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With the advantage of hindsight, everything is easier

Failure to grasp the unintended consequences of government's social policies is the undoing of UK transport, says NCE editor Antony Oliver.
The sudden explosion of cars on every road, in every town between 8.15 and 9.15 each week day this week heralds the start of the new school term. It makes me very grumpy in the morning.
I am, I realise, very fortunate to live only moments from an excellent nursery, infant and primary school to which I can walk or cycle to each morning with my children. And I realise that not everyone is so fortunate.
The mothers (they mostly are mothers) clogging the roads and blocking the footways on my route are, like me, simply trying to get the best education for their children.
They are exercising their parental choice, as enshrined in the 1988 Education Reform Act, to send their children to any school they choose provided it has room. The fact that they collectively bring the transport system to grid lock is merely an unintended consequence of that desire.
It is an unintended consequence highlighted in the Institution of Highways and Transportation's presidential conference publication this week. The paper "With the Advantage of Hindsight" is a very interesting collection of research papers looking at the development and impact transport policy over the last 50 years and makes recommendations for the future.
Professor Glenn Lyons of the University of the East of England highlights the way that transport in the UK has been continually - and most negatively - affected by the unintended consequences of a myriad of other social policies.
Education is just one example. He points out that the average distance travelled by children to primary school has increased from 1.3 miles in 1997 to 1.5 miles in 2005 and for secondary schools from 2.9 miles to 3.4 miles.
Clearly with parents competing for the best schools and schools competing for the best children the distances increase and walking and cycling become less likely as a transport mode. We see one government policy having a clear, but unintended consequence on another - transport.
"Failure to understand human behaviour is a key cause of unintended consequences," explains Lyons. "There is a need or heightened priority to be given to social research."
It is a very interesting point and highlights the fact that when it comes to devising transport policy is, as incoming IHT president David Tarrant suggests, an "extraordinarily complex" and interrelated process, and that in the UK we typically have not thought wide enough about such unintended consequences.
We need to. In the week that work starts on the next phase of the Birmingham Box Active Traffic Management scheme - the fore-runner to a policy which could see ATM sweep across the UK - we must recognise that it is unlikely to be the complete panacea.
In short, engineers must lift their gaze. As Lyons suggests, we embrace other disciplines to plan and influence transport policy with a better understanding of public need. It will be a tricky challenge but, as the IHT points out, is easier "with the advantage of hindsight". Let's make sure we are using it..

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