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Change your demographics, highways firms warned

Women engineers

Highways engineering firms must do more to change the demographic of their work forces if they are to remain capable of delivering the infrastructure society needs, a leading client has warned.

Technology-led solutions are increasingly required and the current culture of the industry is ill-equipped to deliver them, Transport for London (TfL) streets boss Dana Skelley said.

“There is a lot of work to be done to get the right, technology-led solutions and getting integrated teams that represent the demographics of those that are going to use the technology is crucial,” she said.

Skelley, TfL director of asset management, was speaking at the prestigious annual lecture of the Worshipful Company of Paviors, a City of London livery company with its origins in the upkeep of London’s highways.

Skelley carries the responsibilities for which the Paviors’ Company was constituted in the 13th century but on a far larger scale, leading a team of 450 engineers.

She used the lecture to describe how London’s highways have evolved and how they were going to remain fit for the future. Crucial to that, she said, was for engineers to build understanding of the changing role of the highway – moving away from viewing it as a means to move vehicles quickly and towards viewing them as a place for cultural activities and exercise.

“In the 21st century we perhaps focused on speed of movement,” she said. “Today London must balance movement and place if it is to remain successful,” she said.

Skelley added that place-making initiatives such as shared space schemes are increasingly attracting developer funding and that many of these schemes are now recognised as catalysts for local economic growth.

But by way of explaining the scale of challenge, Skelley contrasted the fact that while London’s streets provide 80% of its public space they also handle 90% of its freight. The freight challenge is particularly acute, she said, with a spike in the last four years in the number of delivery vehicles on London’s streets driven by the surge in online shopping.

“And the problem isn’t just one of how many, but where,” she said, explaining that increasingly delivers are not being made out of working hours to suburban addresses but during working hours to central business district addresses.

The success of App-based taxi services such as Uber has also placed additional stress on the network, she said, and neither of these disruptive technologies were predicted by highways professionals.

Beyond that, the likely impacts of autonomous vehicles are not yet understood and this, she said, was driving the need for demographics to change.

“The culture and demographic of those maintaining the streets doesn’t reflect that of those using them and a big change is required,” she said.

“Autonomous vehicles are already being trialled and their impact is not mapped out,” she said, adding that there are promising upsides – especially for movement of goods – but there could be downsides, not least in terms of increased congestion.

“Do autonomous vehicles increase the attractiveness of car travel?” she asked. “There is already vigorous debate about whether they will relieve or exacerbate congestion,” she added.

Skelley added that while development of autonomous vehicles was, rightly, being led vehicle manufacturers and operators, Transport for London cannot just sit back and wait. “We have to be an enabling organisation,” she said.

Skelley added that there remained a need to investigate ways of creating new space for traffic movement, particularly in east London where much of London’s planned population growth is to be accommodated.

She said user charging and developer funding could pave the way for new river crossings in addition to the Silvertown tunnel which is currently out for tender.

But she stressed the near-term objective was to push the healthy streets approach, prioritising pedestrians and cyclists and championing active travel to reduce pressure on road space. 

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