The Transport Committee’s inquiry into urban congestion aims to identify cost-effective and safe strategies for managing limited road space in towns and cities, minimising disruption to local communities and businesses, and keeping urban traffic flowing.
I am a chartered town planner with an interest in sustainable transport.
The risk, when we talk about congestion, is that we correctly identify that it entails a range of negative consequences – air pollution, delays, severance, etc. – and then put in place hasty measures which seem to address congestion at first, but which may have perverse consequences. The classic example of this might be a ring road around a town centre, which might remove congestion from the town centre but which could also facilitate more motorised transport, thus simply relocating an increased amount of air pollution, rather than reducing it, adding to carbon emissions, and causing severance and noise issues elsewhere in the city. At the same time, by diverting through traffic away from the town’s economic centre, it might undermine local retail – especially if a new road is accompanied by excessive access restrictions in the centre itself.
I’m not saying that all bypasses are bad, or that we should ignore the social and environmental costs of congestion. What I am saying is that we need a more nuanced attitude towards it – one which atomises the issues, identifies the importance of each problem in a given situation, and investigates how it might best be dealt with.
Above all, we need to understand and exploit the potential of non-car modes of transport. Private cars are a highly inefficient way of using urban space; each single-occupant car takes up multiple times the amount of space of a pedestrian, a bus or light rail passenger, or a cyclist. However, decades of facilitating motor transport above other modes has dissuaded sustainable transport, so that only 2% of journeys in the UK are made by bicycle (and most of those are made by men; women are too scared) – whereas the figure in the Netherlands is around 25%. In order to use our urban space more efficiently, we need to put in place better, safe, segregated and convenient routes for cyclists and pedestrians. We also need to return to a concept of public transport as an important part of a transport system which provides functional services for all, rather than as an afterthought for those who have no choice but to use it; and we need to ensure that bus services are planned effectively and efficiently to avoid congestion caused by multiple bus services on the same route. In this respect the Bus Services Bill, with its emphasis on franchising and partnership working, is welcomed, although its bar on local authority-owned bus companies seems to be a manifestation of blinkered ideology.
There’s also a need to integrate transport and planning, so that a city as it expands can put in place a reliable transport network, in which all residential areas are served by multiple modes. That means, for example, higher densities along transit routes, integration of cycle facilities within new developments.
The conventional view of congestion-engendered delays is: congestion causes delays; time is money; so delays must be dealt with in order to bring about economic growth. Sometimes this is translated as: if you build more roads, that will make a place richer. Actually, the evidence for an inverse correlation between congestion and economic growth is patchy. That’s not really very surprising; more economically successful places attract more travellers, and therefore have more congestion; you could argue that congestion causes economic growth, although you’d probably have the causal mechanism the wrong way round.
Travel time is a cost; an individual decides how much of that cost he or she is prepared to incur. Therefore, it doesn’t necessarily follow that quicker travelling frees up people to spend more time being economically productive (or enjoying a greater quality of life); sometimes it just means that they are able to live further away from work, and increased commuting distances have negative consequences in terms of carbon emissions. In the urban core, increasing speed is a very questionable aim, because of the multiple negative effects of faster traffic – risk to vulnerable road users, severance, and noise, for example.
Delays do have a social cost, however – particularly unpredictable delays. So there is a need to look at how to address unpredictability within the system. This might mean spreading the burden of traffic not just spatially, but temporally, and across different modes – facilitating reliable public transport systems and segregated cycle routes on which travel times are predictable throughout the day.
The recent High Court decision that the government have acted illegally with reference to air pollution emphasises the extent to which the motoring lobby have been allowed to distort policy – even though air pollution causes 50,000 early deaths every year. The option of diverting traffic out of highly polluted areas is simply not acceptable; all that does is to disperse the pollution rather than to reduce it. Where that dispersal entails the construction of new roads, it means an increase in the amount of pollution – with both local and global effects. This is simply selfish: it says that as long as the immediate local area, First World voters, feel no ill effects, then ill effects felt elsewhere in the urban area, country, and world, are of no consequence.
Sadly, the recent NICE guidelines on reducing air pollution are not brave enough to take on the motoring lobby. Rather than saying that air pollution should be addressed by reducing the sources of pollution, they resort to pusillanimous suggestions about the profile of speed humps and relocation of cycle routes behind hedges. As cyclists in the UK know, you cannot “relocate” cycle routes behind hedges, for the very good reason that there are normally no such routes to relocate.
Again, what is needed is a genuine attempt to facilitate sustainable transport – to ensure that people are able to access town centres without that necessarily entailing a convergence of polluting vehicles –together with measures to resist the most polluting vehicles and encourage innovation in vehicular technology .
Severance and risk
Large volumes of traffic without adequate crossings separate people and businesses on one side of the road from those on the other, thus hampering pedestrian mobility and the cohesion of the urban environment.
Severance and risk, however, are not caused by congestion per se. They are caused by highway design which prioritises motor vehicles and requires all other road users to take evasive action. Highway management and design which provides for other road users is not incompatible with vehicular use. A good example is the A167 south of Gateshead. In between the town centres of Low Fell and Birtley, the road is dualled, with a 50mph speed limit, and it is highly dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. Pedestrians cannot cross it; cyclists can use it, but wouldn’t choose to. As the road goes through Low Fell and Birtley, where the historic urban fabric won’t permit high traffic speeds, the environment is a lot less terrifying. It still isn’t ideal – it lacks segregated cycle routes and priority for pedestrians – but, more or less, it is an environment in which low traffic speeds reduce the risks to vulnerable road users, and hence reduce severance.
There is a need for us to reassess our attitude to congestion. Seeing it as the consequence of a road system which is inadequate for the volumes of traffic currently experienced upon it is a model which can lead to perverse consequences. We should welcome and value large volumes of people wanting to visit our town centres. Rather than trying to divert them elsewhere, we should look at innovative ways of dealing with the problems that their presence might cause – above all, by facilitating a modal shift away from the private car and towards more sustainable and efficient modes of transport.
These measures are not just about benefiting the users of non-car modes; they are about efficiency and choice. Modal shift away from cars should free up road capacity for those for whom car transport remains the best option.