Stuart Harrow: When the roads fall silent, we can’t avoid the fact that it’s time for a major re-think
East Kilbride-based engineer Stuart Harrow details how COVID-19 could have an impact on transport planning and road infrastructure in the future.
One of the first things which comes to the forefront of the public mind when a new residential development is proposed is the impact that it will have on local transport and roads infrastructure.
It is a thorny issue, subject to a great variety of competing needs and desired outcomes, but at least until now there have been established sets of data, criteria and methods which, employed properly, go some way to establishing a semblance of common ground.
However, like everything else which has been destabilised by the virus outbreak of 2020, the procedures for working out the links between land use and transport have been thrown up in the air and there is no immediate prospect of returning to a pre-COVID environment.
In the settled world before this March, it was understood that most new developments and changes of use would have some form of transport implication.
Small developments in Scotland will typically require only a simple Transport Statement outlining local issues and impacts. Larger developments require a Transport Assessment with a review of the proposals against planning policy and a detailed technical analysis supported by a Travel Plan.
Typically, an assessment examines the accessibility of a site and its connection to sustainable pedestrian, cycle and public transport networks. It assesses likely impact based on traffic generation, and base data collected on the existing road network, identifying improvements where appropriate.
A common misconception here is that a development of 300 homes will put 600 extra cars on the rush-hour roads, but the assessment takes into account the more complex reality that they don’t all leave the site at the same time. Usage is much more spread out.
But in our immediate post-coronavirus environment, all bets will be off in terms of calculating with any degree of accuracy what the likely traffic flows will be. One only has to step into the street to see that they are dramatically reduced from mid-March 2020.
Will they recover once people are given the green light to go back to work and resume their previously-normal activities? The simple answer is that nobody knows, but perhaps we could take a leaf from the economists’ handbook and look at potential scenarios.
Traffic levels may bounce back to pre-lockdown levels quickly, in a V-shaped recovery; they may resume much more slowly, in a U-shaped recovery; or, and this is entirely possible, we may see an L-shaped scenario, where usage hits the bottom, recovering slowly over an extended period of time.
Ironically enough, this last has actually been the underlying goal of policy-makers and transport professionals for the past several decades, discouraging private car use and promoting public and sustainable transport alternatives.
Even before everyone who could was obliged to work from home, employers were encouraging flexible working, offering people up to two or three days a week in the comfort of their home office.
Certainly, the challenge now for both commercial and public sector transport professionals is trying to gain some idea of what the new normal will be. It is a given in the sector that there is no point in conducting traffic surveys during the school holidays, since usage is so out-of-kilter. That applies in spades at the moment.
But commercial life must go on, and even now professionals are using historic data, which may in future be shown to be onerous, in discussions with clients, simply as a means of progressing applications.
This will be a particular challenge for local authority decision-makers, who ideally would be empowered to introduce a new degree of flexibility and perhaps even allow data to be revisited at a later date and permit changed circumstances to be taken into account.
Some might say this would be alien to local authority transport officers, who have a widely-held but often unjustified reputation for rigidly applying the rules with limited room for flexibility.
But the upside for them is that if they accept applications using historic data, there is little risk to the authority of the traffic flows being greater, and the likelihood is that they will be substantially smaller than predicted.
We all need rules and we need boundaries. The time will come when we will all want them to be applied across the board. However, there is no doubt that we are currently in a period of violent transition, and flexibility will be one of the key components for getting us through.
- Stuart Harrow is transportation director of Dougall Baillie Associates
Read all of our articles relating to COVID-19 here.