Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Schrödinger's Roadworks

The subject of roadworks is one to get some people really angry, but I doubt these people even give a second thought on how it all works.

We've heard it all before and to be honest, I did wonder if there would be any point me blogging about the subject again. But yes, here I am anyway and this week it's been two things which have grated. First is the (re)announcement by transport minister John Hayes of a plan to limit roadworks to 10 mile sections and an investigation to see if speeds through them can be raised to 60mph.

The thinking (I am guessing) behind this is that drivers will put up with 10 miles of roadworks so long as they can drive 10mph faster than the current 50mph norm and thus saving a couple of minutes each time they drive through. To be clear, this is something Highways England has been asked to look at and so only affects motorways and trunk roads under their control; plus we don't know what HE will make of it.

The current state of the art with roadworks on high speed roads has evolved over many years. The use of 50mph speed limits (enforced by average speed cameras), temporary crash barriers, narrow lanes and logical layouts have been developed to keep drivers and roadworkers safe in what can be a risky part of the industry, but it also means that congestion through works can be mitigated and can ultimately keep traffic moving.

This might all prove to be possible, but putting the various safety risks to one side, it will undoubtedly increase the cost of undertaking works. In the article linked above, the president of the AA, Edmund King, is quoted as saying;

"If you look at sections like the M3 on the M25 to Basingstoke you have 25 miles of roadworks with a 50mph limit."

"It's very difficult for drivers to concentrate over a period of time at those speeds. Shortening the length of those roadworks would make it safer and mean less people are caught out."

I'm not sure how sticking to a speed limit is difficult and what the evidence is, but taking a 25 mile section of works down to sections no longer than 10 miles is going to reduce the economies of scale available with a larger scheme and will actually end up taking longer to deliver. The M3 project, along with many, are part of the change to so-called "smart motorways" which include adding lanes (often from hard shoulders) and control systems to try and create new capacity.

Regardless of one's position on whether road building of this kind is justified, it must at least be obvious that it will be disruptive while it takes place. With the government determined to add more lane miles on England's motorways and trunk roads, expect to see lots more works and so any "improvements" by a theoretical 60mph limit and limited sections of works will be lost in the background of the building frenzy.

The second thing to irritate me was the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, commenting as part of his (welcome in my view) announcement on cycling infrastructure funding;

“Our plans include consulting on two new Cycle Superhighways next year, in addition to a new East-West Route. And unlike the previous Mayor, we will continue to focus on how we can minimise disruption and congestion as we push ahead with the construction of new cycling infrastructure."

It is true that the current Central London cycle superhighways (the north-south and the east-west) did create disruption while they were being built. Some of this is down to the previous mayor, Boris Johnson, making a late entry into doing a proper job and so lots of work was happening at once. But if we think about it, these projects were large scale civil engineering projects and were always going to be disruptive.

It's the usual thing about public expectations being unreasonable and politicians not being honest; which creates a gulf (to be filled by talk radio phone-ins and lazy newspaper articles mainly). By that, I don't mean they are lying, I mean that they simply cannot face up to telling the public that if we undertake big projects on streets and roads it's going to cause disruption and it's simply not achievable to maintain the same level of service throughout such work.

At the end of the day and whether or not you agree with a particular scheme, there are people on the ground trying to deliver it. They are pressured into tighter amounts of space, restricted in the times they can work (with more and more being done at night) and often at the sharp end of public vilification. We will always have roadworks of some shape or form, perhaps it's time to accept the fact that it is utterly impossible to have roadworks which don't create any disruption. That is life in the modern western world. Deal with it.


  1. "difficult to concentrate at 50mph" is a pathetic excuse. Are these people unable to concentrate when the road is congested?

    Surely most modern cars have cruise control as standard?

    1. Oh it's utter cobblers to be sure.

    2. I agree completely that it's the ball's ox as a reason.

      That said, in response to Simon's cruise control suggestion, I've recently encountered on a hire car a user-set speed limiter. I've then proceeded to drive a stretch of 50mph motorway roadworks, and ya know what? All I had to do was keep the pedal fully down, letting up slightly (as in normal driving) if I got too close to the car in front. I had so much cognitive bandwidth available to me that I mulled over using this fantastic feature everywhere I drove. And then proceeded to do just that.

      The upshot? Given the choice, many drivers may actively take the choice to limit our speed(ing), especially in urban areas or areas of high risk. This fits well with ERIC, and I'd hope will become more common on more vehicles.

      And in case you're thinking it's like cruise control, it kind of is the opposite. It's easy to go slower, harder to go faster (but not too hard, just push the accelerator past a 'click'). It will never send you flying into the back of anyone the way cruise control so easily can.

  2. I don't understand the correlation between speed and concentration. Would this be why there 20 zones are such a slaughterhouse.

    I did a bit of temping on the motorways in the early 90s, 3-4 months litter picking on the M3 and slab ditch clearing on the M3. (Also changing coloured cats eyes on the A303/34, but back to my point) Chatting to the blokes, of whom I had a great deal of respect, I got the impression that the lower speed limit was for the safety of the road workers. A large artic truck travelling at 60 can suck you into the path of other fast moving vehicles. They even had quad bikes to use on light controlled contraflow to keep the traffic slow and not allow them to pick up too much speed.

    1. Oh yes, the 50mph (with demountable crash barriers) is very much from a roadworker safety point of view! Haven't seen quad bike marshalling for a long time, I suspect those situations probably have road closures these days.