Out of the jam: reducing congestion on our roads - Transport Committee Contents

3  Information

Information for managing the network

22.  The road network can be managed in a proactive way, by the use of Intelligent Traffic Management (ITM) Schemes, which use electronic equipment and communication networks to provide data to inform the decisions of traffic managers. The M42 managed motorway scheme, discussed above, is an example of an ITM scheme. Other examples include dynamically controlled traffic light phasing, variable message signs, dynamic car parking information on signs and bus passenger information. Some local authorities have taken up such schemes. For example, Andy Graham, of the ITS UK, told us about the SCOOT system, which controls the timing of traffic lights in urban areas in a way that responds to factors such as prevailing traffic flow, incident detection and bus priority:

[T]he SCOOT system has been used all around the UK, in Edinburgh and Worcester. Southampton is a good example. It has been sold to other countries like Toronto and other places in Canada. There are many systems and services that you could use to improve traffic co-ordination that have demonstrable benefits of perhaps 20% reduction.[37]

23.  Local authorities are subject to financial constraints, with some also suffering a reduction in the number of staff who have expertise in traffic signing and signalling.[38] Anthony Sharp, former President of the Institute of Highway Engineers (IHE), told us that this shortfall in staff—estimated at 29% in an IHE study, Project Brunel—means that there is now not enough resource to identify appropriate tools and locations for intelligent traffic schemes.[39] The DfT funded an ITS Toolkit, which included a catalogue of Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) applications which could be used in different contexts, described the applications and promoted the benefits of such technology to local authorities. This is no longer being funded. Andy Graham, from the Vehicle Highways Interest Group of ITS UK, told us that the DfT should do more to promote Intelligent Traffic Management for the benefit of local authorities:

I think the Department were doing a good job until a couple of years ago. They had a project called the ITS Toolkit […] It is no longer there; it is archived but out of date. I think the Department has a good role to play in communication […] We need to have a very clear picture of the tools that are available, but I think, more importantly, you have to glue them together and you have to procure them at the lowest possible cost.[40]

Mr. Graham went on to highlight the benefits for local authorities in joining forces to buying a system together, thereby reducing overhead costs.[41] Mike Penning MP told us that "working with local authorities is the key and that works reasonably well"[42] but said:

At present no funding has been allocated for the active management of the ITS Toolkit, although it remains available for local authorities to access and was updated in spring 2010. As resources permit, I will consider the future of the Toolkit, including alternative models for delivery which could involve local authorities.[43]

24.  Urban Traffic Management and Control (UTMC) refers to both traffic management systems developed for towns and cities in particular, and a unified set of recommended standards, especially for the interfaces between the systems so that they can be joined together. Common standards and protocols help highways authorities specify the appropriate systems for their particular traffic management needs, and facilitate the development of systems by industry. Andy Graham described UTMC systems as

a good toolkit, but it needs to be glued together. It needs some lubrication and perhaps some money in certain places, but it also needs a bigger picture plan of how it all fits together, because there are too many little things in the jigsaw puzzle without a picture on the box.[44]

The UTMC Development Group (UDG) maintains and develops the standards and promotes the exchange and dissemination of good practice. The UDG receives funding from the Highways Agency and membership subscriptions. Norman Baker MP drew our attention to the Directory of UTMC booklet, which "demonstrates what has happened across the country and how different towns and cities have approached the co-ordination of information in a different way".[45] He also commented on the benefits of ITS systems:

The DfT has, for 14 years, been pursuing the urban traffic management control mechanism to encourage the use of intelligent traffic control. That has been quite useful and has been rolled out in over 100 cities in the UK […] The ability of technology to change dramatically how we approach road transport generally, but also public transport, is a very exciting topic. It has the potential to make better use of the network by getting cars and vehicles to move more freely.

