Driven to distraction

The executive director of the UK RAC Foundation examines solutions to the congestion question.

Edmund King

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There is a popular notion that more roads mean more cars, which lead to more problems. But the reality is that, in London at least, we have had fewer roads, and fewer cars – but still we have more problems.

We have fewer roads, as road space has been removed by narrowing, pinch points, wider pavements, pedestrianisation, bus lanes, and the downgrading of some roads – so, for example, the M41 is no longer a motorway.

We have fewer cars. UK government figures show that car commuting to central London in the morning at peak time has fallen by more than 20 percent in the past 10 years. In 2001, there were 35,000 fewer cars entering London in the morning than in 1991.

Transport for London (TFL) figures actually show that traffic levels have fallen by 18 percent over the past two years. So, too, have speeds. In summer 2002, the RAC Foundation measured an average of 2.9 miles per hour (mph) on main arterial roads outside peak hours. One passenger in a white van even had time to get out on the Haymarket, grab a Big Mac and extra large fries with diet Coke and get back into the van – which was by then only yards ahead of him.

Average traffic speeds in central London have declined from 9.4 mph to 8.6 mph. This represents a worsening of eight percent over two years. Meanwhile, passenger numbers for the Tube, for trains and for buses have all increased. So why do we have more problems on the roads?

The reasons range from a lack of coordination of road works, to the hundreds of utility companies digging up the roads, to the fact that at least 10 percent of London’s traffic lights have been re-phased to slow down London’s traffic, to some crazy ‘traffic-calming systems’. And let’s not forget the replacement of traffic wardens, who used to keep traffic flowing, with parking attendants with profit motives, hiding from view to give out the maximum number of parking tickets and clamps.

But the problem is not that there are more cars. So we should surely question whether congestion charging schemes, which aim only to reduce the number of cars on the road, are the best solution to congestion. Better public transport and improved traffic management are vital with or without congestion charging.

What is congestion, after all, and how do we measure it? The House of Commons Transport Committee told us that the government believes that ‘an ideal measure of congestion has yet to be identified’. There are numerous different methods to measure congestion – speed surveys using floating cars, and so on – but we all know what congestion is. We experience it every day – not only on London’s roads, but on public transport too. And we know that congestion is not good for anybody: it is estimated to cost the economy at least £15billion per year.

What solutions might we develop to make the situation better? We could build more roads. But on a national level, we hear the well-worn arguments that ‘new roads just fill up’, that ‘predict and provide’ doesn’t work, and that we can’t ‘concrete over the countryside’.

These arguments make little sense. If you build a new school, a new restaurant, a new anything in the right place, you should expect it to fill up. That’s the mark of its success. There would be no point in building new roads if nobody needed them; and the new roads that don’t fill up are the roads to nowhere – the dead-ends where promised development never materialised.

Let’s face it. Motorists are not time-wasters who drive on the M25 for the heck of it. In the old days, we might have gone out for a spin in the MG on a Sunday afternoon. Nowadays, we drive because we have things to do and people to see.

And we haven’t predicted and provided. Britain has under-invested in its transport infrastructure for years. Ninety-three percent of passenger travel is by road, only about six percent by rail. If we could double rail capacity overnight (and the Strategic Rail Authority agreed to funding), it would merely dent one or two years’ traffic growth.

If we want to ensure traffic congestion gets no worse over the next 30 years, what must we do? Some argue, and have argued for 40 years, that traffic restraint or demand management are the only answers – in other words, charging to restrain traffic.

But there are other ways. Research conducted for the RAC Foundation by the Halcrow consultants David Bayliss and Sir Alan Muir Wood found that if we were to invest £70billion in new road infrastructure over the next 30 years, we could stop congestion from growing. This level of investment includes a much higher proportion of tunnelling and other environmental measures to mitigate adverse effects. The spending represents a 50 percent increase in spending on the 10-year plan, and it could be done.

Would this concrete over the countryside? Hardly – all these measures would add 0.05 percent to the land area given to roads. Currently, roads take up only 1.4 percent of land area in the UK.

There is £41billion per year collected in motoring taxes, of which only £4billion was spent on the roads last year. If the government is not willing to spend this amount, and if we do not want congestion to get worse, then no wonder some form of demand management seems to be the only option. Public transport cannot cope.

In terms of the environment: congestion causes pollution, and road transport still accounts for 20 percent of CO2 emissions. However, our report, Motoring towards 2050, shows that the car of the future will be greener, cleaner and safer. First through using improved technology in current petrol and diesel vehicles, and then via the wider introduction of hybrid vehicles through to the fuel-cell car using compressed hydrogen.

The congestion question has many other strands. Technology can be used in other ways to counter congestion. More should be done with the ‘Motors and Modems’ concept we developed at the RAC Foundation – that is, how technology is used in teleworking, teleshopping or video conferencing, or how technology enabling congestion avoidance can radically cut traffic. As well as road and public transport improvements and better traffic management, we also need to get smarter.

Edmund King is executive director of the RAC Foundation. This is an edited version of a speech given at the debate ‘Driven to Distraction: The Congestion Question’, organised by the Transport Research Group and hosted at the Bloomberg Auditorium in London on 13 February 2003

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