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Road charging, the sequel - Kelly unveils 'wired m-way' plans

Dynamic management and surveillance. Of you.

By John Lettice, 5 Mar 2008

UK national road pricing is, for the present, a dead duck. Or - as Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly put it yesterday - "many years away". Instead, new car sharing and toll lanes figured high in Kelly's publicity - but the actual plans are a deal more interesting, effectively proposing a graduated switch to a managed motorway system, followed by something more sinister and more familiar.

Yes, a few years down the line, road pricing could easily get another bite of the cherry. The Advanced motorway signalling and traffic management feasibility study goes on in some tedious detail about the success of hard shoulder running trials that have taken place on the M42. This produced the shock discovery that you could fit more cars onto a motorway if you turned the hard shoulder into an extra lane, but more importantly it showed that traffic flow improved with the introduction of a measure of dynamic management to the use of this lane.

So, for example, you could make the lane generally available at times of high congestion, reserve it for heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), possibly barring them from overtaking at congested times, or use it as an HGV 'hill climb' lane. There are many possibilities, but in order to be useful they all depend on observation of the nature of the traffic currently on the motorway, changing the role of the lane to address these conditions, and informing the drivers of the lane's current status. So the point is not that the extra lane is converted from the hard shoulder, but that it requires the deployment of a battery of congestion and speed metering systems, electronic road signs that can be changed remotely and regularly-spaced gantries to signal and to observe the vehicles.

Alongside this you have the dull-sounding (and frankly, basically, dull) "ramp metering". This monitors traffic on slip roads and adjusts traffic lights at entry points in order to manage flow onto the motorway. But we feel the need to mention it on the basis that it's an integral part of the managed motorway system.

And managed motorway itself (or Active Trsffic Management, ATM) sounds pretty dull too, so we shouldn't be too surprised if the Department for Transport and the national press just carry on referring to 'hard shoulder running' and miss/skip over the more interesting bits.

In most cases the hard shoulders will require upgrading in order to carry heavier traffic, refuges will have to be built for broken down vehicles, and data cabling, power supply and signalling gantries will need to be put in place at the same time. If you want to be able to restrict use of the new lane to specific categories of vehicle, then some form of enforcement system (e.g. ANPR) will have to be put in place too. But with the infrastructure in place, it's a relatively marginal cost to do this - and much else - later.

As the report ominously points out, the rollout of base electronic infrastructure makes the installation of new systems fairly simple and low cost. These could include short range information delivery to in-car systems, and tag and beacon systems which could be used for the enforcement of high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, where paying customers are allowed to use high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes. Or, erm, they could be used for a national road pricing scheme, as neither Kelly nor the report says.

It's worth noting - as the national press probably won't - that HOV/HOT isn't going to be used on a widespread basis anytime soon. Upgraded hard shoulders could certainly be used for this, but in order for these kinds of lanes to operate effectively they need to have a barrier between them and the rest of the motorway to stop cars drifting in and out by accident or design. In the longer term however, depending on the density of monitoring and compliance equipment installed, this may not be such a major issue. Initial deployment will therefore be fairly restricted, and the report itself stresses that such lanes should ideally be new ones, rather than existed ones converted.

Further ominous news comes in the form of the DfT's apparent enthusiasm for switching over to 'average' speed measurement and control. "We believe that this would be strongly beneficial to compliance," the report says somewhat redundantly. "Drivers tend to perceive average speed control as a more predictable, consistent, equitable and therefore more credible solution to speed management", it continues incomprehensibly, "(as opposed to the 'lottery' nature of spot speed control)... There is broad endorsement from stakeholders for moving to average speed controls."

The identity of these stakeholders is not immediately obvious, nor is the source of any data indicating widespread enthusiasm for average speed control on the part of motorists. Average speed control does however require the logging of individual vehicles at the start and end of stretches of road, quite probably using ANPR. As yet the DfT isn't sure how far and fast it should be rolled out, and although it feels it would be "strongly beneficial to compliance" and could be implemented without any change to existing traffic law, there might just be some privacy issues. Oh really?

So 5/10 for knocking back satellite road pricing, 7/10 for getting sensible about active traffic management, but null points for making it a "phased approach to compliance and enforcement", an escalator to the 24x7 vehicle movement database. ®

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