Time for major rethink on local transport infrastructure

Time to rethink the impact of new residential developments on local transport and roads infrastructure, says Stuart Harrow.

When the roads fall silent, we cannot avoid the fact that it is time for a major rethink, says Stuart Harrow.

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.

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, cycling 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.

But, will they recover once people are given the green light to return to work and resume their previously normal activities? The 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 time.

Ironically enough, this last has been the underlying goal of policymakers 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 some days a week in the comfort of their home office.

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 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.

But the upside for local authority transport officers 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 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.