5. The Role of Traffic Engineers/Transport Planners in the DA Process.

Within this blog, Damien Bitzios from Bitzios Consulting describes the key roles and functions of a traffic engineer within the development application process and how ‘upfront’ design advice is the most important contribution to achieving project success.  He also delves into why Brisbane and similar Australian cities have traffic congestion and why it is not going to go away.

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One of our engineers recently had a phone discussion with an architect who we work with frequently and who described traffic engineering as “black magic”.  Whilst this comment may have intended to be complimentary, it reflects a broader issue we confront every day with the lack of industry understanding of the field of traffic engineering.  

What is the Traffic Engineer’s Role in the DA process?

A traffic engineer / transport planner’s primary role within the development application process is to determine the traffic and parking demands of the proposed development and to provide design advice on how best to cater for these needs whilst ensuring relevant standards are met.  As I am sure most architects and town planners will attest to, the lowest risk projects to work on are not necessarily the smallest ones, but those where the development’s traffic and transport needs are considered up front in the concept development and feasibility assessment.

Design Advice

The importance of comprehensive design advice early in the development application process cannot be understated.  Early design advice is crucial to resolve important transport elements such as:

  • the location of the development’s access;

  • the scale and form of the development’s car parking (with respect to structural elements);

  • the permissible gradients on ramps (and resultant impact on building heights); and

  • how the development will be serviced.

We have worked on countless projects where the development plans were well formed with the architect, client and other team members committed to a particular layout before we are brought into the project.  We have worked on too many projects where our design advice necessitates a redesign of the site at substantial cost and delay to the client.  Given that the access location is a critical determinant of the site layout, it is logical to start the design process by looking at how the site can be accessed by vehicles and pedestrians. 

Traffic Impact Assessments

The term ‘traffic impact assessment’ is a misnomer for small-medium scale developments. In the majority of development applications, the traffic generated by the proposed development is insignificant in the context of ‘external’ traffic conditions and does not warrant a detailed assessment of development-generated traffic. In fact, most TIAs that we prepare focus on car and bicycle parking requirements relative to the local planning scheme, the compliance of the development’s car park with Australian Standards and the proposed servicing operations for the site.

TIAs involve a relatively standard process of assessment and the complexities occur when the development application proposes to provide a solution that is not entirely in accordance with the local planning scheme. Innovative approaches can be required delving down into the fundamental principles that sit behind the planning scheme requirements.  In these cases, this is where a fundamental understanding of traffic engineering theory and its application become very important and experience should be valued.

Bitzios Consulting is fortunate to have developed good relationships with local and state government agencies which allows us to discuss any contentious issues with Council prior to lodgement. These conversations take place so that we can make the project team fully aware of Council’s expectations and what information they require to make a decision on the development application.  They also help in understanding each party’s perspective and objectives in moving towards resolving as many issues as possible prior to lodgement. Fostering these relationships with Council officers based on mutual respect is extremely important and, in our experience, reduces the scale and repetition of subsequent information requests.

A New Way – Working under the GTIA

In 2018, the Queensland State Government released the Guide to Traffic Impact Assessment (GTIA) (https://www.tmr.qld.gov.au/business-industry/Technical-standards-publications/Guide-to-Traffic-Impact-Assessment).

The Guide applies to development proposals assessable under the Planning Act 2016, as well as for major development assessed under other assessment frameworks.

The Guide recognises that times are changing and that much of our urban transport system is already at or near capacity in peak periods. It also recognises that traffic performance assessments are not ‘pass v fail’ considerations but rather should be considered as a relative assessment of worsening or improving a base condition.  This philosophy has evolved into the ‘no nett worsening’ approach in the Guide.  Under this methodology, development is responsible for returning the transport system to its pre-development condition where this is possible and where this is desired by state government.  How this is achieved is not prescribed, opening up opportunities for innovation in mitigating the impacts generated. For example, mitigation opportunities include improving public transport, walking or cycling facilities in the surrounding area or offsetting the aggregated impacts at multiple intersections with a combined equivalent benefit through an upgrade at one intersection where the upgrade is feasible and beneficial.

