Picture the scene. More people. More cars. More traffic. More congestion. Welcome to a vision of the UK in the not too distant future.
The numbers behind this scenario are of a scale that should worry us. The population is forecast to rise by ten million by 2035, with at least four million more cars in the vehicle fleet. Over the same time period – and despite a slight dip during the current recession – traffic is predicted to grow by 44% and the proportion of traffic travelling in very congested conditions will have doubled to 17%. Many places, predominantly those already notoriously well known for their backlogs, will see big increases in the number and duration of traffic jams.
In fact it is not that we have too little road capacity, it is just that we all want to use it at the same time, most notably in the morning rush-hour when car drivers on their way to work, fight it out with parents on the school run and those using buses, bikes, motorcycles and taxis to get to their destinations. Then there are the lorries and vans trying to deliver the goods to the shops that we all rely on.
Clearly the road network is as critically important to the smooth running of the nation as any other utility, yet compared to electricity, water, gas, telecoms, etc. it is often regarded by policy makers as the poor relation, with poor being the operative word. Drivers contribute £33 billion to the Exchequer each year in fuel duty and VED receipts alone. Throw in things like company car tax and VAT and the total soon climbs towards £50 billion. By contrast just £9 billion is spent maintaining and enhancing our highways and byways.
There are plenty of road schemes on the shelves of the Department for Transport that have been shown to offer good value for money and are ‘shovel ready’. Yet given the parlous state of the public finances not helped, ironically, by a predicted decline in the tax take from motoring taxation because of the greening of vehicles, it is hard to see that enough can be done to reduce the impending doom being predicted not by the RAC Foundation but in official figures. Anyway, we as an organisation have never advocated endless construction of new routes and concreting over the countryside.
Going forward we have to be more creative both as a country and as individuals when it comes to meeting and managing demand for travel. And if in the current climate government is unwilling or unable to significantly improve our travelling lives, then it is up to each of us to help ourselves.
Which is where Work Wise UK’s campaign to promote smarter working practices comes in. It is primarily aimed at reducing the need for people to travel to and for work, and to change commuter patterns: just the things needed to make better use of the roads we have.
Technological advancements mean many more people can now perfectly sensibly complete their work from home, or from remote locations, or even while mobile, often making it unnecessary to travel to a central office location on a daily basis. In addition to this changing attitude to working location, more and more employers are recognising the obvious inefficiency of requiring staff to be at their desks from nine-to-five, necessitating commuting when everyone else is doing the very same thing.
As major investment in significant new road capacity is unlikely, and possibly undesirable, so road usage has to be managed. New and evolving working practices, like those promoted by Work Wise UK, will reduce the overall level of work-related travel, and change the times at which people have to travel, cutting peak-time congestion not only on the roads but also across public transport, trains included.
If the warnings are to be believed, the much-heralded London Olympics and Paralympics will highlight the capacity issues on our roads and public transport systems and magnify the failings, imposing significantly increased usage particularly in and around the Capital where most of the venues are located. It presents an ideal opportunity to demonstrate how smarter working practices can have a real and demonstrable impact – if people heed the advice and work smarter over the summer then the roads and tube will be able to cope with the additional load. If they do not, then transport in zones 1 and 2 risks stalling.
The beauty of smarter working is that everyone is a winner; even those who cannot inject some flexibility into their daily routines. Each person who can stagger their journey or avoid making it all together is one less person those of us who are tied to rigid rush-hour travel patterns will have to fight for road space with every morning.
Now that must be something we all dream about.