River Wissey Lovell Fuller


September 2004

Ron lets of steam about some more of his pet hates.

Traffic Congestion

This is one of my old hobby hoses and a topic that has been in the news recently, we have had Ken Livingstone's congestion charges in London, with talk of more cities adopting this scheme, we have the new toll motorway in the midlands, along with the promises of more toll roads and more lanes on some motorways.

For years successive governments have argued that you cannot build your way out of congestion. We suffered John Gummer when the Conservatives were in power and Michael Meacher and two jag John Prescott under Labour, all singing the same song. Their basic argument seemed to be: "If we build more and better roads we will only get more traffic, but if we leave things as they are the resulting congestion will deter road users." So Plan A was to limit traffic growth by allowing the congestion to build up and Plan B was to try and deter traffic by excessive taxing of road fuel .

What nonsense it all was, successive governments have chosen to build proportionately fewer new roads than any other large developed country and, according to many observers, we now have the worst road system in Western Europe. Not surprisingly we now have serious congestion on our major roads and motorways, not to mention the most expensive fuel, and it is all costing us dearly. One cannot deny that congestion in our major towns is a difficult problem and there is little chance of building our way out of that. Perhaps Ken's 'charge' is the right thing to do, so long as it is backed up by a satisfactory public transport system. The increased number of Park-and-Ride facilities has helped greatly in towns such as Cambridge and Norwich. There is no excuse, however, for congestion on major roads and motorways. Of course it is possible to build our way out of that.

It is true, of course, that new roads attract more traffic, much of this is traffic that was using slower, more dangerous and congested roads before the new road was built. Some of the traffic on new roads and motorways is due to commuters that have moved further away from their work because the new road has made it possible for them to do so and because house prices and the environment nearer to their work made living there impractical or unacceptable. Nevertheless there is a limit to traffic growth; most people that want a car now have one, the population is growing only very slowly so it follows that there is very little scope now for any further increase in the total number of cars on the road, there is also a limit to the amount of time that we are able or willing to spend driving. It is clear, therefore, that there is an upper limit to the volume of car traffic and I believe that we are very near to that limit now. Many people are already trying to organise their life so that they drive less, improved communication through the net is helping to make this possible.

Commercial traffic is also tending to level off, the trend has been for bigger trucks but fewer of them. The growth in the economy is largely in the service sector which does not require the mass movement of goods. Whether or not there is further growth potential for commercial traffic it is vital that that traffic should not be impeded by congestion since that has a major effect on our economy and the prosperity of us all. It is possible for us to build our way out of congestion on our major routes, it is quite ridiculous to suggest that there is no limit to traffic growth. Currently there are only certain stretches of our motorways that become congested, an extra lane on these stretches just 12 feet wide would increase their capacity by a third.

At last it seems that the government is recognising that the policy of trying to restrict traffic growth through congestion is a policy for disaster, but the sad truth is that we have been set back years. According to the AA Motoring Trust, less than £1 for every £5 collected in road-user taxation is spent on roads. There is little justification for toll roads with so much money already being extracted from the road users. Spending on the railways, which is also long overdue, is running at ten times the spending on roads, yet 92% of passenger traffic and a very high percentage of all freight traffic goes by road, every rail passenger and every ton of rail freight is very heavily subsidised by the tax payer whereas every road user is paying very much more than the true cost of their journey. Maybe if the government had got their priorities right and reduced the rate of spending on the railways we could get our new roads without the need for tolls. It is not only the major routes which need upgrading, there are far too many A roads where there are hold ups caused by roundabouts and traffic lights which should be replaced with flyovers or underpasses. It does seem that things are moving, we are going to get some widening of our motorways along with some more toll roads. This will all be very welcome but the rate of spending is still too low so that it will take years before we have a road systen appropriate to the 21st century.

Ron Watts

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