Five big issues for RIS3

The Department for Transport (DfT) has started planning its third Road Investment Strategy (RIS3), a five-year investment programme for the Strategic Road Network (SRN) for the period 2025-2030. The approach is conventional – a programme of projects, with little overview of how societal objectives will be advanced by the likely substantial expenditure. Yet there are five major issues that need to be addressed for the programme as a whole.

First, there is a need to reconcile the government’s Net Zero objective with the carbon emissions from both the tailpipes of the additional traffic arising from increased road capacity and the embedded carbon in the cement, steel and asphalt used in construction. Recent presentations by the DfT’s Transport Appraisal and Strategic Modelling (TASM) division indicated an intention to tackle this issue at scheme level, but this is misconceived. What matters is the overall contribution of RIS3 to carbon emissions and how this is to be offset or otherwise justified.

Second is the question of how RIS3 advances the government’s Levelling Up agenda, where the recent, well-received White Paper identified twelve medium-term ‘missions’ to be pursued across all departments. The one specific to transport states: ‘By 2030, local public transport connectivity across the country will be significantly closer to the standards of London, with improved services, simpler fares and integrated ticketing.’ Although the rate of progress implicit in ‘significantly closer’ is vague, the direction of travel is clear and the objective is not in dispute.

There is no mention of investment in the SRN in the Levelling Up White Paper. This is appropriate since there is, if anything, an inverse relation between the performance of the road network and economic prosperity across the nation, given that delays on the SRN due to congestion are greater in London and the South East than in other regions of England.

The implication of the White Paper approach is that there should be a substantial switch of DfT funds from road investment to improve public transport beyond London, if the Department is to play a full role in supporting the government’s the Levelling Up agenda. Yet the Department’s recently issued Levelling Up Toolkit is essentially a pro forma for a box-ticking exercise aimed at justifying investments already forming part of agreed expenditure programmes. There is palpable inconsistency here.

Third, we have the problem of the safety of smart motorways. These require conversion of the hard shoulder to a running lane as an economical means of increasing capacity without the expense of rebuilding bridges. Generally, new roads are safer than older roads, which meant that adding road capacity yields a modest safety benefit. But this is not obviously the case for smart motorways, and there has been considerable pushback from the public and the House of Commons Transport Committee. As a result, the DfT has paused the roll out of new smart motorways until five years of safety data is available for schemes introduced before 2020. A decision on the generic safety of smart motorways will be an important factor in developing RIS3.

Fourth, and less recognised, there is a question about the economic benefits from additional road capacity. There are two published evaluations of smart motorway schemes where the traffic flows after opening were very different from those that had been forecast. For the M25 Junctions 23-27 scheme, the traffic flowed faster one year after opening but subsequently delays reverted to what they had been before opening on account of greater traffic volumes than forecast. For the M1 J10-13 scheme, traffic speeds five years after opening were lower than before opening. Since the main economic benefit of road widening is the saving of travel time, both schemes had negative benefit-cost ratios (BCR) at outturn.

Examination of the reports of the traffic and economic modelling of these two schemes showed substantial time-saving benefits expected for business users, offset by a small amount of increased vehicle operating costs (VOC) arising from additional traffic volumes. There were also time savings to non-business users (for commuting and other local travel) but these were entirely offset by increased VOC – because these were local trips that rerouted to the motorway to save a few minutes of time, at the expense of additional fuel costs.

The scope for rerouting local trips to take advantage of increased motorway capacity is likely to be underestimated in modelling. Local users have the flexibility to vary routes whereas long distance business users will stay on the motorway unless there is a major holdup. Moreover, the general use of digital navigation in the form of Google Maps and similar offerings makes choice of minimum time options commonplace.

Even when the outturn total traffic flows are a reasonable match to those forecast, the scheme economics could be much worse than predicted if there is more local traffic, and hence less long distance business traffic, than projected. Traffic and economic modelling involve recognition of different classes of road user with different values of travel time: cars, LGVs, HGVs, business, local commuters, and other local users. However, the monitoring of outturn traffic flows does not distinguish between these classes of users. GPS tracking make such distinctions possible.

The DfT has emphasised the importance of evaluation of outturns of investments. Yet the failure to appreciate the need to break total traffic flows down into the segments that had been modelled reflects a serious professional shortcoming. As a result, we cannot be at all confident that investments to increase SRN capacity do more than facilitate rerouting of short trips by local users, of nil economic value. Likewise, we do not have the kind of detailed evaluation data that would allow traffic models to be better calibrated for future use.

The fifth issue for RIS3 is that the widespread use of digital navigation by drivers prompts questions about the continued focus of DfT and National Highways on major civil engineering expenditure. Contrast the aviation sector, where new runways or terminals are occasional efforts, not regular business. The main focus of airlines and air traffic control is to improve operational efficiency, to sweat the assets employing the techniques of operational research. We have a mature road network in Britain. It’s time to focus on operational efficiency. Yet it seems not to occur the National Highways that working with Google Maps, TomTom and other providers of digital navigation services would be a cost-effective means of improving the performance of the network.

More generally, the DfT is trapped in its box labelled Transport Analysis Guidance (TAG), a thousand pages of prescription to which more text is added when some new issue or policy arises, such as Net Zero, Levelling Up, inequalities or gender. The task for those promoting a scheme is to tick all the boxes and flex the modelling to generate BCRs that represent good value for money. Evaluation of outturns is inadequate to distinguish between success and failure.

Although the DfT pays lip service to the need to think at the strategic level, the TAG framework does not facilitate this in that the detailed analysis is at project level. Other interested parties do not challenge the Department’s approach. The consultants and local authorities do not bite the hand that feeds them. The professional societies, institutions and think-tanks do not engage. The National Audit Office carries out good analysis of road investments on occasion, but not systematically. The Office for Rail and Road scrutinises the management of the SRN, including how well new investments are delivered, but does not see its role as enquiring into how investments benefit road users. This is quite unlike the regulators of other infrastructure industries – electricity, gas, water, telecoms – that are focused on how consumers benefit from investment.

The DfT is stuck in its box and seems unlikely to break out. The best bet for a strategic view of RIS3 may come from the National Infrastructure Commission, which has begun the development of its second National Infrastructure Assessment. The Commission’s advice was the basis of the government’s £96 billion rail investment programme for the North and the Midlands. This required fresh thinking about the benefits of transport investment at the level of the whole programme, an approach clearly needed for RIS3.

This blog post formed the basis of an article in Local Transport Today of 25 March 2022.