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20/04/2023

Reading time: 13min

Mark Philpotts

Sustainable Mobility Design Specialist

Traffic regulation orders (TRO’s) essentially create local laws which are put in place through a statutory process in line with The Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984. The orders are legal mechanisms that are used to manage and regulate ‘traffic’ in the widest sense (motor vehicles, cycles, pedestrians, and so on) to determine how people are allowed to move – or not move – through streets and roads.

The signs we see on our highways network are the instructions we have to obey, but behind those are these orders themselves, which are enforceable. These may include speed limits, parking restrictions, weight directives, one-way routes and other schemes.

Side note: In London, thanks to a quirk of history, TROs are known as Traffic Management orders.

Who enforces TROs?

Some things are enforced by local authorities, some things are enforced by the police, but without them you’d have some chaos on the streets.

A permanent traffic order is where you know exactly what you want to achieve, so you put that into place directly. For example, if you wanted to reduce a speed limit on a street down to 20 miles an hour, you know that’s what you want to do, you go ahead and go through the traffic order process. Once that completes, you put the signs up, and you can enforce the 20 mile an hour speed limit.

With an experimental traffic order, you may have an idea of what you’d like to achieve but you’d like to try it on for size before making it permanent, so it literally is an experiment. You can change how things operate on the street to see the effects before you commit to a strategy – one ways, no entries, all different types of traffic controlling tools. You can run that for a while, get feedback from the public, gather data on how it’s performing, make adjustments at the start of the process, and if things go well you can go on to make an educated, data-led decision formally and the thing becomes permanent.

How does the TRO process work?

With permanent traffic orders, you could split them into large and small schemes. For example, if you’ve got a really big town centre, there’ll be lots of things you want to achieve and behind that sits lots and lots of different traffic orders doing different things. So the conventional way that people tend to deal with that is go through the whole consultation and engagement process through the design stages to a point where you have a scheme that sort of ticks all the boxes.

The traffic order process is almost kind of a formality at the end with some democratic checks and balances. You follow that process, and the schemes built and everything starts to run as you expect it to be. With a smaller scheme often you do the formal public consultation in parallel to the traffic order process, just because often with traffic orders you have to contact people who might be affected, explain what the changes are and how it might affect them. Often with a small scheme you’ll probably be doing that for your consultation anyway.

With the experimental process lots of people approach it in different ways. Some authorities will have kind of a programme of work, they’ll go out, they’ll literally give people a week or two’s notice that this scheme’s coming in, things will appear on the streets, and a project will run. It’s often the case that people are not expecting it, they’re not sort of warned or prepared for it, and so that creates a bit of a backlash. So the best for authorities will have had engagement with the community well in advance, so people may not understand exactly what’s coming or the details, but they’ll understand something’s going to happen to deal with a particular issue or meet a particular objective, and so when the actual traffic order formally comes out they’re kind of expecting something and then they can actually look at the detail of it and make their views heard then.

Whether it’s permanent or experimental, there is built into the process certain lengths of time for people to make recent objections. With a general consultation people can write in or phone in or meet the councillor or whatever medium’s being used to support a scheme or object to a scheme, suggest changes. The traffic order process is a lot more ‘dry’. Essentially you’re doing something to change the status quo, and the only thing in traffic order terms that the authority has to consider is recent objections, and then it’s up to whoever makes the decision how much weight or balance those objections are given.

For example, with a permanent order you need to give people 21 days to object to it in writing. With the experimental order process, the first six months is the objections period. So it sounds a bit bureaucratic and old-fashioned, but that’s the democratic balance that if people miss consultation or they’re not engaged in the process, at the very end of the process they’ve at least got this formal statutory right to object if the scheme’s going to affect them, or even if they disagree, but that’s up to the authority to weight it.

I think the problem in terms of it being ‘old-fashioned’ as a process is probably reaching people more generally. I think that’s just a general consultation and engagement problem that we sometimes have. So in terms of the law behind it, you have to kind of consider who might be affected. There’s a list of statutory consultees, so for example the fire brigade, the police. You also consider who might be affected, so that could be residents, businesses. People who may be travelling through the area are probably harder to target unless you put big signs up on the site that they travel through, and obvious things get advertised in the local press, lots of local authorities use their websites, but it’s quite a passive approach.

So you kind of have to know what you’re looking for as a citizen. One thing which might improve things is the government is currently consulting on making the traffic order process digital. Now, that won’t negate the basic legal needs for people having time to respond and make their objections, but it just allows another medium. So when you look at a traffic order, again often the old-fashioned ones are written out long hand, they explain what’s happening, they give dimensions and reference points to buildings, and it’s very difficult to follow.

Quite a few local authorities now used map-based traffic orders, which are graphical, they’re interactive, they’re a bit more easy to understand. I think with the government pushing to try and get everybody onto the same kind of platform to make it much more accessible from that point of view. But it must be remembered that the traffic order process kind of sits behind good governance and good engagement anyway. I think you’ll find, certainly from my experience in local government, you could probably start to write a list of people who will read the newspaper back pages for traffic orders and they’ll be the people we hear from, which may or may not be legitimate. You never know with some people. But the difficulty often for an authority, you can go through various assessment processes and engagement processes, but you may not actually capture somebody who’s genuinely impacted by what you want to do. So at least with the order process that gives people a bit more time, officially, if you like, to come back and make their views known.

