Chapter 5. Inter-Urban Road Appraisal 1950s-1990s

Volume 1 Part 2
Brief résumé of Chapter 5:
Inter-Urban Road Appraisal, 1950s to 1990s

Professor T. E. H. Williams CBE, PhD, FICE, FCIT, FIHT
formerly Chairman, SACTRA
Past President, IHE

Chapter 5Following a complete academic career including 26 years as Professor or Research Professor of Civil Engineering at Southampton University (and Emeritus Professor thereafter), Professor T. E. H. Williams CBE recounts the development since the 1950s of appraisal of the weight of a case for a motorway, or new or improved trunk road, from calculation of economic return on the financial investment to comprehensive review of the project's economic and environmental significance. While this goal was keenly advocated politically, the evolution of appropriate methodology over the years resulted from contributions from various professional disciplines practised in research and academia and codified by officialdom.

Through the 1960s reliance was placed on calculating the "First Year Economic Rate of Return" (ERR), looking forward to traffic conditions predicted for the date of the project's first year. The difficulties of prediction of the difference which a motorway would make led to wide ranging research in the wake of similar studies in the USA and to the Midland Road Construction Unit (MRCU) developing in the late 1960s a traffic distribution model for its complex main road system.

By 1972 a computerised system of cost benefit analysis (known as COBA) had been developed within the then Department of the Environment, carrying responsibility for transport. The model incorporated the results of the studies of traffic, and particularly of safety, but it was recognised that further development would be needed to incorporate more than the basic economic values. Environmental values would be among the more important additions required.

In 1975 the Department attempted to apply the principles of the MRCU's Regional Highway Traffic Model to predict traffic distribution nationally but, while a mass of useful data was collected, the administrative arrangements did not run to one essential: roadside interviews on existing motorways. From 1977 its progress was guided by the inter-disciplinary Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment chaired by Sir George Leitch KCB, OBE (which in 1980 became the Standing Committee on Trunk Road Assessment with Professor Williams as its Chairman). Thereupon in fruitful dialogue with DTp's professional staff, there developed the use of a systematic framework in which the values of environmental assets - some quantified, some unquantifiable - but all included alongside the traffic and economic assessments. Thereafter the environmental elements were expanded so as to consider the extensive detail of potentially harmful effects.

What made Professor Williams's personal contribution in these contexts so effective? The answer is to be found largely in his academic training and in his persuasive and well-informed mind. It also owed much to his Welsh upbringing and to a strongly musical sense of orchestrated balance, proportion and progression, but one where no word or allusion was wasted. One of his formative childhood memories must have been the building of an early and now famous pre-stressed concrete road bridge at Ystradgynlais during 1932, just before he started at Ystradgynlais Grammar School at the foot of the steep climb into the Brecon Beacons from Swansea. Swansea was then a city whose wealth came from smelting and minerals, mostly going by railway or through the docks. Virtually every railway ride or any trip on the South Wales Bus Company's red and white buses and trams would pass over difficult civil engineering challenges, often cleverly met.

Not surprisingly therefore his keen observational powers informed the interest in civil engineering which blossomed at the University of Wales in Swansea though his BSc and MSc until Durham University's Engineering School in Newcastle finally saw him to his PhD. By 1967 he had risen to be first the Rees Jeffreys Reader, and then to a Professorship in his subject. He would appear regularly on S4C as a Welsh speaking contributor to television coverage of transport matters, but yet was never blinkered by his Welshness, being equally at home on the international stage. In 1955 he was a Post-doctoral Visitor to the University of California at Berkeley. One aspect of that American sojourn was a friendship with Howard Stevens, later to be Managing Director of Alfred McAlpine Construction.

This was indeed the period when much that was later to prove of great practical value to the English motorway programme was to learned from the Association of American Highway Officials - while England's county surveyors were still struggling to grasp the precision of the California Bearing Ratio and other ideas as they were planning to build under the Special Roads Act of 1949 a system of motorways, the first of which opened in December 1958.

