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The difficult truth about London’s roads

Richard Dilks, Programme Director, Transport 

We really can’t carry on as we are – that’s the simple (but difficult) truth about London’s roads.

The traffic on them is not in a good way, which is old news. Perhaps this is why we shrug and accept the delays, uncertain journey times and pollution.

More roads are generally not the answer, as this generates traffic to fill them up.

In any case, the costs are prohibitive except for ad-hoc targeted capacity such as the much-needed Silvertown Tunnel. We are going to have to manage demand better. A key and welcome finding of the report released today by TfL is to use price to do this more.

The report recognises that rationing access to our roads by congestion, as we currently do aside from the existing Congestion Charge, has high social, economic and environmental costs. It also sees this as consistent with promoting use of walking, cycling and public transport – not least as it builds on the existing Congestion Charge model by looping revenue back in to those modes, rather than further road development.

In fact, it is not just we won’t get more roads, we will continue to lose road space. Why? Because we will carry on giving it to other uses where this makes sense. Bus lanes, cycle lanes, wider pavements, pedestrianisation – successful global cities are making their central and inner areas easier to get around by means other than the car, simultaneously giving people a reason to hang out somewhere rather than just pass through.

We have ingredients in play to manage demand already: our existing Congestion Charge, of which we were big backers; one of the world’s most extensive systems of computer-controlled traffic lights to help traffic flow; open data that allows you to see exactly when your next bus is going to be; schemes to incentivise roadworks to finish as quickly as possible.

But we are going to need to do a lot more, and as a package rather than a single solution. The report hits many of the right notes, many of which we have sounded ourselves, albeit we don’t agree with everything in it (we think more work is needed on taxis and minicabs for example).

Using charging will not magically cure all ills: we need steps such as a network of freight consolidation centres; a co-ordinated effort to help freight deliver at quieter times, while public transport urgently needs further modernisation and expansion.

Also of importance is getting the best out of the many innovations we are seeing from car and ridesharing to wayfinding apps, dockless bikes and connected – ultimately autonomous – vehicles.

But, with careful modelling and testing, we should see the evidence accumulate as to how price can play a role in improving London’s congestion and air quality problems.

The Mayor’s draft Transport Strategy has a welcome commitment to exploring this, and we very much want to see this taken forward alongside all the other measures needed to cut congestion and emissions for London’s future.


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