Sunday, March 02, 2008
Jam today means more congestion to come
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles


A few weeks ago I said I would look at transport and the problems road congestion and overcrowded and unreliable public transport caused for the economy. The phone, metaphorically speaking, has not stopped ringing.

This is a subject many feel passionate about. There is much to say and I can only scratch the surface. If transport does not work, businesses struggle and our quality of life suffers. Nationally, according to official figures, we make 61 billion journeys a year, more than 1,000 a year for every person.

My feedback confirms the problem is most acute in regions with the biggest concentrations of population: the southeast, West Midlands and northwest. But many other areas also suffer unacceptable levels of delay and inadequate public transport.

Road congestion costs the economy an officially estimated £7 billion to £8 billion a year, according to the Department of Transport. Unofficial academic studies put the figure as high as £21 billion annually. I would not be surprised if even this was an underestimate. This is because, while it is possible to measure the direct effects of transport inadequacies, the indirect effects are harder to gauge.

The government-commissioned transport study carried out by Sir Rod Eddington found that a 5% cut in travel time would save business £2.5 billion a year.

One powerful strand of feedback related to the M4 corridor, an area of huge economic importance to Britain. International executives, it seems, are increasingly disenchanted with that location, the horrors of Heathrow being compounded by the stop-start motorway journey at the end of it. Nobody wants that after a long flight from California or, similarly, on the way to catch a plane.

Transport also features high on the list of gripes from businesses about London, again hugely important economically. Many of those footloose businesses that are not driven away by Darling’s clumsy nondom tax will, it seems, be persuaded to move by the capital’s transport failings.

One of the people I heard from was Peter Hendy, London’s transport commissioner under Ken Livingstone, the beleaguered mayor. He is honest in his appraisal of the situation.

The public-transport statistics, he says, give no impression of a city haemorrhaging people or suffering a downturn; bus-passenger journey numbers in January were up 6.1% on a year earlier; the Tube by 6.5%. The alarming overcrowding on the network is genuine. Investment in longer and more frequent trains and better signalling will help, but take time.

When it comes to roads, the prognosis is gloomier. He concedes that the central London congestion charge has not increased traffic speeds because other factors, notably digging up roads to replace old gas and water mains, have slowed them down. The best he can claim is that, without the charge, things would be worse.

A lack of joined-up thinking is built into the system. Transport for London controls only 5% of the capital’s roads, the strategic routes, with the rest the responsibility of the boroughs. If they do not coordinate their work, the result is chaos.

Hendy can offer no comfort on infamous traffic blackspots such as my bête noire, the Blackwall tunnel. Once the police introduced new safety restrictions, the transport authority was powerless to intervene. Things will not get better until there is another London river crossing, and that is not even on the drawing board.

Across the country there are problems like this. Dual carriageways end abruptly and become low-speed, single carriageways. Dreadful bottlenecks result when motorway traffic joins a road like the A14 in Cambridgeshire, or where there is no motorway at all, such as the A11, also in East Anglia.

Diagnosis of the problem is easy. For decades Britain underinvested in roads and transport generally. We have the worst of both worlds, inadequate road capacity and poor public transport. Last week Network Rail was fined £14m for taking out vital bits of the network over the Christmas and new-year travel period. Road users pay £32 billion a year in tax but only £8 billion of that is spent on improving and maintaining the system.

What’s the solution? The first part, recommended by Eddington, is to tackle obvious bottlenecks in the system, where a small amount of investment will go a long way.

The government published a response to Eddington last autumn, and a green paper is promised this spring, but I don’t hold out much hope. In the end, the answer is much more investment, in public transport and the roads.

A recent report from Policy Exchange, the think tank, Towards Better Transport, made a convincing case for building new motorway links first, through PFI (private finance initiative) projects, then introducing charging on them. It stated: “Travellers would then see clear evidence of the direct benefits of road-user charging and understand that a significant share of future revenues was being spent on transport rather than being absorbed by the Treasury for general expenditure.”

The closest you get to French-style motorway nirvana in Britain is the M6 toll road, though it isn’t cheap. It is a scandal that it remains unique, 25 years after it was first mooted.

If there is clear government policy on road-pricing, apart from leaving it to local authorities, it is hard to detect. People and businesses would be prepared to pay for congestion-free journeys. That is the long-term solution to a genuine and growing problem for Britain’s economy. Allow the private sector to build more motorways, and to charge for them. Otherwise, the economy will jam up.

