Managing technology

So, the age of the internal combustion engine is finally coming to a close: the game is up for diesel and petrol vehicles on British roads.

That's what the Government's new strategy for combatting air pollution would have you believe at any rate. The lead-in time is long - it will be 2040 before the ban on new petrol and diesel driven vehicles becomes absolute - but the intent is clear and the consequences potentially dramatic. A decisive move towards electric vehicles should transform air quality in towns and cities for the better.

But it has been a long time coming, there's been a lack of a clear vision of what was needed and the good will and good management to make it happen. Policy has tended to be patchy and low key, tinkering at the margins rather than driving appropriate change. We now know that many of these initiatives had the opposite of their intended effect, disastrously driving consumers towards polluting diesel cars. Yes, hindsight is always a good thing. But there are important lessons here for transport planning in the UK and it is important that we learn them.

The growing challenges presented by our creaking road system are no less complex than the problem of air pollution and no more likely to be solved quickly. We don't know when 'peak car' will be reached, but we can be pretty sure that it hasn't arrived yet; demand continues to grow but capacity doesn't. Traffic congestion is linked to polluting emissions including poisonous nitrogen oxide and if traffic is moving inefficiently it is producing more emissions. But congestion pollutes in other ways too, making our towns and cities more stressful, less pleasurable, less desirable places. It decreases quality of life, affects property prices, drives down economic outputs, and it is becoming inescapable. The roads and motorways of the UK are reaching their saturation point. Building or widening roads to increase capacity can help - is essential sometimes - but it is slow, disruptive, expensive, and it is unlikely to be enough.

Instead we need solutions that address the broader picture, that replace fighting fires with strategic vision. The electric car in 2040 will represent a step change in automotive digital technology, it will be better connected and more responsive, driven by a generation of consumers whose expectations of interconnectivity and easy access to information are way beyond the already high levels of today. We can expect autonomous vehicles to be a common sight, perhaps the norm in certain urban centres. It will be a plugged-in world of traffic that demands a similarly high tech road network to keep it moving. Already smart motorways are demonstrating how traffic flow and efficiency can be maximised on existing infrastructure with minimal cost or disruption, but we have barely scratched the surface. The use of digital technologies on rail such as recent improvements for London Underground's notoriously busy central London stations as well as line upgrades can show just how powerful digital technologies can be in maximising speed and efficiency at less cost, and those lessons beg to be shared with the roads and highways sector.

What is needed is a truly collaborative inter-organisational approach that brings together private enterprise and public bodies in working together on strategic solutions that are about the roads and railways of the future. At CPC, we have led multiple organisations in a 'one team' approach to projects that have consistently delivered startling results, with Transport for London, highways organisations and beyond. It can be done, the skills are there. It must be done if we are not going to repeat the mistakes that have already been made in tackling air pollution.

The digital age is dawning for transport in the UK. There will, of course be struggles along the way, yet digital solutions will help tackle our age-old problems of pollution, congestion and capacity. We mustn't let that opportunity slide.

Giles Henday is Partner at CPC - Project Management specialists for the transport and property sectors. He has over 30 years experience of delivering high profile, complex transport projects, Giles has led Programme Management Offices on behalf of clients across rail and highways. He believes that project management tools and techniques can be shared across all transport modes. Giles is a strong advocate of improving collaborative working - to get the job done!