'There is no magic wand that enables major road improvement schemes to be completed overnight.'
This is a phrase Oxfordshire CC has found itself having to repeat several times a month to the local media as we implement one of the largest road improvement programmes in our history.
This is often because the same people who argue improvements to junctions and major routes are needed to increase road capacity, are also often found complaining when precisely such work is being undertaken. This includes local journalists.
I am sure highway engineers and transport planners the length and breadth of the land know precisely the catch-22 I am referring to.
We in Oxfordshire are currently in the midst of a host of major schemes. They last for months and cause congestion, which in turn causes frustration. We all know it and experience it. After all highways engineers, transport planners and council employees sit in traffic jams too.
We do actually point this out when seeking to explain to local people that if there was a way of doing major work overnight we’d have been on to it years ago.
Psychologically, as a profession, it would be very easy for us all to go into our shells on such matters – taking the attitude that we can’t win whatever we do. In a long career in highway management I’ve definitely seen that happen on occasion.
There hasn’t been a roadworks scheme in history that has passed without negative comment of some form or other. However you can still try your best to honestly and regularly engage with the traders, residents and motorists who are enduring the effects and letting off steam via emails and phone calls or through local newspapers and radio stations.
There’s no way you’ll win them all round - at least not until the road improvement work is complete and the final results can be seen by one and all - but if you talk to them, listen to what they are saying and constantly remind them why you are doing the job in the first place, you stand more of a chance of your council’s reputation being upheld.
In my opinion we, as highway engineers, can sometimes show a tendency to place all the emphasis on the end product. Some can get caught in the thought process that if the months of roadworks lead to extra capacity – job done!
However the customer journey in the weeks and months while the roadworks are underway are, in my opinion, every bit as crucial.
Providing information that helps people make travel decisions and lets them know that we are actively managing the construction process is as much a part of traffic management as the signs and cones we place on the roads.
We in Oxfordshire are trying our best to talk to those who are affected by our work by whatever means possible. We are also trying our best to make sure we have good informative signage in place, we tweet progress, anything to keep people informed.
None of that could be described as a silver bullet. Nor would I ever display the hubris to claim that we in Oxfordshire are getting everything right in this sphere (I am sure some local people would disagree). However the signs are that taking as engaged an approach as you can does help.
While we are in a monopoly in our geographic location we still need to think about the public we serve and how they compare us to other industries.
Getting these little things right gives our leaders the ability to move forward on many of their other projects.
'It’s good to talk', as Bob Hoskins used to say, is not a bad motto for those undertaking major roadworks schemes either.
It’s certainly the case if you want to think about your employer’s brand and overall reputation while you’re undertaking a major roadworks scheme.
Mark Kemp, deputy director (commerical) for environment and economy at Oxfordshire County Council