computational fluid dynamics simulation, it’s also possible to understand the airflow in a station, to evaluate the risk of virus transmission.
As demand on public transport increases, models can be used to redesign the layout of spaces – evaluating how changing the entrances or exits, limiting the number of ticket barriers or creating one-way systems on platforms could work. Importantly, modelling tools can also simulate the impact of emergencies, to ensure that commuters could be protected or evacuated in the event of an incident.
Adopting common data environments, from the redesign right through to operations, can provide data continuity across these projects – delivering significant value. As well as supporting the planning and construction phases, models can be used by facilities management teams to support the safe operation of stations. Data on how the station functions in practice can then be collected to inform any future modifications at the location, particularly as guidelines evolve.
Any changes to our transport infrastructure involve a large number of stakeholders, including local government, public transport bodies, engineers and contractors. Digital models can be used to engage a wide range of participants, right from the beginning of the project.
With 3D models, non-specialists can more easily visualise proposed designs and their impact. This can enable a wider range of people to share their feedback, whether it’s the public sector client, facilities managers or even end users like cycling groups.
Cloud-based platforms enable feedback to be shared rapidly, directly on models where needed. This will mean that new designs can be refined and approved more quickly, so work can get underway. And ultimately, engaging a wider group of stakeholders will help to ensure that the alterations deliver better results for everyone.
Many of the changes to the transport infrastructure that are under consideration will help us to address the immediate commuting challenges posed by COVID-19. But in the longer term, there are likely to be significant changes to where and how we work – with implications for our transport systems.
The widespread adoption of remote working during the lockdown has challenged assumptions that people need to be tied to a certain location to do their jobs. This may in turn mean that work and travel is less centred on major cities, and we need to improve links outside of urban areas.
Equally, we have the opportunity to reconsider our transport systems to support longer term goals, such as reducing carbon emissions, improving air quality and supporting public health. We can redevelop urban spaces and potentially address the population density that contributed to the virus.
But ultimately, to make the most-informed decisions for the post-COVID world, we need data. Asset managers should look to collect data on how routes and spaces operate in practice, whether through Internet of Things sensors or sources like Wi-Fi analytics. Having detailed, data-rich models on the existing infrastructure will enable more informed planning for the future, especially as our transport needs continue to evolve. This philosophy underpins the UK National Digital Twin initiative, that is exploring the long-term value of better linked data for the entire built environment
Our transport systems are changing rapidly, to keep people safe while enabling a return to more normality. But adapting this infrastructure is a complex undertaking, involving a wide range of variables and stakeholders.
With digital modelling, civil engineers and planners can not only find the most effective adaptations for today, but start supporting commutes that are safer, greener and healthier. This will be a vital stepping stone to the UK’s long-term recovery.
Hear more about construction’s post-COVID-19 future in the CIHT podcast, Building Digital Britain.