Tackling the UK's traffic congestion
First publishedin World Highways
Congestion is a problem on UK roads but the government has pledged billions on road, air and rail improvements to boost the economy and jobs
The biggest problem on UK roads is congestion, and there is no shortage of ideas as to how it should be tackled. Patrick Smith reports
Congestion (and how to relieve it), along with safety, are among the top priorities facing those responsible for looking after the UK's roads. Road pricing, car-share lanes, greener vehicle initiatives and alternative methods of transport such as buses, trams and rail are all part of the approach, but prior to the current economic climate the nation's love affair with the car showed little signs of abating.
The government says that to manage congestion it would need to increase its road building programme several times over, and this would be unacceptable both for financial and environmental reasons.
So it is exploring options for tackling congestion, and while this includes different ways of charging for road use, it also includes increasing capacity by widening motorways and using the hard shoulders to carry traffic.
A number of motorway sections including the M1 and M25 are adding extra lanes, and through a mix of managing speeds and opening the hard shoulder as a running lane, a pilot scheme on the M42 motorway has shown that it is possible to smooth traffic flow and improve journey reliability on a notoriously congested route. Hard shoulder running and other advanced signalling and traffic management techniques could be used more widely across the road network to add targeted capacity, offer smoother flow and more predictable journeys at significantly lower cost than motorway widening, with fewer damaging environmental effects.
Although investments in roads, including new constructions, structural maintenance and improvements, increased in the late 1980s and early 1990s reaching a peak of £6.2 billion (E6.9 billion), then dropped to £4.2 billion (E4.67 billion), the government recently unveiled a raft of spending plans including £6 billion (E6.7 billion) worth of air, road and rail improvements to boost the economy and jobs.
And while an analysis of the overall traffic and accident situation in each of 16 European countries, carried out by the European Road Assessment Programme (EuroRAP
), is said to show that the UK has the safest roads in Europe (and thus some of the safest in the world) per 100,000 population, the government also announced major new initiatives to make the nation's roads even safer.
The public road system in Great Britain (the UK plus Northern Ireland) covers a total of 388,000km, and there is some 3,500km of motorways, mainly in rural areas, and 243,000km of other rural roads. In addition there is 141,000km of urban roads.
Major roads (motorways and class A roads) account for 50,000km, and 338,000km is accounted for by minor roads. While minor roads account for the vast majority of total road length, 64% of total traffic, as measured in vehicle/km, is on major roads.
According to the Department for Transport
(DfT) the major road system can be divided into around 17,800 distinct links, where the ends of the links (nodes) usually represent junctions with other major links but also boundary points between one local authority and another or between rural and urban areas.
Truck traffic is predominantly on major roads (87%); by contrast pedal cycle usage is predominantly on minor roads (82%), while motorcycle traffic is roughly equal on both types of road (52% on minor roads and 48% on major roads).
However, the latest provisional figures show a decrease of 3.5% in overall traffic levels between the first quarters of 2008 and 2009. Around 1% of this fall is attributable to the heavy snowfall, mainly during the first week of February. The biggest decrease was the 12% for heavy goods vehicle traffic.
The Highways Agency
, an Executive Agency of the Department for Transport (DfT), has a major role in delivering the government's Ten-Year Plan for Transport, and is responsible for operating, maintaining and improving the strategic road network (SRN) in England on behalf of the Secretary of State for Transport. The SRN consists of all motorways and trunk A roads managed by the Highways Agency, as well as the M6 Toll which bypasses the central city of Birmingham, taking pressure off a heavily congested section of the M6 motorway. The privately funded motorway, Britain's first toll road, opened in December 2003 with Midland Expressway being awarded a concession until 2054.
Eddington StudyIn a bid to look into the crystal ball on transport, a UK government-sponsored report into the future of Britain's transport infrastructure was drawn up and published in December, 2006 by businessman Sir Rod Eddington (a former CEO of British Airways).
The Eddington Transport Study set out the case for action to improve road and rail networks, as a "crucial enabler of sustained productivity and competitiveness."
The report's main conclusions were that Britain has transport networks that provide the right connections, in the right places, to support the journeys that matter to economic performance. But roads in particular were in serious danger of becoming so congested, the economy would suffer.
At the launch of the report Eddington said that introducing road pricing to encourage drivers to drive less was an "economic no-brainer," and there was "no attractive alternative," although he admitted that even in a world with road pricing, there remains a good economic case for continued investment in transport infrastructure.
In his report he said of road pricing: "Benefits could total £28 billion (E31 billion) a year in 2025, including £15 billion (E16.7 billion) worth of GDP benefits. While firm estimates of the costs of such a scheme are not developed at this stage, those costs would have to be extremely high to outweigh benefits on this scale. It would cut congestion by half by 2025."
Eddington said that even without road pricing the economic case for additional strategic road capacity is strong: beyond 2015 there is an economic case for investing at a rate some 50% higher than is assumed up to 2015, at a cost of some £30 billion (E33.4 billion).
"The highest returns are around major urban areas, and on port and airport surface access links, where there are competing demands from a range of users."
His report also called for a programme of improvements to existing road and rail networks, the expansion of key airports, and adoption of the general principle that travellers should pay for the external costs of the pollution and congestion their journeys cause.
