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blog: On the road to nowhere?

Author: Jon Parker

Oh! what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive…  Earlier this week Highways England published their latest ‘Post Opening Project Evaluations’ (POPE) assessing the impact of £317m of pinch-point highway improvement schemes.  These interventions sought to 'stimulate growth in the local economy, relieve congestion and/or improve safety' and HE should be applauded for releasing such an open appraisal of their own schemes.  Indeed, the evaluation tells us an awful lot about both the performance of the individual schemes, as well as the wider transport planning industry.

April fool?

Published on April 1st (no, really!), the report considers the impact of a sample of 54 of the 119 pinch point schemes implemented by March 2016.  It reports that modest improvements have been achieved in journey times during the narrow AM and PM peak periods; totalling £5.1m of benefits in the first 12 months.  However, the detrimental effect of these interventions on journey times during the remaining hours of each day is even greater, with an estimated monetary disbenefit of £5.6m.  In effect then, the report's headline finding is that 12 months after the completion of £317m worth of investment, the true net journey time 'saving' is actually worth -£0.5m.

This level of impact falls well short of the 16:1 return on investment (£16 for every £1 spent) quoted in the foreword to the same evaluation report, which is attributed to previously delivered Local Network Management schemes.  It is therefore hard not to come away from the report with the impression that the range of evaluated pinch point schemes has been poorly defined and delivered, or the rationale behind their conception was flawed.  This alone warrants further scrutiny of the schemes themselves, and the process that led to them being granted such significant investment - more indeed than the £316m of central government funding that the Department for Transport committed to support its Walking & Cycling Investment Strategy from 2017-21.

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Feeling the pinch

Of course, many commentators (me included!) will point out that the very principle of schemes designed to address 'pinch points' on the highway network is often flawed from the outset.  This is largely due to the proven phenomenon of induced demand (or induced traffic), along with a number of other factors that I cannot explore in this brief post.  

In essence, if we build more highway capacity then we simply encourage more people to drive - as is neatly evidenced in the recent ‘alternative POPE report' prepared by Transport for Quality of Life for CPRE.  This should have been written into transport planning guidance ever since the publication of the SACTRA report in 1994.  

However it seems that, when it comes to addressing road traffic congestion, there remains a cohort of people who continue to believe that we can ‘build ourselves out of congestion’.  Highways England claims that signalising many of the pinch point junctions is the primary cause of the increased off-peak delay, which may well be the case.  However, the very fact there isn’t a more sizeable short-term benefit to be found in the peak hours suggests the case for pinch-point schemes is built on decidedly shaky ground.

The most troubling and important aspect, in my view, is the failure to consider a wider range of options for addressing identified road traffic congestion issues at the optioneering stage.  The root cause of this would appear to be the narrow brief given to Highways England (to operating, maintaining and improving England's motorways and major A roads, but not the transport network), allied to a current lack of a national transport strategy that is accompanied by budgets that could fund improvements to all modes of travel.  ITP picked this up in our appraisal of the A27 proposals on behalf of SCATE, and I stand by the need to critically appraise all options from the outset - focusing on the problems to be addressed and long-term vision of the places we wish to create.

Show me the money

The issue of how we best spend our limited transport funds is most stark when considering the following statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer when presenting his last budget - pledging ‘to deliver the largest ever strategic roads investment package worth £28.8bn from 2020-25’.  It is hard to conclude that anything other than 100% of this investment will go towards building and enhancing our network of major roads, in essence a decision that will almost certainly fuel further car use and traffic growth.  

This would equate to £576 million per town/city if it were instead invested to create a world leading sustainable transport network in each of our top 50 UK towns and cities.  Based on what ~£5m of Local Sustainable Transport Funding achieved per town/city, then it is not too hard to imagine each of these cities transforming lives and establishing happier, healthier, cleaner, less car-dependent places with such a funding injection over a similar 5-year period. 

Had the congestion challenges identified by Highways England been considered through a more progressive land use planning and sustainable transport delivery lens, then the outcomes would almost certainly have been more positive - if not in the short term then definitely in the longer term.  Yet, remarkably, there is no mention of the need to re-consider national transport budgets, carry out multi-modal optioneering at the design stage, widen appraisal scope to allow for sustainable options to be considered alongside highway schemes, or indeed to rethink the procurement processes that led to such schemes being proposed in the first place.  Instead the authors look to ways in which future appraisal mechanisms may be devised to help further justify why we might invest in similar schemes in the future!

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Avoiding repeat outcomes

On a more positive note, the report does state that Highways England should ‘lead a conversation’ on how success should be measured for small investment schemes going forward.  I would add that this could usefully be expanded to cover the full Highways England investment plan, so as to ensure that sustainable alternatives are evaluated properly alongside highway infrastructure schemes.

I sincerely hope that Highways England honours this and reaches out to those in the industry who understand sustainable transport appraisal, so as to help ensure we focus our efforts on schemes that have a real impact on improving the health, wellbeing, and sustainable future of our population.  I would certainly be delighted to play my part...

Jon Parker     Managing Director, ITP


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