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Chapter 14. Technical Policy

Volume 1 Part 5
Brief résumé of Chapter 14:
Technical Policy

Professor Ron Bridle BSc, FREng, FICE, FIHT, FRSA
formerly Chief Highway Engineer for the Department of Transport
Controller of Research and Development and Director of the Transport and Road Research Laboratory

Chapter 14Professor Bridle, is a highly experienced civil engineer with a career in the Civil Service culminating as Director of the then Transport and Road Research Laboratory, followed by years of continuing innovation in the private sector. He has resumed research and added teaching at Cardiff University, before bringing all that experience to explaining the changing range and content of Technical Policy in two phases: one covering the development during the first twenty years of construction of the motorway system, and the other the changed climate of the second twenty years as public concern became increasingly voiced about the environmental implications of transport's development. Technical Policy in a Transport Department is essentially directed to securing value for public money. Professor Bridle describes how the professional skills for pursuing this objective were progressively organised not only to apply top engineering skill to ensure adherence to best practice in the field, and to learn from any mistakes, but also systematically to gather information about traffic in order to enable informed choice to be made in generating the motorway programme. The timely advent of computer capacity enabled both design of structures to be facilitated and the mass of information bearing on choice of motorway schemes to be analysed. Scientific research into aspects of design was organised mainly through the Transport and Roads Research Laboratory. Results were codified in British Standards and Departmental Manuals in determining the contents of which Professor Bridle played a leading part. Economical procedures were introduced to minimise risk of errors in design or construction, particularly of bridges which are an inherent feature of motorways. External expert advice was widely applied, for example, to landscaping. The advice of economists was engaged particularly in the methodology of applying cost benefit analysis to proposals for schemes. In the 1970s and 1980s, in a climate of challenge, Technical Policy was extended with multi-disciplinary external advice to develop attention to environmental considerations, in addition to its by then familiar ground of engineering, finance and economics, in the planning and implementation of further elements of the motorway system.

From insights obtained from these numerous fields of experience Professor Bridle looks to the future of Technical Policy where, in addition to guiding maintenance and management of the motorway system, it will for global and local environmental reasons have to be directed in association with land use planning to wider technological developments.

One objective becomes preservation of the operational value of the motorway system as a huge economic asset to a society which, deciding use of land however progressively to minimise movement of people within these shores, will nevertheless remain dependent upon economic success in world markets. Attaining this objective will involve changing the form of vehicles and their fuel as well as the conditions under which, and the manner in which, they will be used, so as to avoid human, economic and environmental damage from congestion and pollution.

By contrast with the illustrated methodologies for assessing the impact of motorways on urban life which was a growing concern of government from the early 1960s and was specifically advocated in the Report of the Urban Motorways Project Team to the Urban Motorways Committee of the DOE (HMSO, 1973), this essay focuses on a much wider challenges to show how the range of challenges and pressures stimulated the articulation and coherence of Technical Policy.

Professor Bridle writes:

"Emphasis changed over the period of constructing the network, as methodology was modified and knowledge and skills were improved but, most of all, as the public perception changed from general contentment that personal mobility was being improved. The current seemingly massive objection to highway projects is characterised by politicians who draw authority from `environmentalists' opinions.

Over the motorway era the methodology for assessing economic and environmental benefit became more sophisticated. The process of trading off one thing against another so that the advantages of economic growth can be assessed against any disadvantages has been continually reassessed and refined. Nonetheless many subjective judgements have been made since not everything can be pinned down by cost benefit analysis. While the popular view favours continued economic growth and relevant, focussed endeavour, a minority wish to see a zero growth society.

Minority factional behaviour can often sometimes overwhelm objectivity. It has become part of the strategy of that pursuit to portray "Authority" as Goliath and the "Protester" as David for that picture has regularly attracted more attention to the "Protester's" cause. Dispassion also becomes an early casualty in pursuit of a passionately held belief. Sometimes objections have taken a most rational form and secured, as a deserved reward, worthwhile changes of route such as happened with the M6 north of Carnforth.

Yet as a rule it is the steady and sometimes boring aggregation of facts by the Department which sustains the process of rational analysis and which in turn allows informed judgements be reliably made. Technical policy is about that careful assembly of knowledge, its distillation and its application. It reveals that the `Do nothing' option against which other options are judged, is not neutral. Blindly `doing nothing' has many disadvantages and no saving graces as anyone who has failed to maintain or improve what he has finds out. So, this essay is about the evolution of the process of gathering and analysing knowledge to present options to Ministers so as to aid their choice and then to translate their informed choices into construction where it is appropriate.

