Out of the jam: reducing congestion on our roads - Transport Committee Contents

1  Introduction

1.  The cost of road congestion in the United Kingdom is astonishingly high. The Eddington Transport Study of 2006 was widely quoted in evidence; this estimated that a 5% reduction in travel time for all business travel on the roads could generate around £2.5 billion of cost savings, for example relating to missed appointments and delayed delivery times.[1] The Department for Transport's (DfT's) written evidence estimated that the cost of congestion to business is set to rise by £10-12 billion over the period from 2003 to 2025 (expressed in 2002 prices). Adding in the value of the lost time experienced by other travellers raises this figure to £23-24 billion per annum.[2]

2.  Tackling congestion should be viewed in the wider context of transport policy; indeed, it is one of the main priorities for the DfT. Its Business Plan for 2011-15 sets out numerous aims in this area:

  • to improve traffic flow and remove bottlenecks on the strategic road network;
  • to introduce Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) road user charging;
  • to review the operation and structure of the Highways Agency;
  • to switch to more effective ways of making roads safer;
  • to encourage sustainable local travel and economic growth by making public transport (including light rail) and cycling and walking more attractive and effective, reducing carbon emissions;
  • to tackle the causes of local traffic congestion, and giving more flexibility to local authorities to tackle traffic problems;
  • to reform the management of road works.[3]

Missing from this list, however, is road pricing (other than for HGVs), which some organisations continue to argue would be the most effective means of reducing congestion.[4] We decided to look at how, without road pricing, the Government could better manage the existing road network and the traffic that uses it to reduce congestion. The range of policy interventions at national level is mirrored at the level of local highway and traffic authorities. Transport for London, for example, outlined the Network Operating Strategy that it is developing, in recognition of the fact that "the efficient management and operation of the road network is of significant economic importance".[5] Many local highway authorities have developed network management plans covering similar ground.

3.  Our inquiry was launched in autumn 2010. We sought written evidence on:

  • the extent to which the Government and local authorities should intervene to alleviate congestion, and the best means of doing so;
  • the extent to which road user culture and behaviour undermine effective traffic management, including the relevance of The Highway Code to road users;
  • intelligent traffic management schemes that can help to alleviate congestion, such as the 'managed motorway scheme' on the M42;
  • the effectiveness of legislative provisions for road management under the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991, and the Traffic Management Act 2004;
  • and the impact of bus lanes and other aspects of road layout.[6]

4.  We held four oral evidence sessions and received 56 written submissions: we thank all those who gave written and oral evidence. We also visited a National Grid road works on Regents Street, London and the Transport for London's Street Traffic Control Centre in Southwark, London. We would like to thank both organisations for facilitating such interesting visits, and for their time in explaining their activities. We would also like to thank our specialist adviser, Mike Talbot.[7]

Roads: who's in charge?

5.  As far as many road users are concerned the road network is a single entity. But responsibilities for managing the network are currently split between different bodies. The Secretary of State has responsibility for overall Government policy on roads, puts the relevant legislation in place, sets the strategic framework for new developments in traffic management, and establishes financial parameters. The Highways Agency is an executive agency of the Department for Transport (DfT) and, on behalf of the Secretary of State, operates, maintains and improves the strategic road network—most motorways and all-purpose trunk roads—in England.[8] Local highway and traffic authorities—County Councils, Metropolitan Borough Councils, Unitary Authorities, London Boroughs and Transport for London—are responsible for all other public roads (including non-trunk 'A' road, 'B' and 'C' roads) and a small number of short, motorway standard 'A' roads in major urban areas.[9] Integrated Transport Authorities (ITAs) (which replaced the six English Passenger Transport Authorities in 2009) have full responsibility for local transport plans in their cities and can modify governance arrangements within their areas.

What is congestion?

6.  In order to investigate how congestion can be reduced on our roads, we first had to understand what is meant by 'congestion'. Many of our witnesses pointed out that congestion means different things in different contexts, a view summarised by Garrett Emmerson from Transport for London:

It can mean unreliable journeys in terms of the length of time that journeys will take, taking 20 minutes one day, 40 minutes the next and so on; it can mean that journeys are just too slow; or it can mean that in times of exceptional disruption, road works or special events and things like that, journey are very different from the way they normally are.[10]

7.  Congestion is not restricted to specific types of road, but, as Iain Reeve from Surrey County Council told us, "it can just as easily be in one of our towns with a main A road running through it as it can be on the M25 or a large motorway".[11] Congestion is also not confined to vehicles, although they are the principal focus of this Report; there are clearly circumstances where pedestrian congestion is a problem, for example in busy town centres, as was mentioned during our final oral evidence session. Garrett Emmerson told us about the issue of pedestrians disobeying traffic signals and the associated problems of enforcement, which could lead to more delay and congestion.[12] While recognising that congestion can be defined in different ways it was clear from the evidence that it is a concern both to those who operate, and those who use, the road network. But is it really getting worse? The DfT's statistics show that congestion has fallen on both local and strategic roads over recent years.[13] While the DfT explained the drop in part due to "various interventions on the road"—with the accumulated effect of schemes such as managed motorway schemes, junction improvements, and better management of incidents—it stated that "the recent recession will also undoubtedly have had an effect with the latest estimates showing overall traffic to have fallen by 1.8 % since 2007".[14] In other words, once the economy picks up, congestion levels are also likely to increase. Without significant improvements in road and traffic management, or a fresh look at road pricing, congestion may increase again.

1   Ev 104 and Ev 113 Back

2   Ev 120 Back

3   dft.gov.uk/about/publications/business/plan2011-15 Back

4   For example, Ev w36, Ev w48 Back

5   Ev 187 Back

6   The Government has decided not to introduce road pricing on existing roads, except in relation to road use by Heavy Good Vehicles, and as a consequence the Inquiry did not cover this issue. The Committee also chose not to study the issue of parking, but might return to this issue at a later date.  Back

7   Mr Talbot made formal declarations of interests, which can be found in the formal minutes of the Transport Committee, Session 2010-12, Appendix B. Back

8   Although the strategic road network comprises only 3% of the network, a third of all road traffic in England and over two thirds of heavy freight vehicles use it. Back

9   B Roads are numbered local roads with lower traffic densities than A Roads and are usually no longer than 15 miles. C roads are the lowest trafficked of the classified roads but many roads are unclassified. Back

10   Ev 54 Back

11   Ev 36 Back

12   Ev 58 Back

13   Ev 119 and Ev w7 Back

14   Ev 19 Back

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Prepared 15 September 2011