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Driving seat

Municipal engineers have been thrust to the fore by the Government's integrated transport White Paper. Neil Doyle looks at the challenges facing them ahead of next week's Association of Municipal Engineers conference.

The transition to new ways of thinking about sustainable, integrated transport has been rapid over the last 12 months. Since the Government published its integrated transport White Paper last July, municipal engineers have found themselves in the thick of efforts to reduce car use and cut pollution.

As engineers prepare for next week's Association of Municipal Engineers conference in York, they find themselves slowly getting used to Labour's new approach to transport planning and funding. Last July's transport White Paper heralded a complete policy reversal. Car use is to be discouraged where possible and the onus is on local authority engineers to develop a broad range of alternatives.

Earlier, the Government's changed approach to local authority spending - set out in the Comprehensive Spending Review - established new five- year funding regimes for local government. This has encouraged long-term planning so municipal engineers can work on ways of integrating different transport modes. This touches on many issues, including local policy making and economics, land use, public accountability and social exclusion.

Transport 2000 director Stephen Joseph says: 'I think there are some new skills involved. Engineers are used to taking past trends, extrapolating them and building roads to cope. Now it involves partnerships with a lot of other players to develop alternatives to car use. In the future engineers will have to justify building in context. Instead of coping with traffic growth, you've got to provide alternatives.'

The pressure group is quick to point to the strain that cars put on policing and the National Health Service. Road casualties total around 300,000 each year and account for 3,500 fatalities. Pollution also takes its toll and deaths in London rise by 7% on 'bad air' days, it claims. While the UK is one of the safest countries in Europe for car occupants, it is one of the most dangerous for young pedestrians - British children are twice as likely to die on the roads as their counterparts in Italy, the Netherlands or Denmark. Something has to change.

'One of the things about integrated transport, if the Government lives up to the promises in the White Paper, is that it does provide for revenue streams for big infrastructure projects,' says Joseph. 'But this requires clever phasing and the opportunity for a step-change in the quality of alternatives to car use first.'

It is certainly major enough to get even Downing Street policy advisers muttering about Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's blueprint being 'too anti-car' and a potential vote-loser.

One of the first major steps along the path is the detrunking of some 3,000km of national roads into the care of local authorities. The move immediately drew criticism from both the ICE and the British Roads Federation.

Both argue that the condition of these roads is likely to deteriorate through lack of maintenance and funding, pointing to the growing maintenance backlog that already stands at £5bn. Local authorities counter that doom- mongering is premature, as discussions on the exact funding regime for these roads are still under way.

All local authorities are assembling local transport plans to flesh out the ideals set out in the White Paper. These are due for submission to the Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions next month, and cover the period from 2000/2001 to 2004/2005. Plans for 2000/2001 will be provisional and assume the introduction of legislation to put them on a statutory footing. They will be reviewed in 2000 if the legislation is ready by then.

Future funding will be allocated according to these plans, representing a departure from the current system of annual bidding. Central government funding for public transport schemes, as set out in the Comprehensive Spending Review, is set to increase by 15% in the next financial year and by 40% over the next five years.

'One of the biggest changes is that there is no longer a bottomless pit of money,' says Tony Bosworth, transport campaigner with Friends of the Earth. 'We support some large infrastructure schemes but lower cost alternatives, like improving cycling and pedestrian routes, can have a huge impact on travel patterns. There is a massive amount that can be done.

'It's still early days but one thing that will help is to pass legislation early for road pricing and car park charges. The litmus test of the Government's intentions is that this is passed in the next session of Parliament.'

The task of cutting car journeys is enormous. Car use and ownership has grown hugely over the last fifty years, to the detriment of all other forms of transport. Dr John Adams of University College London geography department recently estimated that forecast traffic growth for the next 30 years would require the equivalent of building a road from London to Edinburgh that is 257 lanes wide, with car parks the size of Berkshire at each end.

The shift away from road travel will partly have to come as a result of improvements to rail infrastructure. Labour's commitments to tougher regulation for rail operators will culminate in the creation of the Strategic Rail Authority, which will be empowered to force train operators to improve their performance.

The Government is also keen to moderate the chaos caused by the deregulation of bus services and is encouraging operators to invest in 'quality partnerships' with councils.

Substantial public involvement in the development of local transport plans is also required. West Sussex County Council is analysing the results of the first round of consultation on its provisional transport plan.

This has been partly achieved through of the creation of working parties comprising residents and local businesses representing three distinct areas of the county. Questionnaires have also sought the input of the public at large, as well as bus companies, rail operators, parish and district councils, motor manufacturers and other interested organisations.

'We're getting positive feedback from the bus and rail operators, more than you would have expected,' says West Sussex senior transport planner Ian Evans. 'The most popular area was bus quality partnerships. Virtually all were in favour, although the bus operators said they would prefer informal arrangements to contractual obligations.

'Equally important was Gatwick Airport. The majority said we should limit all forms of surface transport into it. The third most popular area was education and safety awareness for schools and parents.

'We basically try to be neutral with the questions and see what people come back with,' he adds. 'The response overall was very focused on public transport. All sorts of public transport issues seem to be coming up the most, followed by a need to keep major roads doing the job they're supposed to be doing. Some 70% support the council's approach on the consultation document.'

Big infrastructure projects are giving way to a myriad of smaller schemes involving providing priority routes for pedestrians, buses and cyclists. Park and ride schemes are high on the agenda. One example of small changes aiming to produce a big impact is York City Council's plan to improve tourist signs, to prevent people driving around unnecessarily and to keep cars away from congested areas of the city.

John Bann, York's head of transport planning, says: 'The development of a five-year plan is a substantial change to what we're used to. In York we feel we have a fairly sustainable transport regime already and we're looking at where the gaps are, in light of what the Government wants. We've realised for a long time that there aren't going to be so many large projects.'

Consultant Scott Wilson is working on studies with a number of local authorities looking at innovative new transport schemes. One project aims to reopen the Borders Rail Line between Edinburgh and Galashiels, closed in 1969, and link it with co-ordinated local bus services.

'The main driver is the review of rail franchises which start around 2004,' says Scott Wilson project director Simon Hindshaw. 'We already have a shopping list. Scotrail is looking at what goodies they can offer the rail regulator to get an extension to its contract.

'I suspect that because of the way the Government is moving on this, one of the common features will be the re-opening of rail lines. I think that on the whole engineers have had to react. Where the profession may be lacking is in the compartmentalisation of various modes. The Government is trying to bring planners and environmentalists together, but there is still too much fragmentation,' he adds.

Councils are also set to receive powers to raise revenue through congestion charging and levies on workplace parking. The Greater London Authority Bill, currently going through Parliament, contains provisions for charging and is likely to set a nationwide precedent.

Until specific legislation is introduced, the DETR is looking to start a handful of trial schemes. The option for all local authorities to charge is unlikely to come until towards the end of the current five-year planning period.

'It's not clear when the legislation will be introduced. The most challenging issue to emerge is the effect that charging will have on the competitiveness and vitality of town centres and this is not yet understood,' says Martin Shaw, director of planning and transportation at Norfolk County Council.

'That concern has come through very clearly and will be an issue well into the next century.'

Informed sources suggest that Deputy Prime Minister Prescott is arguing for parliamentary time for a transport bill to be introduced in the autumn.

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