Sometimes, it feels like the traffic and transport network is the missing piece of the jigsaw when you think about how a region should work. Find that missing piece and make it work for you and the rest can fall into place but without it and you are left with a disjointed sector.
With so much emphasis on smart living and smart technology it is easy to lose focus on how much technology is being developed for use on the road network and why. But what we do know is that the network needs to work efficiently if we want to continue to boost the economy and make our cities and towns a more attractive place to live and work.
The UK is home to some of the world leaders in traffic and transport systems and it also has some of the best engineers. But still we face some of the same problems that we did over 20 years ago and some of them are getting worse.
Just last month a new report by TomTom revealed that traffic congestion in the UK’s biggest cities is 14% worse than five years ago and 4% worse than this time last year. But across Europe, congestion levels were down overall by 3%. So why these figures when we already have a wealth of congestion busting technology on hand and the willingness from local authorities to tackle the issue head-on?
‘The reason is, I believe is that we have never been able to properly integrate our networks and technology across the whole sector to manage issues like this more effectively. I think we can achieve this but we do need to reassess our thinking on this’ says Martin Rodgers, who is leading the UK business for Rennicks.
He is a man on a mission to challenge the way we think on the management of our road network and thinks Rennicks can be central to providing new Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) based solutions to these common problems.
‘I think sometimes we all forget why we are all here in this industry-to provide solutions to problems. But we can get carried away providing products or concepts for solutions sake and sometimes you have to go back to basics to think about what exactly are we trying to achieve and why,’ he says.
This role is a new challenge for Mr Rodgers who has now been in the traffic and transport industry for many years in a variety of senior roles at leading companies such as Dynniq (formerly Imtech), Vix Technology and Clearview Traffic, gaining a unique insight from ‘both sides of the fence’ on where the gaps in the market are and what is required to start to fill them.
ITS is also a new direction for Rennicks. The company started nearly 30 years ago and has focused successfully on reflective sheeting for road signs. It also services the vehicle livery and emergency services sector and supplies all the manufacturers of car licence number plates. However its directors felt that there was the opportunity to deliver the right message to the travelling public in different ways in the future with the aim of creating more safer and integrated traffic and transport solutions.
‘It is the start of an interesting journey. While there are a lot of impressive ITS solutions out there in the market, what has never really been achieved is the bridging of the gap between the traffic and transport sectors to help deliver the real benefits from all this technology and to make our road network safer and more efficient,’ says Mr Rodgers.
‘What we have to do to solve this is recognise that there are several parties in the relationship-the bus operators, real time solution providers and smartcard systems and on the other side those implementing urban traffic control systems, journey time solutions, vehicle and data monitoring and then the local authorities and their consultants and contractors as well as the public using all of these systems.
'They are all different entities but ultimately have the same objectives and we have to find more solutions for them to be able to join all this technology and thinking together,’ he says.
‘We need to think carefully about how each piece of technology and system impacts on the rest of the network as well. If we can achieve all of this, then we can have a network that is more efficient, more effective and considerably safer and reliable for the travelling public and for the people that work on it.’
But for interaction to work effectively, it is crucial all the stakeholders involved engage in the right way too. ‘They all very good at solving their local issues in isolation but need to think on a more broader scale how those solutions impact on the wider network. Even within local authorities the traffic department isn’t necessarily talking to the transport or highways team but with austerity now and devolution on our doorstep there will be a different approach to the way we manage our roads and that can only bring opportunities and it will force that more joined-up thinking to come to the forefront of everything we do on the network,’ he tells TEC.
‘People have talked a lot about smart cities and smart technology but we need to constantly remind ourselves what exactly we are trying to achieve-safe, reliable networks and places that we all want to live and work in.’
Local authorities have come so far with implementing the best solutions they can but budget restrictions has meant many of them have had to evaluate what actually can be achieved. So, how can ITS and similar technology be made more affordable for them?
‘The technology itself isn’t that expensive but the solution goes back to what I was saying about integration. If everything is more joined up then things will be more cost effective anyway which is why I am so passionate about driving this message forward. It is important to remind all of the stakeholders in the traffic and transport sector that if we are prepared to think differently the savings will come over time,’ says Mr Rodgers.
The TomTom report on congestion also uncovers a very valid point. Speaking about the release, TomTom’s vice president of Traffic says: ‘Transport authorities are managing congestion with well-engineered policies, but you can’t just build your way out of traffic jams. Studies have shown that polices of predict and provide are unsustainable. Building new motorways and ring roads doesn’t eliminate congestion. More must be done to better manage existing road space and spread demand.’
Mr Rodgers agrees ‘whole-heartily’.
‘Have we just given up on the fact that we need to invest in public transport before we even start to tackle some of these problems? We still haven’t addressed what we need to do to get people out of their cars and until we do-they will just find it easier to do so. But some of the alternatives are simply just too expensive. Train travel, especially at peak time, is just so expensive in this country. How is that going to convince someone to take the train instead of driving? We shouldn’t always turn to the default action of building new roads because we think that will continue to boost the economy. We need to make sure we are investing in different ways to tackle some of our biggest problems and if we solve them, such as congestion, the economy will be getting a boost anyway,’ he says.
‘There is a tendency in this country to do things the same way we always have. Some of the technology we have such as UTMC systems are 30 years old. If they still work effectively then great, but we shouldn’t be afraid to challenge whether what we have got is fit for purpose anymore. There are over 120 pinch-point schemes that are being addressed but have we thought about what impact these schemes are having on the rest of the network? It still feels that our traffic and transport network are very fragmented and we can’t solve all the individual problems that lead to that if we continue to look at them in isolation.
'If we can provide integrated solutions to issues like this, then we can move towards more joined-up thinking.’