Sunday, 15 October 2017

Is The Law Stacked Against Active Travel

A bit of musing this week on whether the law reflects the public opinion and in turn, is it the problem when it comes to trying to get change for active travel.

I covered the traffic order process some time ago with a specific point about how the law operates in terms of ordinary roads;

"The archaic way in which highway law evolved in the the UK means that roads are essentially open to all classes of traffic (including pedestrians and cyclists) and any change from this position requires a Traffic Regulation Order (TRO) or in London, a Traffic Management Order."

The only exception to the this apparent free for all is that of default speed limits which are nationally set - i.e. 30mph in lit areas and the National speed limit in unlit areas (known as restricted and unrestricted roads). The impact of this approach is that "might is right" rules and so active travel is marginalised in deference to motor traffic. 

A change to the status quo has to be dealt with on a case by case basis and aside from the physical costs of a scheme, the procedural and statutory requirements of making changes can be a particularly costly undertaking. For example, the physical works for a really simple filtered permeability scheme using a handful of bollards and a traffic sign would be broadly similar as costs for the procedural and statutory requirements to enable the filter to be constructed.

At the other end of the scale, a large project could need lots of traffic orders to make lots of changes and while the cost of the administration will be tiny compared to the works costs, it makes for a great deal of complication. Some authorities deal with this by way of a two-stage approach with the project being informally consulted (from a legal point of view) and once a broad decision is taken to proceed, the various traffic orders can be dealt with locally if there are unresolved issues. Sometimes, the process gets crazy.

In the London Borough of Camden, there is currently an inquiry into the Tavistock Place scheme. In brief, the project is using an experimental traffic order to change a corridor from a 2-way street for general traffic with a 2-way cycle track to a layout creating two one-way cycle tracks and a one-way for general traffic. Essentially it's a capacity increasing scheme for cycling and if made permanent, it would lead to a reconstruction of the street which would provide more pedestrian space too.

The inquiry is apparently being held as the experimental order was not properly deposited at one of the council's offices (held to be publicly available), although there were objectors and an inquiry adds a certain amount of independence and transparency to the proceedings. You can follow progress on the Camden Cycling Campaign's website. Objections is the key here. The law is arranged to invite written objections to a proposed traffic order as set out in The Local Authorities' Traffic Orders (Procedure) (England and Wales) Regulations 1996 as amended (Scotland is here); 

"8.—(1) Any person may object to the making of an order by the date specified in the notice of proposals or, if later, the end of the period of 21 days beginning with the date on which the order making authority has complied with all the requirements of regulation 7(1) to (3)."

Of course, the ability for someone to object is clearly important in a modern society, but I wonder if the whole thing ends up steeped in negativity from the off. It is interesting to note that highway authorities only have to consider written objections before they make their decision (broadly) and have to pay no regard to any written expressions of support.

On the one hand, this could be taken as a highway authority being able to assume anything they propose is the right thing to do and the statutory process is a democratic check in case a proposal has a potential impact on someone which wasn't envisaged. The same Regulations specify those who should be consulted as a matter of routine;

"4.—(1) Before making an order in a case specified in column (2) of an item in the table below, the authority shall consult the persons specified in column (3) of the item."

It's not unreasonable to consult other organisations which might be affected by a proposal - a filtered permeability proposal should be communicated to the emergency services for example. In all cases, the highway authority can also identify organisations as appropriate, but also must consult the Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association.

The provision of controlled crossings (zebras or signalised) also have a statutory requirement, but this time it is limited to consulting the police and giving public notice (s23 RTRA1984), although this often ends up being a consultation process as well.

The common theme with all of this is whenever we wish to control the use of (mainly) motor vehicles in terms of speed, access, parking and so on (in favour of active travel), the process becomes convoluted and it certainly brings out the objectors in force. 

Transport for London is currently consulting on two new cycle superhighways (CS4 and CS9). The first has a parish priest asking his congregation to pray against the scheme as it will "do more damage than the Luftwaffe" and the latter has a funeral director saying the superhighway should be built somewhere else. Even small interventions get savaged such as a proposed puffin crossing in Lyme Regis where the mayor of the town is concerned about the loss of parking spaces

Are these types of objections merely a manifestation of how reliant we have become on motor vehicles and the law which has developed around changing streets merely a reflection on this culture where so much time and effort has to be expended on dealing with objections?

I wonder where we would be if legislation was adjusted. As well as having to consult freight organisations, shouldn't consultation with local walking and cycling groups be mandatory? Perhaps written expressions of support must also be taken into account (whether or not they already influence decisions). In overruling an objection, a highway authority should really be able to explain why and in the same way, shouldn't an overruling of support be subject to some transparency?

What if the law was changed to require highway authorities to consider the impact a proposal has on active travel and for it to be properly and transparently recorded? You might accuse me of being biased and you would be right, but no more biased than a system which assumes a status quo which makes it so difficult to get change in favour of active travel.


  1. Up to about 10 years ago I used to get regularly sent letters of consultation as local rep for CTC (Cycling UK). I don't know it that was ever statutory.

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