His great gift was always to make these technicalities and the process of modern construction seem readily approachable. This came from a simple delight in sharing his own understanding and his experience of employment in research work though 1945 with Armstrong Whitworth on stress measurement in aircraft and then as Assistant Engineer for Glamorgan County Council working with The Department of War Transport on its planned head of the valleys road and other Trunk Roads through 1946. However, as natural teacher seeking a wider canvas, he soon found his natural home in an academic career in civil engineering and transport . He began work in Newcastle as a Lecturer in Civil Engineering under Professor Fisher Cassie, both to be Presidents of the Institution of Highway Engineers. In 1967, just as the north east's motorway A1(M) was taking shape, with the social, economic, engineering and environmental case for it having been made effectively over the previous decade, he joined the Department of Civil Engineering in the University of Southampton as the Professor of Civil Engineering before in 1983 he was appointed Research Professor in Civil Engineering in that University. He held that Chair until he reached his seventieth birthday in 1993, but continued as an Emeritus Professor so that his life's service included over 30 years at professorial rank.

His manner at the lecture dais or at the conference table led one on through the invariable kindness and courtesy of his nature to appreciate the treasure and precision of his mind. His life in teaching and research led to more than a stream of pupils and publications. His publications contributed substantially to the application of his seminal ideas in the practical world of transport and its infrastructure in all the variety of the environment. His publication record includes in 1956, "Expressways, Freeways and Parkways in the USA: Design and Construction Factors", which proved to be a substantial influence on the making of policy and the building a motorway system in Britain. Publications followed in a considered and widening stream, in 1963; "Capacity in Traffic Engineering Practice"; in 1965, "Autostrade: Strategia, di svilluppo industiale e la vitalita delle nostra citta"; in 1966, "Prediction of Traffic in Industrial Areas"; in 1969, "Inter-City VTOL: Potential Traffic and Sites" and "Motorways and Primary Urban Roads"; in 1971, "Mobility and the Environment"; in 1973 (ed.), "Transportation and Environment: policies, plans and practice"; in 1976, "Integrated Transport: developments and trends: Air, Rail and Road Inter-City Transport Systems"; in 1977, "Land Use, Highways and Traffic"; in 1978, "Motor Vehicles in a Changing World"; in 1980, "Motorway Usage and Operations" written with Lancashire's Chief Constable, Albert Laugharne, as a contribution to "Twenty Years of British Motorways", subsequently published in the Proceedings of a Conference at the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1980. In 1981 he published, "Transport Policy: facts, framework and econometrics"; in 1986, "Assessment of Urban Roads"; and in 1990, "Mobility UK and Europe: Critical Issues and Options".

He was heavily involved personally in all these issues through three decades in membership of public advisory bodies and as the chairman of some of them. For instance, he was a member of the Civil Engineering Economic Development Committee of the National Economic Development Office from 1967 to 1976 and its Chairman from 1976 to 1978. From 1977 to 1980 he was a member of the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment and its Chairman from 1980 to 1987. In the latter role, through years which saw much protest against plans for motorways, some of it involving his adopted county of Hampshire, he encouraged by his sensitive and well-informed chairmanship the emergence of some remarkable impartial thought about the systematic appraisal of every implication of every element in the planning of major road improvements. The contexts in which he advised would range through differing urban and rural environments with many implications for those who dwell among them. He was a member of the Roads Engineering Board of the Institution of Civil Engineers; the British National Committee of PIARC; the Council and Transport Engineering Board of the Institution of Highway Engineers, later serving as its President in 1979 and 1980; the Transport Committee of the Science Research Council; and the Public Policy Committee of the Royal Automobile Club. He knew too, as a Fellow, the breadth of the Chartered Institute of Transport's work. He was Special Adviser to the House of Lords Select Committee on European Transport in 1989. In relation to the Transport Research Laboratory, which had moved to a purpose built facility at Crowthorne in 1967, he served as a member of the Advisory Committee on Traffic and Safety from 1977 to 1980. He would be its Visitor from 1982 to 1988. The following papers written for the Motorway Archive represent his last significant writings but are models of brevity and coverage.