PS: Despite a 0.5% drop in house prices and evidence from the CBI that February was a struggle for retailers, this does not seem like a month when the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee should or will cut interest rates. I still think in terms of May for the next one.

The “shadow” monetary policy committee (SMPC), which meets under the auspices of the Institute of Economic Affairs, agrees. It votes seven-two to keep Bank rate on hold at 5.25% this month. The two dissenters, Patrick Minford and Peter Warburton, favoured a modest quarter-point reduction, though also had a “bias” to ease further.

Two of those on hold, Ruth Lea and Peter Spencer, were inclined towards further cuts. Another, Gordon Pepper, an old City hand, warned that the Bank may be forced to cut aggressively to head off the effects of the credit crisis.

As for the other SMPC members, Trevor Williams, Kent Matthews and Andrew Lilico all had a neutral bias, while my near namesake David B Smith, committee chairman, thinks the next move should be to tighten policy.

We are still in a “phoney war”. Warnings about the impact of the credit crisis have come thick and fast. The UK banks’ reporting season was, however, quite reassuring despite overblown stock-market reaction, and the economic numbers, so far, are holding up.

That is true, though figures for gross domestic product in the final quarter showed clear slowdown signs. Growth was unrevised at 0.6% but consumer spending rose only 0.2%, and the GDP rise was supported by a big rise in inventories. Weakness lies ahead.

From The Sunday Times, March 2 2008


It was a cathartic release to read your article "More jam today means congestion tomorrow". We all feel passionately about this subject and share a common sense of frustration, that successive governments have not just ignored the growing transport problem, but rather, have actively endeavoured to shift responsibility, perfidiously, from government to reckless, feckless travellers.

They are all at the trough; Local authorities with their predatory
parking schemes, the police with their speed cameras, Ken Livingstone with his congestion charges, and above all, the government with its fuel tax, VAT ( on fuel and the duty) vehicle duty and VAT, flight tax, vehicle road licence, et al.

The problem is that the traveller can scarcely (ought not to be)
squeezed further and plainly there is not surplus general revenue for transport. As you say, it's a jam!

I accept your point that people and business would be prepared to pay for congestion-free journeys, but only if there is a new covenant between Government/local authorities/the police/London Transport and the rest of us for openness, fairness and good purpose, in relation to transport.

Peter Hambly-Smith

Posted by: Editor at March 3, 2008 09:36 AM


I read with interest your article.

For anybody with a modicum of intelligence it has been clear for a number of years that we are fast approaching a scenario of gridlocks blighting our roads. Urgent remedial steps such as:

* tax incentives to employers to enable their employees to work from home;
* banning medium and heavy commercial goods from the roads between 07.30 -09.30 and 16.30 - 18.30;
* more effective policing of motorways to ensure lane discipline is
* altering school start times so that they do not coincide with the morning rush hour, i.e. start at 0.9.30 finish at 16.00 and
* plan for intercity bus terminals at motorway entrance/exits together with connecting bus services in and out of cities/towns added to which the hire of electric vehicles for onward local journeys not served by bus routes.

Yes it does need investment from Government, but motorway intercity bus services run by private operators who successfully tender for franchises.

Rod Fox

Posted by: Editor at March 3, 2008 12:28 PM

Dear David, In the article on road congestion you do not mention the biggest crime of all, the amount of a precious commodity oil going to waste in traffic jams worldwide. Soon a decision will have to be made to ration oil as the price will force poorer motorists of the road. In either scenerio extra roads building will not be necerssary.Your nirvana ( M.6. Toll) is a form of rationing by cost. John Thornber

Posted by: David Smith at March 3, 2008 06:52 PM

David, my name is Craig Slater and I am the founder of the Internets only Social Networking Web 2.0 Car Share Site.
We are seeing many more businessess joining the site to encourage their staff to car pool when attending meetings, this way they can decrease travel expenditure, encourage windshield time for their employees and tick the corporate social responsibility box.

Posted by: Editor at March 4, 2008 10:01 AM

As usual, I read this Sunday’s Economic Outlook with avid interest.
Your comments on Traffic Management touched a long held belief that all political parties are not prepared to grasp the nettle and deal with the issue in a commonsense fashion.

All Governments want the taxes and the employment that car manufacture brings, together with the horrendous tax on petrol and diesel, but they have no policy to deal effectively with the relentless increase in traffic.
Surely the pain that daily commuters have to face is totally unacceptable.

