Last month's integrated transport White Paper could lead to traffic chaos in towns unless municipal engineers change their approach to transport planning. In future local authorities will come under pressure to reallocate road space away from the car in favour of buses, bicycles and pedestrians.
It will fall to transport engineers to come up with systems for predicting likely trouble spots and managing the congestion. This ultimately comes down to a fine balancing act to maintain enough capacity in the system to manage the traffic that remains.
The policy aims to reduce congestion by increasing the quality, availability and image of public transport. However, this means more than just designing new bus and cycle lanes. While engineers already have an array of tools at their disposal for managing traffic systems, transport specialists believe that the sweeping nature of the Government's integrated transport policy demands a completely new approach.
'Engineers have to manage the impact of the changes in road space allocation,' says Halcrow Fox development director John Earp. 'Adding a bus lane might have a negative impact but there are ways of managing that impact. Many of the techniques are already there. What is needed is the vision to string them together in a more cohesive way. Engineers need to take a more holistic approach to their work.'
Though the document is widely applauded, it is seen as a catalyst for solving traffic problems rather than a solution in itself. 'The White Paper is an enabling process,' says Earp. 'It gives local authorities a fresh start to see how they can use road space. Now it is up to them to come up with solutions which follow the policy in terms of local requirement. It encourages engineers to look wider and to innovate. They need to take the approach of managing corridors as a whole.'
The problem is as political and psychological as it is an engineering one. 'There is a whole range of tools available to engineers,' explains WS Atkins transport planning managing director Dr Andy Southern. 'But there are a number of factors that make implementation difficult. One of the key issues is the extent to which the public accepts new measures.'
Southern believes that the most successful schemes will be the ones that take the public with them. 'There needs to be research into the effects of changes. We do not know whether people will switch the time of day when they drive and change lifestyle. These are complex behaviour patterns that need research.'
'The White Paper is also unclear about how and when the changes will be funded. There is a shortage of legislation to allow revenues to be hypothecated.'
Transport Research Laboratory research director Dr Rod Kimber agrees that the success of the new policy will depend on the ability of engineers to look beyond traditional engineering methods. 'How people react is at the centre of the whole thing. If you go far enough will people shift modes of transport?'