18 August 2020 saw the publishing of the Department for Transport (DfT) sponsored ‘Traffic Regulation Orders and associated data policy: alpha report’. My colleagues Alex Minhinick and Daniel Whittle consider the implications of this report below. 

The report covers the outcomes of a user research study into the current legal framework around Traffic Regulation Orders (TROs) and suggests legislative changes to improve the system. This is all in light of the growing feeling that the TRO system is out of date and is not in keeping with a drive towards a data-driven economy.

The report proposes the following changes to bring the TRO system up to date:

  • Highways Authorities should be able to decide on the best approach to publicising new TROs. This will get rid of the obligation to publish in local newspapers and allow authorities to decide how best to engage stakeholders.
  • TRO data should be standardised and made available on an open source basis. This will be assisted by a standard form of application and the increased use of map-based orders. Included as well would be real-time data about the use of TROs in order to improve flexibility and utilisation. The idea is that once this data is made available the market will then be inspired to come up with creative solutions which could eventually support the introduction of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles and Smart Highways.
  • Changes to the application process in order to improve consistency across the various highways authorities and provide applicants with greater transparency. This will include maximum processing times for applications and the removal of some hurdles for certain applications that are time-sensitive.
  • Applying different application processes based on the type of order being applied for or the classification of the road to which the application relates. This will allow greater sensitivity in the system. For example, some permanent TROs will be designated as ‘minor’ and applications for these will not have the requirement for a consultation period.
  • Highway Authorities should publish clearer information on their charging arrangements. As the report states ‘the fee for applying for a TTRO can vary drastically from £600 - £7,000, driven in a large part by newspaper advertising’. Mandating that Highways Authorities publish a breakdown of their fees will increase transparency and consistency.

The report goes on to assess the impacts of the proposed changes, looking at both financial and non-financial impacts on stakeholders and highways authorities. The report also notes that ‘feedback from participants found that 93% of [highways authorities] users, 85% of data users and 57% of applicants agreed or significantly agreed that the proposed user journey and policy proposals addressed their overall needs.’

Next steps are also considered in the report and include building on the momentum of this report as well as providing guidance on how to achieve incremental improvements to the current system whilst any new legislation is being created.

As part of the report’s focus on how to make the TRO system more aligned to the growing data economy in the UK and the changing way in which the road network is and will be used, it recognises the need for DfT intervention to drive digitisation. Five key options to support this aim are detailed in the ‘Future of Mobility’ annex:

  • DfT creates a TRO data model which is issued as a national standard;
  • Help local authorities move to digital formats and support the transition to digitisation;
  • Provide funding to local authorities to accelerate digitisation of the TRO archive;
  • If there is a change in civil enforcement of moving traffic offences, use it to encourage TRO digitisation;
  • DfT issues a legal mandate for local authorities to digitise all archived TROs in a standard format.

The report recommends that the DfT progresses options A, B and C first, and suggests that this will significantly increase digitisation by 2025 with consequential benefits being delivered for Future of Mobility technologies including connected vehicles.

The DfT since reported that there will be further consultation in 2020 on potential legislative changes arising from this work.

One point which is made clear in the report is the need to overhaul the antiquated paper system of TROs. This is a long-overdue change which will enable crucial developments in the pursuit of a better framework for traffic regulation, achieving a more streamlined system which enables more agile deployment of TROs to both influence, and take the lead from, users’ behaviour. The potential of such a system has become apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, with significant changes which have been brought into some urban areas such as temporary closure of various parts of London to vehicular traffic.

Creating a truly fit-for-purpose regulatory system will only come about through suitable incentives and rewards for those bodies responsible for putting the measures in place, as well as penalties for those who fail to comply. The report looks at ways to achieve this but it will be up to local authorities and the DfT to implement the right balance of carrot and stick.