Saturday, 3 July 2021

The Playing Field Is Not Level

The problem with traffic management is it's predicated on the proposition that one can drive or park where and when one wants unless modified by national law or local traffic order. 

The management of our streets is a fundamentally unlevel playing field which takes significant investment in effort, political capital and public funds to do anything which favours the protection or prioritisation of people walking and cycling.

The need to add the ability for formal control tracked the invention and intensification of the motor car. The first restrictions actually predated cars a bit with the various "locomotive acts" adding restrictions towards the end of the 19th centuary. We were moving from steam-powered remnants of railway offshoots into the age of the internal combustion engine. 

In 1931, speed limits were abolished, but by 1935 speed limits were back with 30mph as the default in built-up areas following a huge increase in death and injury which Sir Leslie Hore-Belisha described as "mass murder".

Car parking is also tracked by legislation. There's a great potted history on the UK Parking website which shows the need for regulation and management always playing catch up with people's behaviour. Many local authorities have taken on parking enforcement powers over the last 20 years, but there are places where the police still enforce (with sporadic quality).

These days, we have a slew of legislation such as the Highways Act 1980, Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, Road Traffic Act 1988 (and 1991), Roads (Scotland) Act 1984, New Roads and Street Works Act 1991, Traffic Management Act 2004 and so on. The legislation has been developed in response to our changing needs around how roads and streets are managed.

With traffic management, any changes we want to make from the default positions of 30mph speed limits in urban areas, the national speed limit in rural areas and a free for all in terms of car parking requires either national (or devolved administration) changes or local traffic orders. While there has been some tinkering with the national speed limit, Wales pushing ahead with 20mph instead of 30mph for urban areas, pretty much everything is done locally.

When I say locally, I mean it. Street by street, change to the status quo by change to the status quo. At the barest legal minimum there is a requirement to advertise and publicise proposals. Rather bizarrely, freight transport organisations must be consulted with. Although other organisations and groups may be consulted if it is deemed appropriate by the order making authority, the Freight Transport Association and Road Haulage Association get special treatment. Another indictment on how things are skewed if you ask me.

Traffic orders aren't going to change the world on their own. They are part of a process which is required to enable lots of physical changes to become lawful, but the way in which they are framed automatically requires a certain level of administration. From an operational point of view, changing the status quo can be very emotive and elicit lots of objections which by law need to be considered (not necessarily agreed with but considered).

The law is again skewed here because only written objections are required to be considered. This is on the basis that someone might have a compelling and genuine reason to object because the proposal will impact them profoundly, but this is always at risk at getting lost in the noise and heat; in many cases, people with genuine needs won't or can't respond and risk getting missed altogether.

So, how would I change things? It's going to be tough to unpick decades of legislation and design which have got us to this point, but maybe I can offer some ideas, none of which are particularly novel.

Default speed limits
20mph should be the default speed limit for urban areas and 40mph for rural. Any change from that should be on a case by case basis requiring the local authority to provide justification.

Parking in marked bays only
Allowing parking on streets should be by invitation only - in other words, people can park where there are marked bays. If there isn't a marked bay, then you don't get to park there. Loading remains fine in unmarked areas for up to 20 minutes. Loading bans would just require repeater signs. If we really wanted to push it, then parking would be charged for based on the land values.

Footway parking ban
Let's deal with it once and for all. No more parking on the footway. If a local authority wants to take space from a footway, then it should require carriageway widening along with all of the utility costs and public consultation. Oh, and if the remaining footway space is going to be less than the 2 metre minimum width set out in Inclusive Mobility, you're not having it.

Duty to create a network management plan
The Traffic Management Act 2004 sets out the "network management duty" of highway authorities, but it's high level and doesn't really compel detailed thought and analysis of how the network should operate. We also have the Road Traffic Reduction Act 1997 which never really got going and was largely ignored by the ConDem government, although Local Transport Plans and Local Implementation Plans (London) are still around (and the devolved administrations have their own approaches).

I think we need an overhaul of this. Local authorities should have a duty to develop network plans which require every street to be classified in terms of its traffic function with a long term plan to retrofit the network to match the classification. Side streets should lose through traffic functions and main roads should have cycle tracks and crossings by default (some local authorities are already doing this).

