Thoughts on a theme

Neal Skelton, head of Professional Services at ITS UK, looks at the three Keynote Addresses at the recent RTIC conference and finds a common thread

To adhere to the theme of ‘Better Transport through Technology’ the RTIC Conference programme was deliberately arranged to generate discussion and comment. This was achieved through a diverse range of different techniques. In addition to the normal range of excellent conference papers and presentations the conference programme was interjected with a series of innovative Poster Presentations and Sessions, a ‘Question Time’ styles panel discussion chaired by professor Phil Blythe, University of Newcastle and a Keynote Address for each of the conference session days. These Keynote Addresses, delivered on consecutive conference days by Graham Dalton, chief executive, Highways Agency; Susan Sharland, chief executive, TRL Ltd; and Alan Bristow, traffic director, Transport for London, set the context for each conference day. However, none of the speakers appreciated the unwitting contextual overlap of what they were saying; therefore it was useful to draw some conclusions from their addresses by identifying common themes that have been presented in the RTIC Conference overview.

Budget cuts
One the first day Graham Dalton opened with a ”throw-away” comment of “these are interesting times” alluding to the recent £683M budget cuts recently imposed upon the DfT. However, he was insistent that to date no projects had been cancelled, merely deferred, and he specified three major projects as examples. A case of semantics or a realistic vision of the future budget impositions?

He invited the audience to consider how technology benefitted travellers, who they were – i.e. commuters, business, leisure, freight, commercial – and what constraints would be imposed on them in the future. Graham introduced how budget restrictions would affect and influence – a common theme reinforced by Susan and Alan in their addresses. Graham made reference to the new Transport Secretary’s aim in “sweating the assets” before addressing how the ”users attitudes” needed to be taken into consideration. Drivers are currently ”Kings of the Road” on the ”Queen’s Highway” – but for how long? He advocated the pressing necessity to “match consumers’ expectations with the deliverers’ expectations in such a way that ‘consumer adoption’ is voluntary and not enforced”.

Graham outlined the increased drive on environmental benefits with CO2 and pollutant reductions aligned with government targets however introduced the potential backlash from the ”NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard) effect through the installation of highways gantries and infrastructure that adversely affect the local environment. This intrusion cannot be ignored and he advocated closer coordination of the various highways authorities’ activities to minimise the impact that these would have if left unchecked. Graham added “it’s not all bad – there is some good news” and followed up this statement with how he saw technology as being an integral part of the solution highlighting the ATM/’Managed Motorway’ schemes as good examples and ‘V2V’ and ‘V2I’ infrastructure developments being visible “on the horizon”.

He finished his address with three issues regarding technology and invited the audience to consider them in turn – “One: does technology serve the ‘road user’ effectively? Two: are the technologies ‘value for money’? Three: does technology help unlock the opportunities and benefits?”  These three questions obviously registered with the delegates and became the ”mantra” for the conference featuring as regular challenges throughout the conference.

At the forefront
The following day Susan Sharland identified that technology convergence in the UK means that the UK is at the forefront of ITS developments. She echoed Graham’s comments from the previous day that the ‘Managed Motorway’ schemes were extremely effective and demonstrated how “using the right tools in the right place at the right time” could make a significant contribution. She then looked at how cooperative systems would be of future assistance and illustrated this with describing how Project SENTIENCE had demonstrated how these systems could be harnessed to provide environmental benefits.

She reserved judgement over existing low carbon vehicles and policies, and threw down the challenge that they needed to be efficient and effective in order to accelerate public adoption, once again reinforcing Graham’s message on acceptability. Susan commented that failure to do so would lead to public rejection for essential and costly technological developments. She then outlined the ‘Forever Open’ Road concept as a ”fifth generation” highway – the first generation being the medieval dirt track and the fourth and current generation the ‘Managed Motorway’. This road will have an adaptable, automated and climate change resilient structure and infrastructure that emphasises the role that technology has to play in keeping the road network open. In conclusion Susan returned to the new Transport Secretary’s words that “The era of easy public money is over” reinforcing that the long-presaged ”age of austerity”, which will have such a marked effect, is now upon us.

Alan Bristow’s Keynote Address for the final day of the conference concentrated on how TfL seeks to use the data it collects in an intelligent manner. He stated that TfL’s vision is to gain advantage from the lessons of past experience thereby helping to predict trends and to formulate pro-active responses. He commented that there was “no shortage of data but a lack of value” and TfL’s aim was to use ITS to help ”sort the wheat from the chaff”.

Historical data showed that incidents routinely occur in the same locations and for the same reasons. TfL’s aspiration is to use ITS to “anticipate where a problem is going to occur in 30 minutes and allow operators to do something about it in the next five minutes”. This will then enable TfL operators to minimise the incident impact by tackling the issue before it becomes a problem. This was graphically illustrated by a daily road-works overview that showed that London would ”grind to an economic halt” if no remedial action were taken.

Alan’s next comments brought the debate ”full-circle” with an unconscious reference to Graham’s theme on the opening day of the conference regarding travellers’ needs and expectations being necessarily matched against future projections of financial stringencies. London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson has produced a Transport Strategy for London that reflects the needs for the capital’s commerce, leisure and commuter needs. London’s unique qualities are evident through its vibrant atmosphere and wealth of activities and history therefore the transport related activities need to reflect that and ensure that travel is managed effectively. A ‘Situational Awareness’ element of the TfL ‘Intelligence Toolkit’ helps mitigate daily and routine difficulties associated with congestion whilst a ‘Disruption Management’ tool helps resolve occasional planned events such as State Opening of Parliament and unexpected incidents such as flooding or demonstrations. In both instances the purpose is to manage traffic around the “disruption” (event, planned or unplanned, or incident) with the aim of restoring normal travel activity at the earliest opportunity.

Alan recognised, however, that the issue at the top of travellers’ priority list that attracts the most attention are the numbers, sizes and depth of potholes in the roads. The past harsh winter has exacerbated the speed at which these have developed and despite a repair schedule being in place the public bemoan the current state of the roads. Boris Johnson has declared a ”Holy war on holey roads” however, given the financial stringencies, will his budget stretch to winning this battle? ITS can’t help fill the holes in the roads but it can help fill other gaps in the travel provision. How?

Common messages
It was interesting, having the benefit of listening to all three Keynote Addresses to see what common ”messages” were presented. Despite the diversity of their roles, responsibilities and expectations a common thread was evident. Each sought and expected a better and more interpretative use of technology in their organisation that benefited the road user but was acutely aware that the future fiscal position would make the delivery of those expectations a significantly harder reality.

Each recognised the value that ITS technologies offered as a potential ”lifeline” in bridging the gap between matching consumers’ and deliverers’ expectations and emphasises Graham Dalton’s three issues “One: does technology serve the ‘road user’ effectively? Two: are the technologies ‘value for money’? Three: does technology help unlock the opportunities and benefits?”  However, it is also advisable to ponder on his opening comment – “these are interesting times”; they certainly are proving to be so!

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