Travelling in a new direction

Engineers can help shape the future of the UK’s transport system, but government must be bold, says Mike Gannaway.

Transport has not been top of this General Election campaign. As a media correspondent pointed out at our recent conference, Labour’s manifesto still doesn’t set a timetable for a national system of road pricing, merely stating that it ‘will examine the potential of’ a scheme.

The Conservatives dedicate just 94 words to transport, and although the Liberal Democrats offer some bold policies, such as tax increases on gas guzzlers, none of the three main parties offer a comprehensive vision. Yet transportation affects all our lives, and above all it underpins world trade and the creation of wealth.

On 19 April, in conjunction with the Centre for Transport Policy at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, the ETB brought together key figures from the transport arena to debate the issues that will shape the future UK transport system. The forum sought answers to questions such as: Do answers rest with engineers developing new technologies? Is there political will and vision to drive change? And do we actually have public support in implementing and using new technology to tackle issues of congestion, safety and environmental impact?

Prior to the event ETB commissioned research to gauge public opinion on the role of technology, and drew some interesting results: 44 per cent believed that compulsory speed limiters in vehicles could reduce road traffic accidents along with an increase in speed cameras (37 per cent) and use of satellite speed tracking (34 per cent); 44 per cent liked the idea of a transport smart card that can be topped up, with 53 per cent seeing them as an ideal way to pay for taxis, for parking (63 per cent) and for buying small items instead of carrying change (45 per cent). A quarter of respondents believed that national road pricing schemes could ease congestion, 49 per cent of people do not want to see congestion charging introduced, but a fifth (19 per cent) would be fine with it being introduced in other cities.

Overall, it seems that UK road users are open to embracing new technology, and they well understand the self-evidently important role it plays in tackling the crucial issues — as long as they don’t have to pay for it. In support of these conclusions, throughout the conference, many of the speakers were able to highlight success stories where technology had effectively contributed to improving safety, easing congestion and raising the quality of travel.

Case studies from London to Nottingham and Liverpool demonstrated the need for cross-disciplinary working groups comprising transport planners, land use planners and regional development agencies in the challenge to deliver a transportation system of the future. It is widely accepted that the UK transport system is an engineering legacy, and it was encouraging to hear that the value of the engineer continues to be recognised in the huge task of growing and improving this vital network.

Engineers have delivered and continue to develop the technology to achieve these objectives. What is required is a bold vision from government that can be implemented across the regions with clear messages communicated to the general public so they continue to embrace the technology that will help to reduce accidents, ease congestion and reduce environmental impact.

Mike Gannaway, the author of this article,  is a director at The Engineering and Technology Board (ETB), This is an edited version of an article due to appear in the ETB’s newsletter Catalyst available from 20 May at