Both the ITS Toolkit and the UTMC play a crucial role in the connecting of ITS systems within and across local authorities. DfT's written evidence also extolled the virtues of the consistent use of established technologies: "These services can be provided individually, but greater benefits can be gained by integrating them into a UTMC system".[46]

25.  The Government clearly has a role to play in working with highway authorities to identify the latest forms of intelligent traffic management systems and how such systems can be used effectively and promoting joint procurement projects, principally through bodies such as the UTMC Development Group. We are disappointed, therefore, that the main means by which local authorities could identify suitable intelligence traffic management options, the ITS Toolkit, is now unfunded. In the absence of an up-to-date ITS Toolkit best practice is likely to be lost, and local authorities will be less likely to benefit from Intelligent Traffic Management schemes in helping to tackle congestion. The very nature of ITS, the need to maximise value for money and the need to make the most of limited, skilled resources make coordination between local authorities especially important. We recommend that the Government should renew its funding of the ITS Toolkit, or a successor project aimed at assisting highway authorities in identifying and procuring the most up-to-date and appropriate intelligent traffic management systems and in accessing available technology. The Government should work more closely with those involved in Intelligent Traffic Management systems, including the Highways Agency and local authorities, to ensure that there is greater collaboration and sharing of best practice.

26.  Local authorities need to be aware of the effect that the use of satellite navigation devices (sat navs) have on the road network, especially those that have the capacity to use real-time information, of which there are currently 4 million in active use.[47] Vehicles can be sent down inappropriate roads by sat navs, a problem described to us by Mark Kemp, of ADEPT:

[A]t the moment there are algorithms within the sat navs that give you shortest journey, quickest journey—whichever the solution is that you want. What they don't give you is the most appropriate journey in terms of the highway network and managing the network properly. As an example, if you have an accident on the A14, there may be times when, rather than letting people go through Ipswich because that is where that sat nav is telling them, they would be better off sitting on the A14 for a short time. Making those decisions, I think, is critical in taking the next step in terms of incident management.[48]

27.  Another issue affecting traffic management is how to incorporate information on road and street works into the picture alongside other traffic information and then how best to use that information for the benefit of road users. Roger Culpin of the Joint Authorities Group raised this issue:

Except for emergency works, which we would expect to hear within two hours, we would not know if anyone has gone in to start work probably until a day or so after works have already started, so that does not allow us to have computer systems that will automatically have the big screen that would say, 'Road works have started here.' [...] We are at the will of the utility and their contractor when they want to go in to do those works. There is no opportunity for what I would call real-time street work display, which would assist the sat nav companies and the likes of those informing motorists of congestion, and even bus companies to that extent.[49]

28.  Information is needed by local authorities to manage their networks on a day to day basis, for example in using ITM schemes. But they also need to understand how effectively they are carrying out that network management overall, to meet their responsibilities under the Traffic Management Act to measure their network management performance. Halcrow, the consultants who carried out the evaluation of the Traffic Management Act for the DfT in 2010, wrote:

Despite the [network management] duty being in place for more than six years and the fact that it includes the specific requirements for local traffic authorities to monitor their effectiveness and assess their performance, such monitoring regimes are not in place. There is no excuse for this.[50]

Our evidence showed some authorities with structured performance measures in place: Transport for London, for example, set out their six measures that "collectively quantify the performance of the road network in terms that road users understand".[51] However, if the problems caused by congestion are going to be addressed nationwide, then all highway authorities should be assessing their own performance to monitor what works in their area and where improvements could be made. Local authorities are required to publish traffic management performance measurements as part of the network management duty under the Traffic Management Act 2004, and there is a sanction in the TMA where an authority fails in this duty. The Secretary of State can give the highways authorities directions on what they must do to improve, and ultimately can appoint a traffic director to take charge of network management.

29.  Highway authorities are legally obliged to monitor how they perform their traffic management functions: however, most fail to do so. This is an unacceptable situation which the DfT must address. The DfT should be more proactive in calling on local authorities to publish their traffic management performance measurements. We recommend that the Government require all highway authorities to publish traffic management performance measurements, by the beginning of 2013 at the latest.

