Archive for the ‘Congestion’ Category

A presentation to the Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum by Philip Gomm

I want to start by talking about a friend of mine called Nick. He is a conscientious and loving son who enjoyed a very close relationship with his father.

For some time Nick’s father had been seriously ill and Nick was making regular journeys between East Kent and Essex to spend time at his father’s bedside.

A fortnight ago Nick received a call to say his father had taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Immediately Nick jumped in the car and headed off to be with him.

Unfortunately Nick got stuck in a jam. When his father died, Nick wasn’t sitting at his bedside but sitting in nose-to-tail traffic on the M25.

It sounds melodramatic, but that is the real, human cost of years of under investment in the road network, a creaking network that will come under more pressure as the economy improves and the population grows. Even if you believe that we have reached peak car – that point at which individual car use plateaus, or indeed falls, no matter how much wealthier we get – the explosion of people on this island will conspire to make congestion worse in the future not better.

There is hope on the horizon however.

When the government announced “the most radical change to the management of our [strategic] highways in nearly half a century, and the biggest investment in improvements since the seventies” we at the RAC Foundation very much welcomed it, notwithstanding that the bulk of the cash comes not in this parliament (what’s left of it) nor even at the beginning of the next, but is back loaded towards the end of the decade.

At least the money should be guaranteed. The RAC Foundation supports the transformation of the Highways Agency into a government owned company with a long term funding settlement similar to that on the railways. But even this raises as many questions as it answers, not least the role of the road user watchdog and, perhaps more importantly, what it being described as an independent monitor.

Note the word monitor rather than regulator. I am sure all of you out there will be familiar with this – Figure 2 of the recently published document: Transforming our Strategic Roads – A summary.

It says that the watchdog and the monitor are there to scrutinise costs, protect users’ interests and advise ministers. The word advise is worth underlining. The monitor is not a formal regulator. Ministers explain this purely advisory function by saying a formal economic regulator is not as necessary as it is in some other sectors because there are no direct charges to users. No direct charges? I hear 36 million drivers vehemently disagreeing. What about the £33 billion or so they contribute each year in fuel duty and VED alone?

What we are left with is a Strategic Highways Company – or companies, for the legislation allows for more than one – that will still be solely accountable to ministers. And reading the small print, even the funding is not guaranteed as the minister reserves the right to alter the terms of the Road Investment Strategy after appropriate consultation.

I will stay with the subject of drivers’ financial contribution to the Exchequer for a moment longer. The Los Angeles Times might not be required reading in your household but if it is then you could well have seen last week’s editorial in which it was pointed out that the United States Road Trust Fund is woefully short of money. The Fund is used to pay for road infrastructure maintenance and provision. Unfortunately, while the list of projects waiting to be undertaken has grown and grown the amount available to do it with has not. The level of Federal fuel tax – the source of the fund’s funding if you like – has remained the same since 1993.

Over here we face a different problem. In theory there should be more than enough cash to pay for roads. Of the £33 billion contribution made by drivers each year only a third goes back into spending on roads. What we do not have here is the US system of hypothecation for road funds. The RAC Foundation does not necessarily believe ring fencing a proportion of the tax received is the best way forward – after all spending requirements can change year to year and the amount of money set aside from motoring taxation may or may not be enough to enough to meet the needs – however it would at least send out the right message to drivers. That is, a defined proportion of what you pay is then returned to you in kind: spent on one of our most important national assets.

Already there are many sections of the road network where there is no spare peak time capacity. There is simply no slack in the system. Ironically this is what will make – in the short term – the massive investment harder to bear for many drivers. It is rare that road works – improvement or maintenance – do not have an impact on traffic flow so for those drivers already negotiating the busiest stretches of motorway the works will potentially add to their woes.

The job of managing the works programme is made harder by the stretching of the peak time travel periods. I can testify to that.

At the weekend I made a journey around the M25, along the southern section and I got stuck in traffic. The congestion was, according to the BBC’s travel presenter, the routine Saturday morning jam. Not Monday, not Friday, but Saturday.

