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£150,000 innovation challenge: bold new visions for roads

The Rees Jeffreys Road Fund Trustees are seeking ideas on how our roads (motorways, highways, or streets and footways) could best work for us all as we face the challenges of the next 50 years, writes Juliana O’Rourke

17 September 2021


The Rees Jeffreys Road Fund is celebrating 150 years since the birth of its benefactor William Rees Jeffreys by running a major new competition.

There is up to £150,000 available to fund the best suggestions, and a range of great prizes for creative and innovative ideas. Winners will be announced in early December 2021 – you can find out all the details on the Competition website at https://www.rjrf.uk

The Fund’s Trustees are asking entrants to consider a fundamental question: What’s your vision of the way in which our roads (motorways, highways, or streets and footways) could best work for us all as we square up to the challenges of the next 50 years?

It’s easy to enter: the Trustees are not looking for long, detailed reports with pages of appendices – a video, a slideshow, a model or poem will be welcome, along with a short explanatory note. The key requirement is for innovative ideas, creatively presented.


The need for innovation

Learning from the Covid-19 pandemic and from the pressing need to decarbonise gives this competition extra impetus. The pandemic showed that that we can change, and very quickly, if we need to. 

Traffic levels fell by up to 90% in spring 2020, and are only now creeping back to pre-Covid levels. 

Legally binding Government commitments mandates that surface transport in the UK becomes net zero by 2050, and the recent Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP) lists a range of measures to deliver this target, supported by essential behaviour change schemes. Transport secretary Grant Shapps stresses that the TDP is “just the start – we will need continued efforts and collaboration to deliver its ambitious commitments”. 

These efforts include innovative and creative thinking. “Transport is not just how you get around,” said Shapps. “It is something that fundamentally shapes our towns, cities and countryside, our living standards and our health. It can shape all those things for good or for bad.”

With this in mind, the heart of this competition goes way beyond traditional highway design: new types of kerbs, testing new kinds of surfacing, rewilding roadside verges, or replacing petrol stations with EV charging hubs. 

It even goes beyond improving buses as we know them and simply promoting options for ‘active’ travel – although Shapps did include a pledge in the TDP to make walking and cycling the natural first choice for all who can take them – but the question there is ‘how’? Essentially, this competition is about thinking differently. 

It’s about new ideas in social and spatial thinking, as well as innovative technology, design and engineering. Transport is one of the most emotive and complex areas of our lives, and the Rees Jeffreys Trustees suspect that the public’s understanding of the change required may be sharper than that of many policy makers, engineers or planners – and that’s what they want to find out.

No one is expecting entrants to solve all future road transport challenges, but the Trustees are sure that there are plenty of really interesting and innovative ideas out there, and they want to hear about them.

No-one is expecting entrants to solve all future road transport challenges, but the Trustees are sure that there are plenty of really interesting and innovative ideas out there, and they want to hear about them

No more business as usual

Today, most people drive, even for really short trips, and many more have Amazon parcels and Deliveroo takeaways delivered to their homes and offices. The road haulage sector called the TDP a ‘a blue skies aspiration ahead of real life reality’. 

So, with vehicle movements critical to the economy – recent empty supermarket shelves testify to the impact of an HGV driver shortage – what’s to be done? How do we allocate road space fairly? Is it politically sensible to dedicate road space for cyclists when there’s currently so few of them? Or do we need to celebrate policies and infrastructure design that limit or reduce the space available for motor vehicles – even when parked? 

As Professor Peter Cox of the University of Chester points out, speaking of new types of transport infrastructure, you can only really ask for what you know. “One of the central issues is that you can't imagine what you don’t know, and what has not, so far, been in your imaginative framework. It’s difficult to see what good feels like until you’ve experienced it.”

But what we’re faced with today is changing, Cox adds. “We are now facing a climate emergency, and business as usual cannot continue. So, the moral case becomes ‘how much can we agree to privilege one group of people over another’?"

Nick Reed of Reed Mobility said: “The future of car travel is one element in a dynamic transport ecosystem where the genuine need to travel has been fully considered, and the true environmental and societal impact of our choices respected. 

“Cars certainly have a role in that future. But with emergent connectivity and automation technologies, growth in cycling and micro-mobility, an increasing recognition of the importance of shared transport services and greater emphasis on decarbonisation, I would be surprised if the role of the car in the 21st century did not diverge significantly from that it enjoyed in the 20th.”

Human-scaled scenarios

With these changes on the horizon, Mark Moran, editor of Parking Review, said: “The UK definition of roads – consistent with that of William Rees Jeffreys – includes both highways and streets. This means it is not limited to carriageways for motor vehicles, but can include scenarios that are human-scaled and so more diverse – and possibly more interesting.”

Rees Jeffreys Trustee Andy Graham has asked competition entrants to consider “how we make roads more enjoyable”, but this competition offers a chance to rethink how groups, including (but not exclusively) vehicle drivers can derive enjoyment from roads in terms of pleasure and utility. 

How about thinking of roads as thoroughfares for cultural and social activity, as well as conduits for the Amazon lorry? About the pleasure that roads can give to people when used for practical and socially useful purposes, such as playing, encounters, shopping, eating, drinking and growing things?

Trustee Steve Gooding said: “William Rees Jeffreys was one of those rare people who could not only see into the future, but had the energy and knowledge to shape the way that future would play out. Facing today’s challenges, how would his foresight, and his imagination, have helped him see beyond the limits of today’s’ roads and today’s technology? And, more importantly, how will yours?”

Find out all the details about the competition at https://www.rjrf.uk

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