While road pricing is controversial and contentious, the government is pressing ahead with Demonstration Projects, pointing out that with 80% of congestion occurring in towns and cities, locally tailored solutions can be effective [such as the London congestion charge, although a similar scheme suggested for the Scottish capital Edinburgh was rejected].
As Sir Rod Eddington discovered: "The UK transport system supports a staggering 61 billion journeys a year." Figures from the Economic & Social Research Council (ESCR) show that the total distance travelled by people in the UK grew from 295 billion to 797 billion passenger kilometres from 1961 to 2005, and was still increasing.
Road widening, as here on the M1 motorway near the city of Nottingham, along with hard shoulder use are options to ease congestion. (Pic: Clare Smith)
At the end of 2008, there were 34.2 million licensed vehicles (about 29 million cars) on the roads, among the highest vehicle ownership in the world. Indeed, there are six million more vehicles on UK roads now than in 1997, and more two-car households than no-car households.
"Our towns and cities, therefore, need to properly understand the nature of their congestion problems and to develop the right solutions to allow their economies to thrive," says the DfT.
"In May 2007, we announced that we would work with industry to establish how road pricing by time, distance and place (TDP) might operate reliably, accurately and affordably, while safeguarding privacy. To facilitate this we set up the Demonstrations Project.
"In September 2008, the Department confirmed in the Official Journal of the European Union the names of the companies who were selected to participate in the Demonstrations Project following an open competition.
"Four companies (Intelligent Mechatronic Systems (UK), Sanef Tolling, T-Systems and Trafficmaster) are now working with volunteer road users to explore questions of privacy, accuracy and practicability.
"A further three companies (Kapsch TrafficCom, Q-Free ASA and Serco) will explore in parallel how to develop the systems necessary for both road users and the operators of a scheme to be confident that it is operating fairly.
'Not a [pricing] precursor'"We have also established an Advisory Forum, comprising, among others, representatives from motoring, environmental, business and privacy groups, to act as a sounding board for the project and we are liaising closely with the Information Commissioner to ensure that we apply the right tests for personal data security.
"We are at the very early stages of exploring whether the technology exists for more advanced ways of tackling congestion on our roads so it is too early to predict what the project's outcomes might be. Through the project we hope to improve our understanding of the feasibility of TDP technology, starting with the complex technical challenges involved, however this is not a precursor to national road pricing. Furthermore, the project could help inform the work of local authorities that are considering tackling congestion by significantly improving public transport alongside a local congestion charging scheme."
Announcing the major air, rail and road improvements package in January, Geoff Hoon, the Transport Secretary, gave his backing to a third runway at Heathrow Airport, London, said: "It is clear that many of our major roads also need more capacity and we are committing up to £6 billion (E6.7 billion) to improve the national road network, including extending hard shoulder running to some of the busiest parts of M1, M25, M6, M62, M3 and M4 [motorways], providing much-needed relief from congestion."
The funding is in addition to the £3 billion (E3.35 billion) allocated to strategic regional roads before 2015-16 through the Regional Funding Allocation process. Regions are currently reviewing their priorities for the period up to 2018-19.
Other government initiatives to tackle congestion includes having some 1,100 traffic officers patrolling motorways, attending around 1,000 incidents a day to get traffic moving more quickly after incidents and accidents; providing more accurate, up to the minute travel information for road users through the National Traffic Control Centre; using legal powers to minimise the congestion caused by street works and illegally parked vehicles; and promoting increased take up of workplace and school travel plans by investing £140 million (E155.9 million)to teach children to cycle safely and encourage more adults to cycle.
Safety is a priority
A new information service that will help police to identify road accident hotspots and reduce the number of road users killed or seriously injured has taken a further step forward.
The NPIA (National Policing Improvement Agency) and the Department for Transport have selected IT services company IPL as the supplier to develop software for collision recording and sharing.
The service, known as CRASH, will be introduced in three UK police forces in early 2010 before being rolled out nationally across England and Wales.
It is said that the project will substantially improve the effectiveness of road policing.
Collision reporting forms traditionally completed by police officers at the scene of an accident will be replaced, and the accuracy and speed with which road traffic collision data is gathered will be improved while more up-to-date information on collisions will be provided, removing excessive paperwork.
The service, which will be managed by NPIA PNC (Police National Computer) Services, will allow police officers to enter information either on a handheld computer or a vehicle data-terminal. It will link details entered at the scene directly to the PNC, enable officers to make digital 'drawings' of collision scenes and automatically send information to the Department for Transport.
Where multiple collisions occur it will also allow several officers to simultaneously complete different parts of the same report, meaning less time in the station and more time policing roads.
Richard Earland, NPIA chief information officer said: "We are delighted to have IPL onboard as the supplier for this exciting new project. By allowing officers attending road traffic accidents to build up information with such unprecedented accuracy and speed the service will contribute substantially to the ultimate objective of making our roads safer for all users."
Communities will also benefit from £3.5 million (E3.9 billion) of extra funding for innovative road safety projects. Eight local authorities will use the funding to tackle road safety problems in their areas using new techniques, then share evidence with other authorities and agencies.
Road Safety Minister Jim Fitzpatrick said: "Britain has one of the best road safety records in the world but we are determined to do everything we can to continue making our roads even safer.
"In 2007 the number of people killed on the roads fell below 3,000 for the first time since records began in 1926. But if we are to continue to cut this terrible toll we need to find innovative ways to tackle the road safety problems we face."