Bring back the targets
The ConDem government essentially got rid of casualty reduction targets (although local authorities could still have their own) thus cemented the start of a "lost" decade of dealing with road danger on our roads which hasn't really changed with the current government. Absolute numbers are notoriously volatile and don't properly deal with "risk exposure", but there needs to be targets by which local authorities can be measured.

Whilst we're at it, let's have them for traffic reduction so that the modelers can show the impacts of a different future. Let's have some targets for depaving, the removal of parking spaces and the roll our of decent walking and cycling infrastructure.


This stuff needs leadership. Ideally, the government should be setting the overall direction (it's currently pushing for more traffic, electrically powered or otherwise), but we need regional authorities coordinating their regions and this extends to having step in powers to deal with failing authorities. 

It needs a proper discussion with citizens to explain why we need to change the way we roll out change because the way we do it now will never address the issues we face. It also needs more bravery by local councillors to stand up for change and more help to empower them to be able to challenge their officers who are not always on board.

It does feel like pie in the sky sometimes and so I'd be interested in your views. How can we move more quickly without leaving people behind? How do we counter the folk who really don't want change? How do we support those worried about change, but who might change if the conditions are right?


  1. You call it pie in the sky but the ideas have to come from somewhere. Firstly we do need change otherwise transport will end up like housing consuming all available resources while offering a poorer travel product. So to work through your points. TROs; a pain in the neck and a lot of faff for what was achieved on the ground. Default speed limits. You say rural should be 40mph. This is quite high for some rural roads and you can't trust people to know the difference between urban and rural. I've wondered whether a road without a centreline should be 30mph unless it has street lights and is thus 20. Parking in marked bays only. Our towns would look nicer as currently you have parked cars or yellow likes whereas if parking was in marked bays only you'd have clear road between the cars. But parking in marked bays would help control indescriminate parking in rural areas where people parking in passing places and block agricultural access. So yes parking in marked bays only please. Footway parking ban; yes!!! I think the important things are a Network Management Plan based on targets. The targets should obviously include safety but should also include accessibility and with the end of a habitable world in sight targets for emissions. Targets for reducing congestion could be more controversial for various reasons. And yes it would require a lot of bravery on the part of central and local government. On the other hand transport bravery has brought success for some politicians so perhaps there is hope. Finally keep thinking about pie.

  2. What a vision for change!, Great to see the mechanics outlined so clearly, and if there isn't this level of conversation in government and dept of transport already can you get inside and make it happen!!
    Do plans on such scale ever get off the ground, is bureaucracy problematic? I think strong leadership and clarity of intent would be essential, e.g. 'these structural changes are intended to create a better future, minimising impact of climate change' etc, would be great to hear national voices speaking so clearly.

  3. [from a member of the quire] Brilliant.

  4. UK highways governance failure is much more basic and pervasive than that. If obstruction is from county government/ Westminster Gasworks(◊) permanent civil servants; sack them for negligence. If council/ Hogwarts debating club politicians; separately surcharge personally for any public money wasted. (If non-zero balance jointly outstanding at end of financial year; transfer highways portfolio assets and tax-raising to [newly created] regional owners.) If pseudo public sector contractor/ consultant; terminate summarily.

    We need all the ducks in a line for change to stick. Nearly every highway authority will fall foul of at least one of these—a worrying proportion with the full house. Having only worked outside the private sector for two months during one summer vacation at university, I really cannot sympathise with the squeamishness which seems to surround this.

    ◊ :- Whether based in a branch office or not. In particular, issuing ‘guidance’ instead of standards as though the recipients can be trusted to behave themselves.

  5. Historic town centre, narrow shared use shopping street, fully relaid in £££ sawn yorkstone, free short stay parking with time discs, TO written in terms of marked bays only so no yellow lined needed on the nice stone..... Sherrif decided "marked bays only" was not clear enough and would not enforce, yellow lines added throughout :-(

  6. And if they want that small side-street to be a through route, then they have to get it classified and put in LTN1/20 cycling infrastructure, proper pedestrian crossings, and signalled junctions...