Interesting Stops Along the Digital Superhighway

GeoPlace TRO Discovery report

By Steve Thompson BPA Fellow and Project Centre parking development specialist

As we start to put in place the systems required for the digital future of transportation, we are just starting to see hints of science fiction becoming fact.

Vehicles are becoming increasingly connected, driver aids more sophisticated and the ultimate goal of truly autonomous vehicles is getting closer.

The widespread use of autonomous vehicles is many years away but the recently-completed Department for Transport (DfT) TRO Discovery has shown that the Government is very serious about progressing the digital transportation agenda.

Traffic Regulation Orders (TROs) are required to create everything from yellow lines to Low Emission Zones, and everything in between. Assuming that fully-digital TROs will be a vital component in the future of transportation – and I believe they will be – then there’s a great deal of work to be done. Tens of millions of pounds and tens of thousands of person-hours of effort will be required.

Will it all be worth it? I think it will, but here I want to focus on the journey, not the destination because the destination is far into the future but we’ve already started the journey.

Local authorities, in particular, may be very reluctant to invest precious resources in digitising TROs. Public sector timescales are often frustratingly short-term but changes in legislation will undoubtedly require substantial changes to local authority practices in the medium- to long-term.

But I believe that moving to full-digital TROs will give benefits at every stage of the development process. Even if you’re sceptical about the timescale, practicality or even desirability of driverless cars, allow me to suggest just a few of the benefits that will begin to appear along the way:

Consultation

The law requires that the proposers of almost all TROs must invite objections and representations from the public and other stakeholders. That seems reasonable enough but research has shown that every single category of consultor and consultee is unhappy with the current situation. Why do we have a system that absolutely everybody is unhappy with?

An approach favoured by some is to reduce the requirement for consultation, either generally or in certain circumstances. My counter-proposal is the opposite: I would like to see more consultation, but quicker, cheaper, more accessible and fully digital. Consultation would flow automatically from the TRO-making process, published seamlessly by the same systems used to design the traffic or parking schemes.

There may still be paid-for notices, but on local news websites not in local newspapers. Residents and others could opt-in and opt-out, filter for content and location, and respond electronically. Clearly, transitional arrangements will need to cater for less digitally-comfortable residents but this will increasingly be the case for a huge range of services over the coming years.

In time, the process of manually preparing consultation documents for publication will simply be a thing of the past.

Standardisation

It has always struck me as very odd that TRO definitions for, for example, a ‘goods vehicle’ should vary across the country, from council to council, even between a local authority’s TROs. What purpose is served by that? Try to explain the subtleties of varying definitions to an angry motorist with a Penalty Charge Notice (PCN).

It seems inevitable that automated vehicles will require a standardisation of definitions and in preparing for that the motoring public will benefit. I suspect that regulation will be required to (i) create standardised national definitions (ii) require local authorities to use them (iii) provide a mechanism for such definitions to be seamlessly incorporated into existing TROs. However, I see no reason why this process cannot begin immediately.

Thinking more generally, the situation with current TRO templates is – to be generous – sub-optimal. A fundamental review of the structure of TROs is required to make them fit for the 21st century, never mind for connected and automated vehicles. Will this help with PCN appeals to the Traffic Penalty Tribunal and London Tribunals? Well it can’t hurt, can it?

Mapping restrictions

In the fullness of time, all on-street restrictions will be required to be mapped accurately, kept up-to-date and even varied in real-time. It’s a big job to get to that point and most authorities will follow an incremental ‘road map’ from where they are to where they need to get to.

However, every step along that path has benefits. Some mapping is better than no mapping and imperfect mapping is also better than no mapping, at least initially. The key will be to get the fundamental data structures right but the BPA is already working closely on this with the DfT.

Parking charges

Why is it so hard to find out how much it costs to park? Most local authorities will have their on-street and/or off-street parking charges on their website, which may be typed directly into the page or in a PDF. Very rarely will these be easily readable by other websites.

There are many reasons for this situation but in the future, it will simply not be acceptable. Also, it could be argued that if a tariff cannot be adequately described in a way that can be both (i) understood by the average human, and (ii) set out in a systematic way for computer systems then it is fundamentally flawed. Local authorities: I’ll leave that one with you.

Public profile

Perhaps the chief benefit will be a greater understanding from the public that what we do has real value. Yes, we know that parking and traffic management helps to make the world go round but most of the public doesn’t see it that way.

One day we’ll be in a position to be seen to be enabling things, rather than preventing things and the positive press coverage will start flooding in. Well, possibly.