Given what the man on the radio said and the fact that that I had experienced similar conditions the previous week you could argue that journey time reliability was actually very good: reliably slow. You could say the fault was mine for not allowing enough time for my journey.

But that is a depressing scenario. We must halt this slide towards lower and lower expectations and get a grip on how the road network is operated, funded and developed.

The RAC Foundation backs the Highways Agency and its initiatives such as Smart Motorways and All Lane running. We believe these latest proposals offer scope for significant reform that will benefit motorists. But we do not want to see an opportunity squandered. We should regard this as only the first point on the journey of change rather than the final destination. And when people ask why is investment and change necessary then we should point out the human cost of gridlock as much as the economic one.

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There are many reasons why the M6 Toll road can be criticised, and it is true that it has not lived up to expectations in terms of traffic volume.

But isn’t it a leap rather too far to say , as the Campaign for Better Transport has done,– that ‘the project has helped no one’ including drivers?

Wouldn’’t the 29,000 people who used it each day during 2012 disagree? If it wasn’’t helping them then surely they wouldn’’t be on it paying their money? And which ever way you look at it, that’s 29,000 less drivers on the old M6.

The difficulties with the M6 Toll are well known. It does nothing to help junction hoppers who make up a significant proportion of the traffic on the existing M6 around Birmingham and the unregulated toll charges are probably set for the benefit of the operators rather than drivers (after all if you are under no restrictions why would you raise a hundred pounds by charging 100 vehicles £1 each, when you could make the same money by charging 20 vehicles a fiver? The same revenue for less wear and tear and lower overheads). Several years of economic downturn are unlikely to have done much to encourage usage.

But whatever the financial headaches for the owners and the lower than expected custom, the toll road is not a burden for the taxpayer and that must be good news.

This week we have seen the proposal to toll the new A14 route in Cambridgeshire abandoned by the government. This makes sense. It was going to raise relatively little cash, increase the price of the scheme and make drivers resentful that, with no practical alternative, not only were they paying their motoring taxes but would also have to pay a road access charge on top.

Yet none of this should kill off the wider debate about the long term funding requirements of our roads. Faced with rising traffic and congestion, and – believe it or not – falling tax revenue because of the greening of cars, something will eventually have to change.

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So bus lanes reserved for buses are a thing of the past. Or at least they are in Liverpool. For the next nine months anyway. Today has seen the start of a trial in the city to let other vehicles onto road space traditionally kept aside for public transport vehicles (taxis and bikes included).

The question is: will it be better or worse for traffic flow?

The received wisdom is that the point at which dedicated lanes for buses come into their own is at junctions which is where, unsurprisingly, the congestion and delays occur. The effectively allow buses to queue jump, giving them an advantage when the lights switch to green. The trick is to also allow room for other traffic which wants to turn left or right thus avoiding the frustration caused by a single vehicle holding up the whole procession as it waits for its chance to make the turn.

Often where bus lanes are designed there is a wider programme of tidying up of parking and traffic management on the affected sections of road which can result in smoother traffic flow for all road users.

On a historical note the first bus lane in London was introduced in 1968 on Vauxhall Bridge. Later on buses were given special exemption to make priority turns denied to others.

Another question is what impact the universal use of road space will do for bus journey times? The answer to this is likely to impact on bus patronage. However, even with dedicated bus lanes, there has been a relentless decline in bus travel in English metropolitan areas – from 3 billion passenger journeys in 1970 to just a third of that in 2010. (The exception is London where there has been a 50% increase over the same period.)

The experiment in Liverpool is one of those radical measures which planners love. Rather than tinkering at the margins whole scale change has been instigated. The interesting thing to see is whether drivers and bus passengers love it too.

