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Posts Tagged ‘congestion’

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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Just a personal view, but in my eyes the Dartford Crossing is close on being a national disgrace.

I have high regard for the Highways Agency and those involved in trying to fit a quart of traffic into a pint pot-sezed road network, but this is not the finest advert for the organisation’s work.

This section of the M25 – technically the A282 on this part of the London orbital – is one of the most heavily used parts of web of strategic roads. A staggering 51 million vehicles streamed through the tunnels or over the QEII Bridge last year.

The jams are also near record breaking. Analysis by Inrix shows that the northbound approach is the third worst traffic bottleneck in the UK. Southbound is not much better.

The absurdity is that the congestion is to a great measure self-inflicted. Not by the drivers who have no viable option other than to use the crossings but by those who are trying to get money out of them.

In the 21st Century is stopping traffic with physical barriers and demanding they throw cash at an attendant or a machine the best way of keeping the nation moving or collecting revenue? No it is not. To be fair, the DfT is working on a free-flow alternative to the current sets of booths to be in place by Autumn 2014, but why has it taken so long? And while the work goes on, so does the frustration for motorists, including myself, when I had to endure queues on both Saturday and Sunday.

In so many ways, the Dartford Crossing gives tolling a bad name, not least because money is still being collected from users even though the charges were supposed to be scrapped years ago when the building of the crossing had been paid for, and also because the service you get using the crossing is abysmal.

The RAC Foundation can see good reasons why tolls or road pricing should be implemented to replace the current system of motoring taxation. To end up with something like the Dartford Crossing is not one of them.

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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.

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Hallelujah. If for no other reason, the Prime Minister is to be congratulated for putting the chronic problems surrounding the roads – poor condition, predicted growth in traffic volume and an explosion in congestion – at the top of the political agenda.

For too long the transport debate in Westminster has centred on the railways, particularly HS2. But today’s speech at the Institute of Civil Engineering, in which David Cameron said the country needs to be “more ambitious” about improvements to its road network, provided a welcome sign that the Coalition Government does actually care about the mode of choice for most UK travellers most of the time.

The PM added: “We need to look urgently at the options for getting large-scale private investment into the national roads network – from sovereign wealth funds, pension funds, and other investors.

“That’s why I have asked the Department for Transport and the Treasury to carry out a feasibility study of new ownership and financing models for the national roads system and to report progress to me in the Autumn.

“Let me be clear: this is not about mass tolling – and as I’ve said, we’re not tolling existing roads – it’s about getting more out of the money that motorists already pay.

“We will take difficult decisions, we will risk short-term unpopularity, and we will hold fast to our vision in the face of vested interests, because our motivation and our duty is to protect and champion the national interest.”

On the face of it he certainly risks unpopularity. There has long been an aversion to any suggestion of the road network being privatised and drivers having to pay tolls. But David Cameron has been equivocal about both these matters.

The idea seems to be that private firms will be given the chance to run long-term concessions on the road network. They will have to pay a large sum of cash up front and undertake to maintain and enhance the road network, in exchange for which they will receive a fee from the government. That fee could well be found from existing motoring taxation such as VED, something the PM hinted at when he remarked, “…it’s about getting more out of the money that motorists already pay”.

A variation of the theme is for private investors to fund new capacity where the public sector cannot afford it and then collect charges from the user similar to the situation on the M6 Relief Road.

The activities of the private sector would be overseen by an independent regulator, already amusingly dubbed Offroad.

What the franchises will offer is a degree of stability, certainty and strategic thinking which has been absent from roads policy. While there is a five-year plan for the railways, and water companies must have a 25-year programme for providing customers with clean and adequate water, those running the major roads – the Highways Agency – live a peculiar hand to mouth existence with their funding left to the annual whim of politicians as part of the Budget process.

Motorists contribute around £32 billion each year to the Exchequer – £26 billion in fuel duty and £6 billion in VED. For that they get a relatively paltry £10 billion spent on the roads. In an ideal world the slice of the pie which comes back to the road user would be much greater. Unfortunately things are far from ideal.

Labour worries that any Pay As You Go scheme is the thin end of the wedge, and rightly asks where tolling on new capacity – which ministers have backed – might end. Would it apply to every new junction, bridge and widening scheme? These are valid concerns, but they are not a reason to avoid the debate on this particularly important topic.

The progress report due in the Autumn should make an interesting read. Particularly if it goes any way to addressing what the Prime Minister regards as the past “failure of nerve” when it comes to tackling this thorny topic.

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Enjoy it while you can. Believe it or not Britain’s roads have been getting quieter over the past few years, not least because of the economic downturn. The volume of traffic peaked at 314 billion vehicle miles per annum in 2007 and has since slid to 303 billion miles (2010 figure) – the lowest level since 2003.

But the latest official prediction – slipped out by the Department for Transport earlier this year with no great fanfare – suggests the recent drop is a mere blip and that growth will soon be resumed. The recently published National Transport Model Road Forecasts 2011 concludes that:

1)    By 2035 road traffic will be 44% higher than in 2010

2)    Despite the increase in traffic, CO2 emissions are set to decline by 9% from 2010 levels because of improvements in the fuel efficiency of the car fleet and the use of biofuels.

The DfT also looked at high and low travel demand scenarios. Under the former traffic could increase by as much as 55% by 2035, while even in the latter case the number of miles travelled would go up by 34%.

Much of the projected growth in traffic can be put down to population growth (though the demographic profile of the population is also important – older people tend not to drive as much as younger people). However the forecast dismisses the notion that individuals have reached a limit in their demand to travel by car. It foresees a time post-recession when car demand per person will again rise at around 1.2% per annum between 2015 and 2025 (a rate similar to the 1990s) and for the ten years after the growth will still be positive but will fall to an annual average of 0.5%. In the confines of Whitehall, therefore, the notion that we have reached ‘peak car’ is fanciful.

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