The annual AME get together in Cardiff was hailed as a happier event than recent conferences, despite a low turn out of 150 delegates. 'Conference numbers are in long term decline. A lot of people are not turning up because their workload has increased substantially and they don't feel that they have three days to spare,' said Robert Huxford of the AME.
A comprehensive spending review due out on 14 July is likely allow local authorities longer term financial planning of capital budgets, contributing to a brighter mood among delegates, said Huxford.
Real role in transport solutions
A POTENTIALLY storming opening session of the AME conference had its thunder stolen by the holding back of the Government's Transport White Paper.
'We were dearly hoping the White Paper would be out by now. If it had been published on 19 June as planned, this would have been the first professional meeting to discuss the outcome. It's disappointing,' said session chairman Keith Millington.
But Jeremy Iles of the engineering charity SUSTRANS and Government advisor on transport Professor Phil Goodwin made it a lively session.
Jeremy Iles said funding of the much vaunted National Cycle Network is in doubt after government funds promised in the wake of £43M start up grant from the Millennium Commission have not been forthcoming.
He lamented the fact that the £43M would only cover the first 800km of the 3,200km network, and that £140M still needed to be found. Government money promised by successive transport ministers Stephen Norris and Sir George Younger through Transport Policy Plan had been exclusively used for bridge strengthening.
But Iles injected some light hearted moments into his paper 'The alternative engine', by showing slides of 'underwhelming' provisions in towns and cities for cyclists over the last 30 years, including a six foot cycle path and a public cycle rack that was finally built on the site of two car parking spaces after a 20 year campaign.
'Many existing cycle lanes are cop outs because they end when you get to the difficult parts like roundabouts. People generally don't cycle in this country because it's too dangerous,' said Iles.
Solutions to persuade people to brave their bikes included raised bumps across roads which break up cycling lanes, clearly marked for drivers to give way, and continuous, circular cycle lanes at roundabouts, to give cyclists priority at every stage of the manoeuvre.
Iles claimed that in a national survey, 46% of people said they would cycle if roads were safer and that 83% agreed there should be more cycle routes.
'Research by the Transport Research Laboratory found that you need to get people out on pleasure bike rides, like the London to Brighton bike ride. If people can be persuaded to take it on one day a week, it will become habit forming.'
On the subject of the Government's soon to be launched Safe Routes to School initiative, Iles said: 'A lot of parents wouldn't dream of letting their children walk or cycle to school. But after a similar initiative in Denmark, 60% of children were soon cycling to school. In the UK at the moment it's just 2%.'
One method of persuading parents to let their children walk to school would be 'home zones' or 15mph (27km/h) speed limits in residential areas. 'If I was a resident, I would pay my local authority £10 to bring this in. I know that people find it difficult to comply with 30mph speed limits, but there are telematic solutions that would not allow the car to go faster in 'home zones'.
After showing the audience the SUSTRANS bible, The National Cycle Network. guidelines and practical details, written by Ove Arup & Partners, Iles pointed to the Government's aim to double numbers cycling by 2002 and again by 2012.
'Highway and railway networks each took 30 years to build. The cycle network will take 30 years and we are about 10 years into that 30 year period.'
Key government advisor, Professor Phil Goodwin candidly admitted to the AME conference that he knew the contents of the Transport White Paper, although he had second thoughts about swearing everyone to secrecy and spilling the beans.
The professor of transport policy at University College London did however speak encouragingly on the prospects of ring fenced transport investment for local authorities.
'Road pricing was first looked at 30 years ago in the Buchanan Report, but because there was no established principle to stop the money going straight to the Exchequer, it was shelved for a generation. The benefits of road pricing will only be felt by the motorist when the revenue is ploughed back into transport.
'This issue has allegedly led to disagreements between Gordon Brown and John Prescott and while I will not confirm or deny that, I can confirm that hypothecation is now discussed at the highest government level and that is unprecedented.'
Going over some of the background into integrated transport, Goodwin dismissed the policy of meeting demand as 'not feasible'.
'Until 1989 there was a systematic policy bias based on an idea that traffic is what it is and we can't influence it. But road building could not keep pace with traffic growth and logically, congestion had to get worse. Today we have mass car ownership and freedom of time and space that no previous generation has ever had, but it has got out of hand and started to defeat its own advantages.'
Goodwin spelled out the importance of making city centres more attractive to encourage more people to live there and take pressure off the highways. 'I'm sure many of you came into Central Station in Cardiff and walked along pedestrianised Queen Street. Nobody in their right mind would now put traffic back into Queen Street. A lot of city centres have highways going through them, and it is now recognised that this caused grievous damage to cities. More attractive city centres will make them places people want to be rather than get out of.
Goodwin believes in substantial investment in rail services to double their current 5% share of all journeys made, and push rail travel over its 1948 peak. But he believes that giving priority to buses is more important than investing in services. 'If buses have priority, investment would then come from the private bus operators. That's what I call a quality partnership.'
In a rallying call to municipal engineers, he pointed to the important role they had in shaping integrated transport policy. 'By inclination I'm a local government man and I can tell you, there's real traffic engineering here. This is no longer an area of responsibility you can afford to give to the graduate assistant on secondment.'
Goodwin hinted that is was not too late for municipal engineers to influence the White Paper by their representations to Government. 'It's absolutely vital to keep telling the Government what powers and resources you want. The message is: don't relax yet.'