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The latest survey of the UK’s business community by lobby group the CBI and accountants KPMG makes gloomy reading. “The report, Connect More, highlights the importance of infrastructure to sustainable UK growth, yet with many outstanding issues such as the future funding of the road network, aviation capacity and clarity over the costs of HS2, businesses expect things to get worse over the next five years,” the CBI says.

The CBI/KPMG survey of 526 business leaders found that dissatisfaction with domestic transport has jumped from 28% in 2011 (when the first survey was carried out) to a fairly depressing 49% in 2013. “With relatively few projects underway on the ground and no action on long-term road reform, there is widespread expectation that local roads and motorways will deteriorate over the next five years,” it says.

“The faltering speed of delivery on infrastructure creates a worrying sense that politicians lack the political will to tackle some of the major issues head-on,” John Cridland, CBI director-general said at the report’s launch. “We can’t afford any further delay. The Coalition must show strong leadership and prove that the UK can deliver on a small number of projects over the next 18 months and reach a much-needed consensus on bigger issues such as aviation and roads reform.”

The CBI is therefore calling on the Government “to complete all feasibility studies for road and rail projects outlined in the Spending Review and commit to detailed plans for delivery, while starting the debate on longer-term road reform by conducting an audit of the state of the road network and its costs to operate”.

The need for a comprehensive delivery plan for new transport infrastructure, rather than a ‘shopping list’ of individual schemes, was emphasised by one of the country’s biggest insurance companies, Aviva. Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, Paul Abberley, the company’s head of investments, noted that less than £1bn of Aviva’s £230bn fund is currently invested in UK infrastructure. And the reason for this? “The absence of a proper pipeline of projects,” apparently. “If you look at the National Infrastructure Plan, is that an actionable plan or just a list of stuff we need?” Abberley asked rhetorically.

One small crumb of comfort for the Government’s transport department is that, despite all of the above, transport isn’t the business community’ biggest headache at the moment, with energy having overtaken transport since 2012 as the biggest future concern for businesses.

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The Highways Agency has begun a public consultation on its plans for a major road scheme to upgrade the A14 between Cambridge and Huntingdon. The proposed £1.5bn scheme will add much-needed capacity on the 22-mile route, including a shiny new 12-mile bypass around Huntingdon. The A14 is a strategically-important route, which links the Midlands to the Haven Ports on the east coast, with nearly 85,000 vehicles per day using some sections of the route in Cambridgeshire, around a quarter of which are HGVs. Work is due to get underway in late 2016 (subject to statutory processes and continued value for money), with completion expected in 2019/20, the Agency says.

Undoubtedly the most controversial aspect of the proposed road upgrade is the likely introduction of ‘pay-as-you-go’ tolling on the section of the road bypassing Huntingdon but, interestingly, the consultation document produced by the Agency seems to assume that tolling is a given, and only discusses which route the tolled road might take and how much drivers could be charged to use it. “The proposed solution involves tolling the section of the new road between the Ellington and Swavesey junctions but not the A14 to the east of Swavesey or any part of the A1,” the HA says. “Other options that were considered included tolled sections from Ellington to Girton and Ellington to Milton, as well as tolling the existing route through Huntingdon, but these were discounted as they offered neither the strategic benefits nor the potential revenue of the proposed solution.”

The planned charges could be between £1.00 and £1.50 for cars, and around double this amount for heavy goods vehicles, the HA says, adding that it is proposing to apply these charges between the hours of 0600 and 2200 seven days a week. Vehicles using the tolled section of road during charging hours would be identified using automatic number plate recognition cameras, with no toll plazas.

“Most through-traffic is expected to use the toll road, as this will provide the fastest and most economical route,” the HA suggests. “However, there exist a number of alternative routes that are likely to be used by local traffic and a small proportion of through-traffic. Light vehicles would be able to use the de-trunked route of the former A14 through Huntingdon and a short length of Brampton Road, whilst heavy traffic would have two non-tolled alternatives: either via the A1 and the A428 from St Neots to Cambridge; or via the county A-roads through St Ives and the northern outskirts of Huntingdon.”

