Making the road network work for users

Is there a typical user on the strategic road network? Probably not, considering the number of people using it every day and the multiple reasons people need to use motorways and major A-roads.

So let's imagine one type of user – let's call him Ron. Ron is a lorry driver, mainly travelling between parcel distribution centres up and down the country throughout the night. Will Ron care about how our road network is run? Will he care about the Government's plan for future investment in our roads?

As the watchdog for roads over the last 18 months or so, Transport Focus has been out and about speaking to road users finding out what people like Ron think about the major roads in England. We strongly believe that these views should inform the key decisions that are taken about planning and managing the road network.

Highways England now has a long-term investment plan. The user view should be at the heart of this investment. We have been using what road users have told us in our contribution to the forthcoming Route Strategies that will inform the post-2020 road investment strategy period.

Drivers have indicated that the majority of their journeys on the network are satisfactory, although many have experienced problems over the past year. Road users told us quite firmly that their long-term wish for improvement is to see congestion reduced and traffic flow improved.

We asked about satisfaction in order to pinpoint some specific improvements. The worst problems on the network, perhaps unsurprisingly, were found to be on the A3 or M3 to
Southampton, with more recent issues due to the roadwork's while the smart motorway is built. One driver highlighted the problem with congestion there: "The traffic is at a crawl driving northbound towards Guildford on A3. Congestion usually starts just before Milford junction and adds at least 30 minutes to my journey to work every weekday."

But of course with so much investment happening at once on the network, there has to be
a certain level of disruption that users need to put up with. So what do people like Ron make of it? They have strong views about disruption from planned roadworks. Our recent piece of research on roadworks and incidents looks at this in detail.

Our research shows that, overall, drivers are quite pragmatic, accepting that there will be some short-term pain for long---term gain – to a point. Road users have concerns that these regular delays have a cost to the wider economy. They want to see work done in shorter lengths or done in sections. They also want to see lots of activity when passing through the works, 24 hours a day. Ron, and other users like him, want to see Highways England getting on with the job in hand.

The freight industry is vital to our economy and roads are crucial to their operation. Therefore Highways England needs to work more closely with the sector to ensure that roadworks, road closures and diversions are well communicated to lorry drivers and their employers.

And then we come to unplanned incidents such as collisions. Drivers show empathy for those involved. However, such incidents can result in roads being closed for a long time with drivers trapped in stationary traffic. We were told that problems can arise for people who are pregnant, have a disability or if young children are involved.

Being freed from this situation as quickly as possible is the imperative. This might include providing welfare for those stranded such as food, drink or even blankets. It requires a concerted effort by Highways England to manage the situation.

A key ingredient to help users when incidents arise is the quality of information provided to them. People need good, clear, helpful information while they are travelling, from fixed and electronic roadside signs.

Information must be thought through from the driver's point of view. Any information should explain the cause of the delay, how long it is likely to go on for and what drivers can do instead. It should be in easily understood language. And why not explain to people what the benefit of their pain will be?

Some disruption – whether planned or not – cannot be avoided if the network is to be improved, to minimise that congestion in the longer term.
By putting the user view at the heart, with some thought, changes are possible that could make people's journeys easier.

Back to Ron, then, and the question of whether he cares about how the road network is run. I believe he does care – as do the thousands of people like him making journeys on the roads every day. It's important that we listen to road users, to be sure that issues are addressed and that overall satisfaction and road users' experience is improved.

Reference: Transport Times January/February Issue

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