Securing a resilient road crossing of the Forth has been a political tightrope for 25 years so there are big celebrations about the opening of the iconic new Queensferry Crossing. The opening of the new bridge to traffic will provide some well-earned accolades for all involved in the construction, but much more remains to be done to ensure a resilient crossing of the Forth into the future.
At the opening, Infrastructure minister Keith Brown was keen to emphasise that the Queensferry crossing should be able to remain open in all weathers and has a maintenance plan to allow every part of the bridge to be replaced. Emphasising these resilience benefits should certainly help Transport Scotland to navigate the challenges ahead.
More complex is the task of explaining to bridge users stuck in congestion why only four of the ten available road lanes across the Forth are open to public traffic. Transport Scotland has been adamant that they are replacing a road bridge rather than adding new road capacity. Adding road capacity across the Forth could shift bottlenecks to the outskirts of Edinburgh increasing road travel delays for many other road users who have no need to cross the Forth. Using road congestion to manage road travel demand is not unusual, but the Queensferry Crossing is a particularly transparent example. Will this visible trip suppression prove to be sustainable in the court of public opinion?
Shortly after the second Severn Crossing opened in 1992, there was an expectation that with more traffic crossing the Forth than the Severn, a new Forth Bridge would follow within a few years. Indeed the 1964 Forth bridge needed a major overhaul even in the early 1990s. Looking back from 2017 it is amazing that there has been only one emergency closure of the aging 1964 structure, and this is testament to the skill of the bridge managers who held the old bridge together with small scale strengthening and repairs.
The transport planners have also been muddling through, mitigating the effects of increasing traffic and poorer air quality rather than setting out clear plans for better journey times and costs. As part of this muddling through, politicians have been left at the front line of defending demand restraint. Each component of the transport system design needs to be as replaceable as wire, concrete and steel to give politicians workable fall back options for demand management.
25 years ago, DfT said that the Severn bridge 'could' rather than 'would' become free to use once the bridge construction was paid off. Last month the Prime Minister announced that the tolls would stop at the end of 2018. One problem with stopping collecting money is that government then has less to spend. The voting public and business communities celebrate their success lobbying for a free bridge, but they are not asked to carry any responsibility for the consequential loss of spending on things their communities might need. One way of looking at this is that public pressure has been built into the design to remove the tolls. Other approaches are possible. Public pressure can be designed to support more sustainable and resilient transport systems, but the discourse about social sustainability has yet to achieve the prominence given to economic and environmental factors.
Complex social issues are as much part of good transport system design as complex traffic management. There are increasingly well-developed toolkits for planning access to opportunity and business models to build in travel plans for affected people, communities and businesses. These approaches start with people's needs and include a stronger human dimension in the implementation, backing up clear and specific social promises with legally binding financial arrangements. Smart tolling strategies, for example, can ensure that those who gain the most, also pay the most, taking account of social needs and personal choices. However, these approaches have yet to become commonplace in transport delivery beyond the widespread smart parking strategies in cities.
Transport Scotland has put resilience at the heart of its strategy for the Forth. They have sensibly tried to involve as many people, businesses and organisations as possible in the Queensferry Crossing celebrations. People will long remember the 2017 events around the bridge opening and feel part of the project. However, will these people still feel part of the solution in the future when traffic is queued across the new bridge? Do they feel part of the traffic management arrangements too, or will they look at empty lanes and demand a new approach? If the current strategy is vulnerable to change which could undermine the goals of the new bridge, then the opportunity to build in social sustainability could start with the community engagement achieved for the bridge opening celebrations.