Where are all the gritters?

I was recently tagged in a LinkedIn post about gritter tracking data from Traffic Scotland. You can see the data in question here.

It’s becoming more common for local authorities and government agencies such as Traffic Scotland and Highways England to show their gritter locations online. This has often, as in this case, been accompanied by a public poll for funny names for the gritters.  It’s interesting and it’s certainly good PR, although I do now roll my eyes at the ‘funny’ names as they are as original as most of my Dad jokes.

The post reminded me that I’d spoken about this subject before, at a Highways technology seminar no less. It seems my comments at the time are still true today -tracking gritters and sharing it with the public is fun, technically easy and yet pointless and perhaps even unwise.

What’s On Offer?

There’s a very responsive map with the locations of all Traffic Scotland’s gritters and a snail trail of where they have been. It’s quite a ‘busy’ map but it becomes clearer when you home in on smaller area.

Alongside is a disclaimer.

The Trunk Road Gritter Tracker page provides live tracking of gritters on the trunk road network.  It displays the current location of gritters and a trail with an age range for where gritters have previously passed along the trunk routes across Scotland.  The Gritter Tracker does not provide road treatment or gritting information.

That disclaimer shows the three big limitations of this service.

  • It’s limited to trunk roads and doesn’t cover the local roads most of us live and work on.
  • It doesn’t show whether the gritters have treated the roads or simply driven along them
  • Refresh rates are low so the trails are actually a collection of dots that don’t really join up

I don’t think this has much practical use. At a push you could deduce that a trunk road had not been gritted from lack of dots, but that’s about all.

It may seem that I’m being sniffy about all this rather than constructive. That isn’t my intention – I’d simply like to see this data turned into more useful information. I’m happy to acknowledge that there are other services already offering a little more..

Stoke, for example, have a similar service and have embedded it in their comprehensive citizen app. This goes further than the Traffic Scotland system by also showing the standard gritting routes and also bringing grit bins, their locations and requests for refills into the picture. This does make the whole thing more relevant to a resident looking out of their window at the snow.

I still don’t think this is very useful. In fact, putting a dot on a road which says ‘a gritter was here in the last two hours’ could actually give a false impression that the road is free of ice and safe to drive on.

There is also the question of how close to ‘live’ this data should be. Those who provide the service may have very justifiable concerns about sharing live location data for their workers, even if it is not directly personally-identifiable. However, if the data is not real-time or is somehow reduced in precision to obscure it then it’s hard to see how it could be used to provide useful services.

I suggest there are three major things citizens might want to know.

  • When do you grit the roads, and where?
  • What’s the status of the roads I need to use for my journey?
  • Is the council or highways agency providing me with a good service for my taxes?

Raw data, however nicely presented on a map, doesn’t seem to answer any of these questions.

The routes that are gritted, usually graded into 2 or 3 levels of priority, can be fairly easily presented via maps or address-based information. Simply knowing whether your street, or a street you use often, is designated for gritting is useful information that helps to set expectations.

Gritting is, by its very nature, partly guesswork based on the weather forecast so sometimes the wrong decisions are taken about whether to grit or not. Sometimes the forecast will suggest gritting roads above a certain elevation, but not lower ground. It’s not unusual for gritters to go out expecting a cold snap that never materialises, or worse, the opposite. This can lead the public to wonder why on earth gritters were / were not out!

Service managers can and do tell residents what they are doing on social media etc and I think ‘working in the open’ is a useful way to demystify the process. It can certainly help people to understand why the gritters were or were not sent out. If the gritters are sent out then it’s logical that as a motorist I would welcome that news too, via some form of alert service so I know to take extra care in my local area.

To address the second question I can envisage that third-party services, commercial or otherwise, could aggregate and interpret data to put it into a more useable context.

“Alexa, what’s my drive to work looking like?”

That requires a service to know

  • what is your route to work?
  • what have the road temperatures been for the past few hours?
  • have all the roads on the route been treated (combining data from local, county and national services)?
  • does travel information suggest there are delays?
  • would public transport be a faster or safer alternative?

I don’t doubt that this kind of service could be made. We’ve already seen apps springing up to consume data about bin collections (see Leeds Bins or one if its cousins for example) and present useful functionality to the public. I have no doubt that if agencies were to publish their gritting data in a way that allowed aggregation and timely access then similar services would emerge for gritting.

Why the coalition has got it wrong on ‘bin tax’

In the early days of office the coalition government, as represented by Eric Pickles (Secretary of State for communities and local government) and Caroline Spelman (Secretary of State for Environment) have set out their policies for waste collection. Setting aside the question of whether we need a national ruling for a service which is delivered and measured locally, I believe that the new policy is a wasted opportunity which owes more to party politics and the whims of the Daily Mail than to any kind of reasoned argument.