One major policy step forward would be for each Metropolitan and County Council to ask local travellers to submit suggestions for small road improvements that would significantly improve their daily journey to work.
The Council would then select annually the top ten most cost effective projects and submit them to the Ministry of Transport, who would release money from a Special Fund to what they considered to be worthwhile schemes.

I put forward two schemes for consideration:
1) Add an additional lane at the traffic lights at the junction of Tamworth Rd and White-house Common Rd in Sutton Coldfield for morning traffic coming from Bassetts Pole to be able to turn left.
The land is clear, and it would have a considerable effect on the daily, mile long tail back.

2) Having built Spaghetti Junction, the traffic heading from Birmingham to Erdington and Sutton Coldfield is badly held up by traffic needing to turn right into Kingsbury Rd.
The front gardens of the houses are huge for houses of their value, and could be used to great effect to resolve the problem.

Planners will say that solving these problems will only push the problem further along the commuter route, but one very grand scheme is never likely to receive funding, but the major problems could be resolved in bite-sized chunks.

It would be interesting to see the response from Birmingham City Council if you submitted these suggestions to them.


Geoff Hanson

Posted by: Editor at March 4, 2008 10:04 AM

All very interesting stuff, but isn't the truth that our society is predicated on the assumption that it will be possible for us to travel quite long distances to and from work quickly and in comfort. The airwaves (and blogosphere) are thick with the cries of those who find this assumption challenged by traffic jams and congestion charging.

They don't have my sympathy. In order for travel nirvana to be achieved, ever greater amounts of our national wealth will have to be expended on road-building, ever greater swathes of countryside covered in concrete, ever more CO2 pumped out into the atmosphere and ever more of our oil reserves squandered.

Why bother to do something about it? Why not just let it remain crap? Only if people find commuting unbearable will demographic patterns return to something more sensible and sustainable.

Best wishes,

Bears All

Posted by: Editor at March 4, 2008 05:32 PM

Your assertion that people and businesses would be prepared for congestion free journeys assumes that we would not be priced off the roads. I drive both as a private motorist and as a long distance private hire driver and I know that the taxi company I drive for would be forced out of business unless they were able to pass on each and every road priced journey. As the cost is likely to vary according to the time of day travelled and the price also would vary according to the type of road driven any passing on of cost to the passenger would be a complicated task. Drivers who are forced through lack of public transport to travel to London are already facing hugh increases in their motoring costs and this will increase over 3000% in October if Livingstone gets his way for higher emitting vehicles. For people like myself who live in rural areas a car is essential and, on a limited income, the though of road pricing a nightmare. In Perth, Western Australia, all buses are free withing a certain radius of the city and very few people have the need to use their cars to commute and it works very well. The London congestion charge is a tax, does little to ease the flow of traffic and road pricing will be the same. The rich will pay it, all those who can pass the charge on will do so, the cost of goods and services will rocket and all of us who cannot pay or pass on the charge will be priced off the road.

Peter Kirton

Posted by: Editor at March 5, 2008 09:52 AM

Dear Mr Smith

I read with interest your article last Sunday “More jam today means congestion tomorrow”.

I would like to add four things:

1. I find traffic congestion in London is caused by the buses. I have to admit I am no longer in London during rush hour but during the day the streets are clogged with buses with just a few passengers on each bus. I think the Mayor of London has only been keen to say he has added “x” number of buses regardless of whether they are needed. Fewer buses, less congestion and the buses would do their route much quicker.

2. I also think bus conductors would help – buses would not have to be stationary at bus stops so long whilst fares are paid – during which time they cause congestion and send out more diesel fumes. Also I believe passengers might feel saver with a conductor. It is not right for the drive to have to concentrate on driving, collecting fares and the behaviour of people on the buses, especially the assaults on drivers.

3. Crossrail – I really do not understand why we need it. It seems to me a bit like, what I consider to have been a waste of money, and that was moving Eurostar from Waterloo. If we have that much money available for infrastructure work surely it would be better spent on improving the underground system which thousands – I believe millions - use every day. It would help many more people over a considerably larger area. Paddington trains go through Ealing – so why not just improve the underground and people can change there to go to Maidenhead.

I would have thought businesses would be pleased as an improved underground would stop so many people being late for work – which costs money.

4. Canals – lets make more use of them

Yours sincerely

West London Resident

Posted by: Editor at March 5, 2008 09:55 AM