Hoddle street junction; Hoddle street junction;

Virtual highways: driving greater public engagement in new road schemes

Why improving public engagement is key to designing better highways

Despite the wealth of new digital tools to design them, the consultation process for new roads and highways typically remains largely unchanged. We still communicate with users and communities using the same lengthy reports, technical documents, impact statements and static images from 20 years ago. The only difference now is improved image and video quality, and that we publish them on the internet.

This outdated approach falls short, now more than ever, with 25 to 45 year olds often underrepresented in consultations, presumably preferring to engage online (if they could) rather than visit council offices to examine static plans. But without the ability to do so, they miss the opportunity to feedback and forfeit the chance to ensure proposed designs meet their needs. This could in turn increase misunderstandings and calls for public inquiries – which typically adds at least six months onto the project completion date.

Seeing is believing

Fortunately, new simulation tools and virtual exhibitions are driving a more engaging and inclusive consultation process. Using 3D renders and virtual reality fly-throughs, we can experience the proposed route and its acoustic impacts before it’s built. This transforms the public consultation process into a sensory experience – improving the level of understanding about the project, and it’s social, environmental and economic impacts.

Arup’s DriveSim app allows users to immerse themselves in a proposed new development.

Driving understanding

Thanks to advances pioneered by the videogame industry, truly immersive experiences can be created quickly and at low cost. Arup’s DriveSim app was recently used on highway and rail projects, allowing users to self-navigate routes and experience the implications. The simulations are complex and realistic, incorporating the movements of cyclists, cars and Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs), and the effects of local weather patterns and street lighting options. Not only is it more fun than a static plan, road operators and stakeholders can address community concerns in a more relaxed and collaborative way.

Simulating the future

This simulation-based approach was used during the redevelopment of the Grade II listed A487 New Dyfi Bridge in Wales. By coupling a virtual reality model with acoustic modelling and location-based recordings, we produced an immersive experience of the proposed design. The model allowed users to ‘stand’ at different points on the bridge and understand exactly what they will see and hear when the new structure is completed.

Experience what the New Dyfi Bridge will look and sound like before it is built through our VR and acoustic simulation of the scheme.
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Creating an immersive experience

Relying on local newspapers to draw people’s attention to proposed local road schemes is well and truly over. Fortunately, it’s now possible to offer digital public exhibitions to allow more users to understand a scheme’s full implications and provide feedback. All of this can be done from the convenience and comfort of home or work through an interactive 360-degree virtual exhibition hall.

Digital consultation can also make the process more transparent. A wide range of scheme options can be easily shared for review and comment, rather than the preferred route. This brings people into the process earlier, facilitates a two-way discussion and improves trust. Finally, virtual exhibitions allow relevant information to be tailored for different age groups and types of road user, for those with disabilities, and even presented in different languages.

The public consultation process is outdated and fails to meaningfully engage communities. Simulation tools and virtual exhibitions encourage understanding and help ensure highways genuinely meet the needs of the communities they’re designed to serve. ” Chris Furneaux Associate Director Highways

Bridging the expectation gap

Beyond improved understanding, a more engaging consultation process will also save road and transport authorities time and money. The additional costs of these new methods will be more than offset by the avoidance of drawn-out and costly changes down the line. Virtual exhibitions and powerful simulation tools have a much greater chance of winning over hearts and minds. And in today’s world, this is simply what the public expects.