The main points of the recent speeches are as follows

a) a firm ‘No’ to variable charging (or bin tax as the tabloids have dubbed it)
b) hearty support for schemes which reward and otherwise promote recycling
c) a restatement of the Conservative manifesto pledge to reinstate weekly collections

The public response appears to be generally quite positive. On the face of it Council Tax payers will receive more frequent collections and will get vouchers and other rewards for putting out recycling. We are told that this will increase recycling, improve public health and reduce the local authorities costs of landfill.

The benefits of recycling are clear. Every kilogram of waste placed in a recycle bin is a kilogram if waste not sent to landfill. The economics are set to improve long-term, with the cost of landfill continually rising due to capacity shortage and escalating landfill tax. Recycling revenues may have taken a hit during the economic downturn, but long term the value of the recycled resources will rise as virgin products (especially oil based ones such as plastics) become more expensive to derive and transport.

So what’s to complain about? Why do I say that this is a missed opportunity? The policy forgets the simple, but effective mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle”, where recycling is the last (and least) option.

The waste hierarchy, accepted the world over, is a simple pyramid which puts waste into an order of social and environmental menace. Landfill, not surprisingly, tops the pile. It pollutes the local landscape, emits significant methane (a greenhouse gas many times more effective than carbon dioxide) and captures none of the valuable resources contained within the waste. Energy recovery (crudely put, burning waste to release the energy within) is the next worst option.

But look at the next level, third-worst, and what do we find? Good heavens, it’s recycling; the very thing that Pickles and Spelman want more of. Recycling is better than landfill, but it still represents consumption of a resource (usually a virgin material), shipment of a material across the country (if not the globe), gallons of diesel consumed by refuse trucks collecting it and considerable energy and effort consumed in converting back to another material. A material which is then shipped around the country again.

A closeup of unwanted toys in a dustbin

This is a huge poverty of ambition. Why are we settling for the next worst option rather than really educating the public about what waste and recycling really is and the environmental costs it carries. The new government could have made serious steps to eliminate household waste at source, which for the most part means tackling our retail packaging culture. As it stands we can just keep reusing our carrier bags and fool ourselves that this is a major contribution to making our consumption culture sustainable. The real message is that recycling may be better than landfill, but it still represents a huge use of resources which we need to avoid.

Still, on the plus side we’ve seen the back of those beastly bin taxes, right? Well actually they never existed in the first place. DEFRAs own documents on the subject support the then-government’s statements that variable charging schemes were to be revenue-neutral; that is to say that they could not increase total householder costs. What would have happened is that people who produced less landfill waste would have seen their costs reduced and those who produced more would have paid more. This ‘metering’ of waste is fundamentally no different to metering of all our other utilities. If we were to announce a flat rate cost for electricity, regardless of use, there would be outcry about the unfairness and there would be no incentive to use less. Yet this is exactly the system the popular press tell us the public are keen to keep.

Of course, establishing metering systems in which every bin is weighed and electronically identified with a tag would be expensive to implement. A certified weighing system costs around £20,000 per bin wagon, not to mention the costs of the back office systems to process all that data. A typical Borough council with 20 bin trucks would need to find around £500,000 to establish a robust and legal weighing system. This is a lot of money, particularly at a time when public services are being cut.

It is, however, interesting to put it into context. Over its 10 year life, such a system (across the whole fleet) actually equates to only around 20% of the fuel costs of the truck it’s fitted to (at today’s fuel prices). I think many householders would be amazed to hear that a waste truck costs in the region of £20,000 per annum for fuel alone. Reverting to weekly collections from fortnightly would presumably lead to a doubling of these fuel costs.

Still, even though the cost of weighing may not be as outrageous as it first appears, anything that avoids that cost has to be a good thing. Which brings us back to schemes to reward recycling which now seem to be fundamental to the government’s waste policy.

The pilots in Halton and in Windsor & Maidenhead use exactly the same weighing and bin chipping systems that the variable charging schemes require. So the capital investment in the equipment and systems is still required. The question then is “who is paying for it”? If there is a sustainable and scaleable model under which we can chip and weigh recycling and reduce landfill (and the associated costs) then I am all in favour. If the ongoing incentives to householders can only be achieved by Council Tax payers stumping up £500,000 per council to get the scheme started then I would much prefer to see the nation bite the bullet and target landfill with mandatory pay-by-weight schemes.