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Technology could make road enhancements redundant

David Metz Centre for Transport Studies University College London www.drivingchange.org.uk
15 May 2020

You report the legal challenge to the Government’s second Road Investment Strategy, which argues that the DfT failed to take into account the Paris Agreement on climate change (‘Judicial review sought of roads programme’ LTT 01 May). 

We shall see if the Government’s intention to phase out the internal combustion engine for cars and vans will be a sufficient defence, unlike the successful challenge to the Heathrow third runway proposal where the possibility of new technology was not a credible response. Yet there may be more impediments to RIS2 than judicial review.

RIS2 was published at the time of the recent Budget in mid-March, committing to spend £27.4bn over the next five years on the Strategic Road Network (SRN). The stated main priority is to maintain the existing roads. Only where existing roads are ‘simply not up to the job’ is the Department asking Highways England to develop wider, realigned or, in a few cases, wholly new roads to keep people and goods moving. Given this order of priorities, it is surprising that expenditure on maintenance is expected to be £12bn, less than capital enhancements worth £14bn.

Mid-March now feels an age ago, prior to the huge commitments of public expenditure to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. Will the funding allocated for roads withstand the scrutiny that will surely be necessary as the Government attempts to manage its enormous increase in borrowing? We need to ask to what extent road investment represents good value for money. Civil engineering is very costly, such that the rate of addition of lane-miles to the SRN in recent years has been less than the rate of population growth.

The road traffic forecasts underpinning the investment programme need to be reconsidered, to recognise that home working may become more common in the future, lessening commuting traffic at peak hours when the road network experiences greatest demand. 

Chris Stark, chief executive of the Government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change, has proposed spending the roads budget on broadband to get a huge return to the economy with people having better connections.

Yet there is unrecognised scope for investment in digital technology within the RIS2 budget. One odd feature of this DfT/Highways England publication is the disregard of digital route guidance, provided by Google Maps, Waze, TomTom and others. 

This is in very wide use by drivers because they find it of benefit in optimising routes under congested conditions and in estimating journey times. Roadside variable message signs are an outmoded technology, providing too little information, too late to be of much use.

There is a picture of a route guidance app on page 38 of the RIS2 document, but no mention of its relevance. There is a statement that “Highways England will work with Transport Focus to investigate future opportunities to make more granular information about delay on the SRN publicly available. We anticipate that this might include reporting on a regional basis, journeys between conurbations, and maps showing delay across the network on a link-by-link basis.” 

Highways England seems totally out of touch with the real world in which all this is already being provided.

Investment in digital technology would be far more cost effective than in civil engineering to improve the performance of the road network. Cooperation between public road authorities and private providers of digital navigation would be needed to optimise performance.

Regrettably, the private providers are very secretive about the functioning of their algorithms for providing individual drivers with optimal routes through congested traffic. So we do not know how provision of route guidance to large numbers of drivers impacts on the overall efficiency of the network.

There is a way forward. In researching my recent book, Driving Change, I discovered that legislation exists, dating from 1989, that requires dynamic route guidance systems to be licenced by the Government.

The intention was to facilitate a pilot system developed by the Transport Research Laboratory (then part of the DfT), although in the event this did not proceed. 

A licence may include conditions concerning unsuitable roads that should not be offered in route guidance, and provision of information on traffic conditions to road authorities. 

No such licence has been issued, yet this mechanism would provide the basis for public/private collaboration that would be very cost effective in achieving better outcomes for road users. It would not conflict with the business models of the private providers, which depend on selling either location-specific advertising to retail businesses or equipment to car manufacturers. 

The DfT and Highways England appear to have a fixation with shifting earth, pouring concrete and rolling tarmac, which is very costly and well behind the times. Fresh thinking is needed.

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