Why customer experience is finally causing a stir in Highways

The world of highways maintenance is not the natural bedfellow of customer experience. After the Romans left (what have the Romans ever done for us?) early in the 5th century the 3,000 km or so of road they built to move their armies and trade across the country were left to deteriorate. From then on highway maintenance was largely a local effort, originally with individual householders chucking a bit of stone on tracks here and there, followed by a fairly poor effort from town councils in the 13th century.

Combustion commotion and the economies of war

But, with the invention of the combustion engine things started to look up, and by 1910 central government started to take an interest in the road network. I doubt this interest was peaked by the motoring tax paid by the owners of the 140,000 plus vehicles in the UK, but certainly tax hypothecation hasn’t been on the cards until recently.

And it wasn’t until the 1930's that efforts were considered to match our roads to the needs of the motoring enthusiast, following on the heels of the first asphalt surfaces which were lobbied for (and paid for) by the Cyclists’ Touring Club back in the 1800’s. Unfortunately, WW2 put an end to the good intentions and it wasn’t until 1958 that we saw our first motorway in the UK - the M6 Preston Bypass.

So far, so little asphalt, but where’s the customer in all this? Well, the customer (end-user and tax payer), their needs and user experience weren’t really considered at all. The 1946 three-stage road programme prioritised the improvement of road safety, industrial and urban development, and agricultural efficiency. Reducing congestion was also an aim, but post-war economics put paid to most of this plan and then roads were sort of forgotten until car ownership hit about 6.5 million and the M6 Preston Bypass got the go-ahead in 1958.

Personal mobility v decades of under-investment

Spring forward to 2018, and car ownership has increased by some 386%, and 38.4 million vehicles are licensed for use in the UK – 31.6 million of them cars. Car ownership appears to be a human right in the minds of citizens, and there are 25 million more cars on the network than there were when the M6 Preston Bypass opened. That’s a lot of personal mobility on a road network that has suffered from decades of under-investment. Sir John Armitt, Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission stated in the National Infrastructure Assessment Report (July 2018) that:

“Over the last 50 years, the UK has seen an endless cycle of delays, prevarication and uncertainty. These have been driven in part by short-term considerations, and the lack of a cross-sectoral approach to infrastructure”.

That short-termism has had a real impact on the road-user experience: According to the RAC, over 90% of motorised passenger travel, and 65% of domestic freight movement is now done by road. Congestion has become an every-day reality, and reliable journey times a thing of the past. And that matters. It matters because the economic costs of congestion could reach £55bn by 2025 (Atkins). The cost to the freight industry alone is projected to be £14bn by 2040 (RAC) – the sector directly provides 9% of our Gross Value Added (GVA is basically the total of all revenues from final sales which are incomes to businesses). And don’t get me started on the environmental impact!

The Amazon effect, dissatisfaction, and public mistrust

But it’s not all about the economy, and it isn’t all about roads either: we are all expecting more from retailers and service providers. If you’re an Amazon Prime member, you know you can order just about anything from anywhere in the world and have it tomorrow. That kind of service delivery raises the universal bar. And combined with the instant response and viral nature of social media, we know that a bad experience can be shared with thousands, if not millions, of people in an instant, fuelling a cycle of frustration.

We also need to look long and hard at how public services have been delivered by the private sector over the last few decades to understand a rise in populism and public mistrust. The public do not differentiate between the G4S Olympic security debacle, poorly run prisons, over-crowded and inefficient rail services, and crumbling road networks: these are all public services run (largely) by the private sector, and in the public’s eyes the public/private relationship is failing. This mistrust is tarring all services with the same brush and raising levels of public scrutiny.

So, our expectations are rising in line with congestion and levels of general dissatisfaction with public service delivery. But the times they are a-changin’.

Ring-fenced VED and a desire to move Britain ahead

At the back end of 2018, the DfT published an ambitious draft road investment strategy taking us to 2025, using that long-awaited hypothecated vehicle excise duty to fund around £25bn of improvements in our strategic road network (SRN) to get us ready for the impending technological revolution.

The challenge to Highways England (HE) and the supply chain is to improve innovation, productivity, and creativity to evolve the SRN in to an economic enabler that is safer, more reliable, greener, integrated and smarter. That’s a huge challenge, further complicated by the sheer volume of work that will have to take place over the next five years. If current traffic volumes and levels of congestion are anything to go by, then maintaining customer satisfaction levels while the works are underway is going to be a mammoth challenge.

HE’s response has been to focus on three imperatives: Safety, Customer, and Delivery. At last, the customer is being given a voice through the independent transport user watchdog, Transport Focus. The on-going surveying of road-users is producing reliable feedback, used by HE in its’ list of 20 Customer Principles which is guiding and inspiring the supply chain to create new ways of delivering road works and major projects with the customer in mind: using data to understand the impacts of roadworks on traffic flows, communicating better, and getting the job done quicker.

The customer revolution is underway

HE’s contracts under its new Delivery Integrated Partnership framework is driving the desired customer-focused behaviours under a spirit of collaboration amongst the major contractors. The likes of AmeySRM, Skanska, Galliford Try and Balfour Beatty will be coming together to form customer ‘hubs’ centred around improvement schemes covering large areas of the network, to share information and innovation, and co-ordinate operations to minimise the impact on the travelling public. The customer revolution in highways is underway.

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