Information for drivers

30.  Much of our evidence argued that the consistency of the time taken to make a regular journey is as important as, if not more important than, the average time it takes to make that journey.[52] The predictability of a journey time can depend on being able to access accurate, up-to-date information, in order to decide whether to travel in the first place, when to travel, what route to take and the likely impact of changes in conditions en route, along with accompanying options of alternative routes.[53] We made this point in our recent Report, Keeping the UK moving: The impact on transport of the winter weather in December 2010, recommending that in adverse weather conditions, greater use should be made of roadside information displays and in-car information systems to provide motorists with real time information about road conditions and disruption.[54]

31.  In general, however, there is a danger of information overload, with drivers becoming too distracted by a multiplicity of in-car travel information, particularly from the more sophisticated sat navs. Radio information, including from the 'traffic programme' (TP) button on modern car radios which automatically switches radios, CDs and other devices to traffic bulletins, is often quicker, safer and more accurate than travel information which has to be read on a screen. Yet Paul Watters of the AA told us that research among their members showed that only 22% used the TP button on regular journeys even though 80% had that facility.[55] We recommend that a leaflet should be sent to drivers, when they apply for their tax disc or driving licence, to highlight existing sources of detailed travel information—including information provided by the Highways Agency—and to remind drivers to use the 'traffic programme' (TP) button, which cuts into the radio to give accurate, up-to-date travel information.

32.  The Highways Agency already provides detailed real-time travel information on the internet and elsewhere but this only covers the strategic road network. Information about roads managed by local highway authorities is harder to come by. The importance of this information to the freight industry was highlighted by Malcolm Bingham of the Freight Transport Association:

The decision-making process for a freight operator to make a 300-mile detour or not is critical because of the expense he is going to incur in doing that. Therefore information is vital. We have good information on the strategic road network…[although] there are gaps even in that… [but]… there are massive gaps in local authority areas and we struggle to get information.[56]

Such real-time information is crucial for the freight industry, to ensure that deliveries are made on time and are not delayed because of congestion.

Iain Reeve, of Surrey County Council acknowledged the difficulty:

The information is fragmentary. Surrey has a website that tells you what is happening in Surrey, but if you go outside our borders we cannot help you. No one is going to look at three or four websites as they work out their end-to-end journey across more than one county boundary. There is a lot of work we need to do in this area.[57]

33.  The Highways Agency and local authorities need to work together to provide better and more comprehensive real-time information. In his written evidence, Dr David Metz, former Chief Scientist at DfT, noted that "There is a significant amount of activity in both public and private sectors aimed at providing better information to travellers, but the uptake is slow." He went on to suggest a research initiative to understand more comprehensively the behavioural responses to traffic information and to explore a joint public private approach to deployment. Garrett Emerson of Transport for London described what TfL has done to "make virtually all our traffic data information publicly available for apps designers and operators [...] working particularly closely with some of the satellite navigation providers to try to integrate our traffic information with the information […] from their users and providers".[58] Mike Penning MP referred to the services available to the freight industry where "their delivery times are timed within literally a five minute slot—sometimes even less than that. So they have to have the technology. That is very difficult to put into a car".[59]

34.  There are clearly both technological questions about collating and supplying consistent information across administrative jurisdictions, but also institutional questions about the ownership, availability and cost of such data.[60] The private sector is involved already in providing information and it is not necessarily the role of Government to support financially the provision of information over and above what is produced by the Highways Agency. However, if information has a public benefit because it can be used directly or indirectly for managing the network, as well as providing information to individual drivers, then there remains a case for Government interest. The DfT should: decide what real-time travel information should be made available from local authorities and the Highways Agency to motorists and what should be provided by the private sector; identify barriers to collating and disseminating information; and develop a strategy for delivering that information, including the route for overcoming those barriers and the scope for public/private collaboration on deployment, giving examples of best practice.

37   Ev 30 Back

38   Ev 31 Back

39   Ev 31 Back

40   Ev 34 Back

41   Ev 34 Back

42   Ev 63 Back

43   Ev 125 Back

44   Ev 31 Back

45   Ev 64 Back

46   Ev 123 Back

47   Ev 34 Back

48   Ev 16 Back

49   Ev 29 Back

50   Ev w49 Back

51   Ev187 Back

52   For example, Ev w8 Back

53   Ev 111 and Ev 49  Back

54   Reference to Keeping the UK moving: The impact on transport of the winter weather in December 2010, para 58 Back

55   Ev 39 Back

56   Ev 39 Back

57   Ev 40 Back

58   Ev 60 Back

59   Ev 64 Back

60   Ev 60 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 15 September 2011