Congestion is a necessary evil of successful modern economies, argues transport correspondent Saul Wordsworth, albeit one that governments are attempting to solve in entirely the wrong way.
The British government has just announced a £6 billion package to help ease congestion in England. One of the prime focuses of this investment is the extension of the use of hard-shoulders during busy periods, a project that was piloted on the M42 near Birmingham. The government is also planning to widen the M1 motorway in Hertfordshire and Nottinghamshire, and the M25 in Kent within the next three years.
Edmund King of the Automobile Association says he thinks UK motorists will find it encouraging that the government is trying to address the problem of motorway queues, adding that “congestion is costing us more than £20bn a year.”
Policies for the peaks
This sort of figure, regularly touted, is misleading. It compares the time taken to travel from A to B during peak hours versus the time it takes when there is no congestion at all. The difference is then multiplied by the number of people and their time on the road, divided by the average wage, and then given as the total value of lost revenue as a result of congestion. However, it is preposterous to suggest that if only we had better policies we could drive as fast during peak times as when there is no congestion.
In a prosperous, successful society where everyone has to move at more-or-less the same time, we need to reconsider the ‘wasted’ time of congestion, and instead see it as a necessary cost of living in a modern society. Congestion is a result of prosperity, not a cause of decline. It is only when there is no congestion that alarm bells should ring. To illustrate this point, the Bay Area of San Francisco suffered terrible congestion during the boom years of the dot.com era: it was only after the bubble burst and the recession set in that congestion fell away.
When stuck in a traffic jam it is easy to think, “We need more roads,” or, “I can’t wait for them to open the hard shoulder on this stretch of the M1…”, yet this response, however intuitive, is wrong. As the leading urbanist Anthony Downs expounded in his theory known as Downs’ Law, travel demand on major roads rises to meet capacity.
If new lanes are added, congestion problems might be lessened in the short term, but the promise of reduced congestion will attract drivers who previously used other routes, travelled at different times of the day, drove less or used other forms of transportation. Ergo, capacity will rarely relieve congestion in the long run.
All is not lost, however. UK Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly says she will also investigate the possibility of introducing tolling and car-sharing lanes, and that local congestion charging in Leeds, Cambridgeshire and Reading will also be considered.
This is heartening news. Those with a ready understanding of the economic principles of traffic congestion know that it is only through the use of congestion pricing and high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes that we will see any long-term easing of congestion.
It is time urban planners stopped building new roads to please the electorate and realised that tolling and car-sharing are the only ways forward. I suggest that you try to enjoy the extra free time you have on the road and realise that, sitting in that jam, you are simply enjoying one of the spoils of an affluent society.
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