Saturday 18 April 2020

It's The Least They Could Do

At least in my part of the transport world, there is a solid consensus that in the light of the Coronavirus, we should be doing more to help people safely exercise and make essential local trips.

It was therefore great to see that Brighton & Hove City Council will be making Madeira Drive a place for walking and cycling by temporarily banning motor traffic from Monday between 8am and 8pm; there will be stewarded access for businesses from the east. The street is right along the seafront at beach level which makes it a great place for the scheme. Madeira Drive doesn't go anywhere - the parallel A259 Marine Parade is for through traffic and so when the crisis is over, I really hope the city looks at repurposing more of the space on a permanent basis because at the moment, it's mainly turned over to car and coach parking. 

The change has come in no small part to the efforts of Mark Strong, the managing consultant of Transport Initiatives and long time resident of the city. Mark has been pushing for some safe space to enable people to exercise and his note setting out why and how local authorities can take action has been a fantastic resource for people to understand the subject - it has also now been published as a CIHT blog post.

When cities across the world are well ahead of the UK on this matter (as always seems to be the case) a story like this really is newsworthy and there's a good write up by Carlton Reid in his piece for Forbes. Reid makes reference a "loosening" of the rules around traffic orders by the Department for Transport with reference to guidance published this week. While there is a positive that the DfT has provided guidance in the face of the crisis, the cynic in me sees it as the least that they could do. Why am I cynical?

The advice note makes reference to two pieces of legislation;

The first relates to England, Wales and Scotland and essentially sets out the process how temporary traffic orders are dealt with. The latter of course relates to England and Wales with the Scottish equivalent being The Local Authorities' Traffic Orders (Procedure) (Scotland) Regulations 1999 which apparently has been missed in the DfT guidance. Northern Ireland has a different process which makes orders for all changes and again, not covered by the DfT.

In the case of the two areas of legislation (and the Scottish version of the second reference), these are Regulations which spawn from the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984.

The RTRA1984 sets out the powers that traffic authorities have to manage traffic and are broadly covered by temporary traffic orders and permanent traffic orders. There are also experimental orders, but in essence, they end up with a permanent order in the end (if made permanent). The Regulations specify the processes traffic authorities must go through. In short, Act = powers to do stuff, Regulations = how stuff should be done.

So with the RT(TR)PR1992 (yes lots of short hand), this specifically refers to S14(1) of the RTRA1984 which reads as follows;

(1) If the traffic authority for a road are satisfied that traffic on the road should be restricted or prohibited—

(a) because works are being or are proposed to be executed on or near the road; or

(b) because of the likelihood of danger to the public, or of serious damage to the road, which is not attributable to such works; or

(c) for the purpose of enabling the duty imposed by section 89(1)(a) or (2) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (litter clearing and cleaning) to be discharged,the authority may by order restrict or prohibit temporarily the use of that road, or of any part of it, by vehicles, or vehicles of any class, or by pedestrians, to such extent and subject to such conditions or exceptions as they may consider necessary.

It's therefore about managing works on the highway, dealing with danger or street cleansing and not intended to be for some sort of temporary traffic management layout to test things out or to give people space as with the virus. Danger from traffic to people exercising is not a legitimate use, this would be about a road collapse, dangerous building etc.

For permanent traffic orders, the process is set out in the LATO(P)(E&W)R1996 as they are with the Scottish equivalent and this includes the experimental traffic order process.

In both cases, the "relaxations" from DfT relate to the following;
  • Advertising traffic orders in local newspapers
  • Placing notices on site
  • Making documents available to the public
The requirements do vary a little depending on what we are doing, but I won't bother with the detail here. With the first point if an advert in the local paper is needed and the paper has gone digital, the DfT is saying advertising in it won't reach everyone because not everyone has internet access and so the traffic authority should put in some extra effort to make sure everyone is informed. In the case where the local paper has closed, then the advice is also do more, but be able to demonstrate the fact. 

Where a site notice is required, the advice is that it is still required and so traffic authorities should put procedures in place for the safety of staff in terms of the virus, but if they decide not to use site notices, then weigh up the risk (which I assume is from a challenge to the order which may well be low in the current circumstances).

With making documents available, traffic authorities are meant to make them available for the public to inspect during normal office hours at the principal place of business. Clearly, many offices are closed and we don;t want people travelling to see traffic orders. The advice is to therefore perhaps place on the council's website or display outside their offices, both with telephone numbers or email address for more help. The latter means notice boards are required and people would still need to travel and this is not a legitimate reason to travel under the Coronavirus laws anyway.

In my view, the advice doesn't remove any requirements from the traffic authorities responsibilities under the law, it merely gives some suggestions about complying as best as possible under the current situation. So what, you might ask. Indeed, perhaps it's only people like me that worry about stuff like this and in fact, many traffic authorities go way beyond the Regulations in any case because stuff is routinely on websites anyway and there are often letter or leaflet drops taking place. Even placing site notices by staff can be safely managed with a safe system of work.

I think the reason I take an interest is because even under crisis conditions, we simply get no practical help from the Government. Other than literally doing nothing and leaving traffic authorities to it, the DfT advice is the minimum help. Something more progressive would have actually changed the regulations to make it easier to introduce temporary layouts. 

For example, a real help would have been to use Coronavirus legislation to amend the RTRA1984 to allow things to happen in order to provide people with more space and have this reflected in the Regulations. For example, they could have added another reason for a temporary order under S14(1);

d) for the purpose of providing additional public space for walking and cycling in order to enable people to safely exercise or make essential trips for the duration of Coronavirus legislation being in force.

OK, I'm not a lawyer, but you get my drift! Going back to the start of this post, I mentioned Mark Strong's note. My takeaway from it is that the best way forward would be for traffic authorities (from things which require traffic orders) is to go ahead using experimental orders to make changes and doing several things with the same order for efficiency. 

The experimental process is powerful because we can try things for size and adjust them. The first 6-month of a scheme is the public consultation and so we can cut right back on the detail of information going out because the layout will be on site for all to see. But we are still stuck with publishing the order 7 days in advance of it coming into force and having the issue of documents being made available to the public. 

The London Cycling Campaign and others have written to the transport minister, Chris Heaton-Harris MP, asking for the Government to encourage local authorities to roll out schemes to give people more space. I think we should be going further to streamline the process and to give some other options depending on the specific circumstances. What is clear at the moment is that few councils in the UK are planning anything and the Government isn't exactly helping.

The coalition government of 2010-2015 did try to streamline things in England before with one of the key things being making advertising in local papers optional because of the costs. The newspapers' were up in arms over the proposal because of the loss of advertising revenue with the local authorities as captive customers. The plans were shelved.

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