The public consultation will run from Monday 9 September to Sunday 13 October.

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Alongside the Action for Roads document published earlier in the week, which outlined the government’s spending plans for roads in the next parliament, out came the latest road transport forecasts looking as far ahead as 2040. This is a critical piece of work and not one for the faint of heart, but at its core are assumptions about three key variables:

  • The price of fuel
  • Population growth
  • Economic growth

Taking various positions on these, the analysts have come up with a range of estimates for both traffic growth and congestion growth. Assuming the central projections for each variable the department is now forecasting:

  • 39% increase in car traffic across all roads by 2040
  • 80% rise in van traffic
  • 19% growth in HGV traffic

They then translate that into congestion which, based on the central estimate, will be up 114% on the strategic roads by 2040 and 61% across all roads.

There are at least two other important things in the report worth noting.

On CO2:

“Up to 2030 CO2 emissions are projected to decline by 20% before starting to rise again due to increasing travel demand. Without further policy intervention and improvements in fuel efficiency, this would imply a 15% reduction on 2010 levels by 2040.”

On HS2:

“HS2 Ltd forecasts that around 7% of its travel demand will be shifted from road travel. In 2037 this means that around 25,000 trips per day, equivalent to 0.9% of long distance inter-zone car trips will be shifted to HS2. This 0.9% is equivalent to one year’s traffic growth and highlights that the impact of HS2 does not affect the key facts and conclusion of this document.”

The RAC Foundation welcomed the plans detailed in the Action for Roads document to invest in motorways and other major routes, but by 2018 more money will be being spent building HS2 than adding capacity to our strategic roads.

And this road transport forecast seems to lay bare the truth about yet another shortcoming of HS2. While drivers and hauliers will stew in ever lengthening jams, ministers are prepared to commit to a £50 billion scheme for the rich that will barely dent traffic growth. So much for letting the train take the strain. For most people, most of the time, the car is public transport – and so it will remain. It’s hard now to see how HS2 stacks up at any level.

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So here’s a thing. London drivers cycle as well as getting behind the wheel. Not only that, they use the tube and take the train. So much for the Capital’s motorists being defined by the car. They care as much about other transport issues as they do about how they might best get about on their own four wheels.

A survey for the RAC Foundation of 2,000 London car users shows that in the course of a week roughly:

  • Half use the underground at least once
  • A third take the train
  • And one in six cycle

Just as telling, when asked what improvements they would make to transport in London, the most popular response was a reduction in public transport fares. This was followed by speedier road works and increased parking provision. There was also a call for reduced waiting times at traffic lights, longer tube/bus operating hours and easier to understand traffic regulations.

Our survey has been published on the same day that the Mayor’s Roads Task Force has reported. The study underlines the importance of the roads to the economic fabric of the capital. And there is no escaping the fact that for all the other modes of transport on offer in London, the car is still dominant. TfL’s own figures (from Travel in London 5, January 2013) show that half of all Londoners’ travel mileage (excluding walking) is by car, rising to three-quarters of all mileage in outer London.

The report’s recommendations are a mixture of the immediate and intermediate and chime with the concerns of London’s drivers reflected in our poll.

Most of the short term fixes are not new and are to varying degrees are already being implemented, but their importance is underlined in the report:

  • Extend traffic signal technology to smooth traffic flow
  • Speed up the time taken to clear incidents
  • Give better real time information about road congestion
  • Tackle pinchpoints, especially at junctions
  • Provide better quality and clearer information about parking

Longer term it is exciting to see tunnelling projects akin to ‘cross rail for cars’ being discussed. Space is at a premium in London and we have to use imaginative ways of generating new road capacity to replace road space allocated for other improvements to the quality of life in London. Going underground has been successful in cities such as Paris and Munich, and of course is no novelty to Tube passengers. Funding will be the challenge, but with 80% of London’s journeys on the road network, a commitment to investment on a scale comparable to that for public transport in the capital is necessary and overdue.

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