Saturday, 22 October 2016

Congestion or congestion charging?

London's congested roads are always a talking point for Londoners, motorists, bus passengers, cabbies, cycle campaigners and the papers they read. Last weekend the Sunday Times had an article re-hashing previous commentary. It reports that Lord Wolfson of the Next chain has offered a reward of £250,000 to find a solution. There is to be a Parliamentary Select Committee to look at urban congestion.

Everyone points the finger elsewhere. The black cabbies blame the explosion in the number of PHVs, as well as the cycle lanes and pedicabs; PHV operators tell us they mainly operate during quieter periods so it's not them, it's a loss of road capacity. Peter Hendy, the then London Transport Commissioner pointed out that everyone from the Chief Exec down, including himself were having their Amazon parcels delivered to their central London offices during peak hours. Cycle campaigners say it's not them, nor is it the new bike tracks, which, they say, will in the end, be a solution for congestion. Bizarrely there is quite a head of steam behind the notion that buses, the most space efficient mode are part of the problem - the 8000 buses in London are causing more delays than the 2.6 million private cars!!

Add to all of this the fact of population rise and jobs growth (the biggest cause of increased travel demand in London) and the near certainty of more to come; the fall in fuel price, rise in public transport costs and lots more construction sites.

So how to solve it? Solutions abound. From the cyclists, it's greater use of cargo bikes and even more cycle tracks. The cabbies want a limit on PHV numbers and restraint on them competing as hailable vehicles. Some say more technology is needed. Rephasing the traffic lights is always offered up as a solution; managing traffic as London did for two weeks during the Olympics is suggested. The latest technology is the shared autonomous vehicle which is so clever it will travel closer to the car in front leaving more space (for more cars). Night time deliveries are to be part of a solution as is freight consolidation.

This all matters. The cost of us all sitting in traffic in London is counted in billions. It's a massive part of the pollution problem - even cars running on fresh air would create small particle pollution from their tyres. Too many people are being injured on our roads - a direct consequence of designing our road system for huge numbers of motor vehicles.

But none of the above solutions go anywhere near solving this problem. It is an uncomfortable truth - no amount of freight consolidation, cargo bikes, cycling, rephasing of traffic lights even bus lanes will solve this problem. Modal shift is great. Of course the use of the most space efficient modes and many of the other ideas should be encouraged. However research tells us that there is so much travel demand in London that if the travel behaviour of one motorist changes (to a more space-efficient mode), the space that's freed up will be filled by another motorist.

Congestion charging needs
more sophistication

Along with changing travelling habits any freed up road space should not simply be occupied by others taking the opportunity for private car travel. In the jargon, there has to be a mechanism to 'lock-in' the benefits of modal switch and one proven method is roads pricing. Roads pricing is simple. The user of road space pays directly for its use and at busier times in busier locations pays more. Others pay less for their travel.

And this is not new. In 1963 the Ministry of Transport published the Smeed report: it said you can only manage congestion by permit or price. There can not be a single academic or practitioner that works in the field of transport planning that would challenge the view that roads pricing has to be part of any sensible policy to manage roads in urban areas. The choice is simple: 

you can have a managed road network or an unmanaged one; you can have congestion or congestion charging.

And it's really not good enough to keep coming up with clever forms of words to avoid this. It is too important and the solutions have been delayed too long. Politicians should be debating how best to to persuade the public and how best to implement roads pricing, and not simply finding excuses to leave it it up to the next generation to solve.

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