Transport and Main Roads is applying the Guide across the state and we are expecting that more and more Councils will also take on its approach once it has been ‘road tested’ and they realise the inherent benefits of this new approach to all stakeholders.

Can congestion be solved?

We often see headings in the media relating to a government’s ‘congestion-busting’ initiative or some strategy to avoid the doomsday situation of complete ‘gridlock’.  The reality is, in Australian cities within the Australian political context, congestion will not improve; and the reasons are founded in the simple economics of supply and demand.

Time is money and accessibility is valuable.  That is why people typically ‘demand’ to live as close as possible to where they want or need to travel to; whether it’s their place of employment, a beach or a certain school.  What this means is that the demand for living close to these places (such as CBD’s, or the coastline) exceeds the supply and the value of land goes up. This reduces the affordability for the types of housing products we also want and incrementally ‘pushes’ demand away from the demand focal point.  The effect of this though is that people have to travel further to get to these places, filling up available infrastructure and services and impacting accessibility to the centre.  This cyclical ‘arm wrestle’ between accessibility and affordability ‘drives’ (pardon the pun) urban sprawl outwards and congestion radiates outwards, whilst also intensifying in inner areas as infrastructure becomes harder and more costly to build.

Ok, so we know what causes the problem, but how do we fix it?

I’ll start with what we shouldn’t do.  We shouldn’t be so quick to build major ‘accessibility pipelines’ deep into the urban fringe; effectively pushing up the value land in those areas thereby increasing the speed of the urban sprawl cycle we are trying to slow down.  From a city-planning perspective, what we don’t build is just as important as what we do.

The obvious response to sprawl and congestion is to increase densities around the most accessible places such as the inner city and rail stations.  It stands to reason that more people living in less area means that the cost of their living space per person is lower, offsetting some of the land value impacts of being in these very locations.  This is not a new idea but is not as easy as it sounds to achieve in Australia for a number of reasons.

Or, we could do what Greater Sydney is doing and arguably run the largest urban planning experiment Australia has seen with its overwhelming investment in its ‘Metropolis of 3 Cities’.  In a unique model of decentralisation, turning 1 city into 3 is a bold plan and it will be interesting to see whether the massive investment in (as well as to and from) Parramatta and Badgerys Creek will dampen the region’s well publicised growing pains and facilitate more affordable housing without impacting its economic competitiveness.

So, with the exception of what’s happening in Sydney, the reality is that unless we are willing to directly and substantially intervene in the balance between accessibility and housing prices and accept the reduced personal freedom of choice that goes with that, there is not much we can do at all, except wait for our cities to mature and for our public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure to evolve to a level that we can make real choices as to how we move around and not be bound to the car.  Even though congestion will still be there, it is only then that we will have beaten it.

Bitzios Consulting is one of Australia’s leading specialist traffic engineering and transport planning consultants with offices in Sydney, Brisbane and the Gold Coast. They undertake projects throughout Australia and internationally, servicing all levels of government and the private sector. Over the last few years, they have prepared over 500 Traffic Impact Assessments per year and this number continues to grow.

About the author

Damien Bitzios is the Director of Bitzios Consulting. With over 25 years of experience as a traffic engineer and transport planner in consulting and in local government, Damien’s experience extends across transport policy, transport modelling, public transport system planning, traffic analysis, road safety, impact assessment and integrated transport planning.  He is a highly experienced Project Manager, Project Director and Peer Reviewer having worked on projects throughout Australia, Asia, the Middle East and in America and appears in various courts across the country as a traffic expert. 

He authored the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads’ Guide to Traffic Impact Assessment (GTIA) which was released in 2017.  The new process is founded on a contemporary ‘no nett worsening’ philosophy to better deal with development-related transport impacts in increasingly complex, evolving and under-funded networks.