What impact does this have on us?

The way that UK highway and traffic rules are set up is, generally speaking, you can do what you like on the roads and the streets unless there’s something preventing or amending it. So what I mean by that is, at a national level you have speed limits set on motorways, for example. Your speed limits in built up areas is 30 miles an hour. So at the national level you can kind of drive how you like but there are rules brought in at the high level. At the local level we might decide that actually in this residential area that’s not somewhere we’re going to allow driving through, so we use essentially local legislation to amend the status quo locally. We can designate areas, say pedestrian zones, cycle zones, that kind of thing.

There’s all sorts of modifications in terms of the weight of motor vehicles, the direction people have to travel, and so if you’re in an area that’s affected by traffic order, so for example, you may have a really long route through to your house if a one-way system gets put in, to drive, and you might feel aggrieved that that’s going to add lots and lots of time every time you make a journey, and so from the local authority’s point of view they have to look at the wider reasons for making that change and balance that against the individual. There may be that actually putting this one-way system in pushes through traffic back onto main roads where it should be, and so as a resident in the local area, having that slightly longer journey when you go out in your car is kind of a price worth paying.

But some people may genuinely have an issue with that. So for people who can’t travel very far because of their own sort of physical needs or their comfort that might actually be a genuine issue for them. So that’s the kind of thing that people would be interested in. You would hope that the engagement process kind of captures that early and up front, but it doesn’t always.

You could then also look, an example, let’s say we are looking at putting parking controls on your street and you have to pay for a permit. You might object to that because you just don’t agree with having to pay for permits. That on balance may well be, not disregarded as such, but acknowledged, but, “No, sorry, we’ve got a wider issue here of getting rid of people driving in from long distance to park in these areas.” You could look at cycling, for example. We’re trying to make cycling easier through the urban area. So you prioritise cycle traffic through an area and send motor traffic the long way around. So there’s pros and cons. It depends on how people are affected and impacted. I think the issue with it is if you support a scheme you don’t really have a statutory right within the traffic order process to actually support that scheme, so really the authorities should be looking at objections and weighting them properly. We hear from the people that don’t like things, generally. That’s life. That’s a challenge sometimes.

How can TROs improve cycling and walking?

Lots of people would say, “Oh, that road’s not wide enough to put cycle tracks down.” So you can go and look at Dutch cities, is a perfect example, where actually most of the streets within Dutch cities don’t have any cycling provision whatsoever, they’re just streets. But what they’ve done is rather than building cycle tracks on all the narrow streets they’ve taken all the traffic out of the narrow streets and put it onto ring roads or A roads, that kind of thing. So lots of people think about linear infrastructure, but we can also have point infrastructure, and that’s where traffic orders help us.

For example, if you have a fairly narrow city street, you can’t put cycle tracks on it but you can put bus gates on it. So a crossroad is a point, so buses and cyclists can go through. General traffic has to go on a different road, different corridor. So that’s, yes, that’s really an issue, but you have to think at the network level. You can’t quite go in and say, “Right, we’re going to do a thing on this street,” because there’s a knock-on effect on everywhere else. The best thing to do is look at your network and think, “Okay, that’s the motoring network for people that have to drive into the city. That will be the bus network. That will be the cycle network, and that will be the walking network.” Generally the cycling and walking network should be most permeable because we want people to go everywhere, and once we’ve then set that network then we can go in and detail start retrofitting streets, often using traffic orders.

Once you start getting more people moving by foot, cycle – walking and wheeling it’s often called – then you have a chance of actually trying to sort of unravel and unbundle what you’ve done previously. So you’ve got big roads which have caused severance. You’ve got what should be fairly straight forward walks to local shops, being made complicated by lots of awkward side roads and bad parking management and that kind of thing. So if we can actually design networks that are safe, and that’s in terms of low-risk for injuries, but actually they feel safe. So if you’re walking along and you’ve got priority over a side road, you feel invited, rather than having to get permission from a driver to cross, you feel invited. If we make it convenient for that, especially cycling, because the range is probably three to four times more than walking, we can start to put things in reach.

But it does mean you then have to start looking at the planning system, what your local planning policies might be to try to encourage the high densities. As I say, lots of shops rather than big shops out of town, schools within walking and cycling distance, that kind of thing. You can see in lots of towns and cities in the UK we are starting to make those changes, and that really means being bold. So if your main road is that barrier for cycling, that main road needs a cycle track to protect and invite people to cycle along it. So unless you’ve got those well-designed facilities, you’re not going to get that behaviour change.

From Sweco’s point of view, one of the big things we push when we talk to clients and we look at projects is we’re interested in the theory of people, place, and movement.

To hear Mark’s thoughts in more depth, head to the full ‘What are TROs and why should you care?’ podcast below.