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Suffering from congestion?

Former campaigner's picture

It’s a mixture of small changes and big picture thinking that will make a difference.

Traffic in our towns and cities is always a good topic for debate, so it’s no surprise that the inquiry into urban congestion by the House of Commons Transport Committee has attracted around 80 written submissions, with a great consensus supporting better public transport, more walking and cycling, less road building and less traffic.  

Our evidence reflects a wide range of factors, including the importance of bus priority measures, the potential for road pricing, managing parking,  improving walking, cycling and public transport, and making best use of new technology. We also look at the impact of freight, the role of planning and how transport appraisal needs to change.

The inquiry’s first hearing, where the committee quizzed transport planning experts, took place this week. The panel agreed that there is no single quick fix, advising that a certain amount of congestion is inevitable in densely populated urban areas with high car use, best addressed by cutting parking, and investing in public transport instead to provide a fast, convenient alternative.  

They stressed the importance of good information to help us make smarter choices about how we travel.  Small changes can have a big impact, like giving new residents a welcome pack that includes information on local public transport, or switching the travel planning defaults on website maps so that the car-based option doesn’t come up first.  

That sits alongside the big picture of how and where we plan new homes and jobs, to reduce the need to travel in the first place. Successful towns and cities already have a package of measures that manage demand for cars while offering good alternatives – Nottingham and Oxford were both mentioned as positive examples.  The panel saw road pricing as an important future option, perhaps as a successor to fuel duty as more of the vehicle fleet goes electric.

By happy coincidence, the hearing was on Tube strike day, so London congestion (already investigated by the London Assembly) was on the Committee’s mind. Thanks to the congestion charge and progressive planning policies, London has managed significant population growth without a matching rise in traffic levels.  The proposed Silvertown Tunnel is a backwards step, with the expert panel reminding MPs that new roads generate new traffic, and one calling the Tunnel “the worst proposal I’ve seen”. 

Reallocating road space away from motor cars to more efficient modes, whether bus priority routes or cycle superhighways, isn't always popular with motorists, but experts agree it is part of the solution. Where congestion in the capital has increased in recent years, much of that is attributable to temporary problems caused by building sites and roadworks, as London continues its construction boom. 

The impact of roadworks isn’t limited to London. We think there’s a case for reviewing the widely varying costs of licences for hoarding off streets and pavements to ensure that best use is made of off-street working before building sites encroach on the public realm. Utilities works – repairing gas mains, laying broadband, connecting new homes – are a fact of life, and there’s some interesting best practice in managing this better, such as Bristol's code of conduct.  Industry body NJUG is seeking greater consistency of regulations that could make these essential works more streamlined. With new technology, we may see more keyhole surgery on our roads instead of people-sized pits.

New technology can help with cutting pollution and better travel planning but is not a silver bullet when it comes to tackling congestion. Electric vehicles take up the same space as any other, and autonomous vehicles may make things worse, adding extra return trips to drop off and pick up passengers or to access remote parking sites. By contrast, walking, our most timeless mode is also extremely efficient in dense urban areas: yet, as Living Streets argues, too often walking is forgotten or seen as a bolt-on to transport projects instead of being at the heart of every integrated transport strategy from the start.

Shared vehicles, including car clubs and bike share, are part of the solution, and one that’s already with us.  And the ultimate shared vehicle? The trusty bus. Buses bring many benefits: Greener Journeys found that a 10% improvement in local bus service connectivity is associated with a 3.6% reduction in deprivation. Buses are true congestion busters, with every three buses replacing approximately 200 cars on the road. It’s more important than ever that we champion modern buses and decent bus services for every community.  

As cities become more densely populated, we face a strategic challenge as to what kind of communities we want to build. Trying to accommodate 20th century car dependency in a 21st century city will condemn our towns and cities to permanent congestion, pollution and stagnation. 

Paris is the latest world city to take a fresh approach. Cities and towns built around people, not cars, are not only more efficient but offer us a more healthy, vibrant and liveable future.