More generally, increasingly vociferous public hostility toward motorway construction tends to mask the related and more substantial problems arising from the demand for land by housing and factory development associated with economic growth. The entire motorway network takes up about 70 square miles (0.1% of the land available), which is comparable with the land required by the Third London Airport. Moreover the annual change of land use is about 4% with housing and factory development dwarfing the amount of green field land likely to be needed for improvement of the motorway network.

The urban sprawl has been abetted by free roads and parking. Road and road parking resources have been underpriced. Parking occupies several times as much area as workers' office space. It would not be unreasonable for employers to charge a fair market value for parking and pay every employee a compensating allowance equal to the after tax value. Workers, a third of whose driving miles are used in commuting, could then use that sum to pay for parking or find access to work by any cheaper method, living nearby, walking, biking, ridesharing, vanpooling, public transport and clerical tele-working or telecommuting. Users of these alternatives could pocket the difference. Government taxation could reinforce the change in behaviour. The area of parking would be gradually reduced to some fraction of the current level and denser and better housing could be established to reduce the land demand.

At present investment is diverted away from buildings and social cohesion into parking space making affordable and desirable housing scarcer and environment worse. Transport passes with each urban unit providing parking on town peripheries, (park and ride and park and ride home) would go a long way to reconstructing the way we live.

Housing layouts can be designed to make access to public transport, including goods carrying, easier with units clustered to increase the use of public transport. Splitting large clerical factories into much smaller dispersed units, and communicating with each other through computers would help allay problems of urban congestion.

A comprehensive smart travel card and the provision of a mobility service to ultimately supplant car owning would have a big impact on land use. Redesign of brown field and declining areas along such lines, with greater densities than currently used, would add, with the help of local and incoming communities, to the range of solutions and reduce the energy toll.

Although the practicalities of charging have not been fully resolved they soon will be and selective charging through a smart card can assist in optimising travel demand. Physical redesign to facilitate such charging will also enable better data about travel behaviour to be collected in addition to land use data based on postal codes updated as better allocated land use is determined.

It is emphasised that planning presentations, described elsewhere, and in use (Travellers, Visitors, Owners), can be augmented by a new review of costs and benefits, incorporating the kind of assessments described earlier. Local decisions should nest within national and regional assessments, bringing transport and land use into the same planning framework.

If nothing is done the levels of congestion experienced on the M25 and M5/M6 will inexorably spread to the rest of the network with accompanying economic and environmental damage. However, it is not possible to consider the interurban provision separately and the requirements for overall planning, previously described, is an essential background to pondering the future problems.

From the descriptions given it is evident that both new construction and widening will be a feature of future work. "Enhanced Serviceability" can be a phrase coined to describe the need to make the most of what we already have. However, considerable review will be needed to ensure that society is getting the greatest efficiency it can from the present infrastructure using the term as newly defined. Pricing for entry rather than by length for example may deter short distance trips or at least some equitable combination of both may be needed.

More restrictive interchange spacing would have the same effect. There is a Welsh joke that some interchanges on the M25 should be closed on the authority of the Secretary of State for Wales as commuter traffic impedes Welsh goods getting to the Continent. In addition some roads help defuse pressures for unsuitable development. The M54 reduced pressures for development on the edge of Wolverhampton and allowed the rapid development of Telford New Town, transforming the brown field industrial decay of Dawley, Wellington and Oakengates to a thriving urban area.

In the medium term more will have to be got out of existing passenger and freight transport using traffic management and operational improvements to at least maintain current levels of mobility. In the longer term the motorway corridors will remain a vital component in meeting interurban travel demand but increasingly novel use may be made of the existing infrastructure, particularly if new vehicles as described are commonplace dominated by computer management. The notion of an automatic convoy system will permit a substantial increase in capacity and provide opportunities to introduce new modes of public passenger transport and trains of freight vehicles. All vehicles can be subject to headway and speed control and travel without driver control. The technology for these developments exists but the organisational problems of introducing them mean that they will come into existence only slowly and encouragement through an appropriate technical policy will be crucial.

As to hard engineering the aims will remain the same in making the best use of new materials and reducing the maintenance burden. Providing for lighter vehicles will make considerable inroads into these problems.

The challenge for future technical policy is likely to be similar in principle but different in detail from the past. It will remain important to develop rational analysis of options to identify the best means of achieving the policy goals desired by society and not allow emotion and passionately held beliefs to outweigh logical and dispassionate analysis. Technical policy in the 21st century the challenge will need to maximise the huge contribution of the motorway network to an integrated transport and land use policy so as to make good use of the available infrastructure and strike an optimal balance as between public and private transport."