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Congestion: what congestion?

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technical & practice

With London about to introduce its congestion charge, are we losing sight of the fact that cities have always been congested?

Before Christmas, Alistair Darling came clean and announced that the government's congestion reduction targets will not be met. Even reducing congestion by a paltry five per cent is, it seems, beyond the wit of the transport department; but in an era where an admission of failing to achieve your objectives is seen as a sign of personal integrity, Darling will undoubtedly live to fight another day.

So what if we sit in jams for another couple of years. At least Darling has the decency to tell us that he cannot help us. Not like that Byers chap.

He kept stringing us along until, in the end, we didn't know where we were. At least now we can be content in the knowledge that there is no real point in raising our hopes.

So what is congestion anyway - this thing that we have all become so concerned about? The government explains it as the average delay experienced compared with driving in light traffic. But given that traffic in central London was measured a few years ago, counter-intuitively, travelling at 9mph during offpeak periods, but 9.9mph at peak hours, this cannot be the clearest definitional basis for a transport strategy.

The subject is so confused that a government document released earlier this year confirmed that, in fact, ministers do not have a quantifiable understanding of congestion at all.

In essence, nobody knows what it is or how to measure it. Darling certainly missed a golden opportunity to claim credit for lowering an unknown quantity by five per cent. It should really have been quite easy for a creative transport department to achieve. If only Darling had thought about it before confessing his ineptitude.

But the government's approach to congestion avoids looking at the actual causes of delay. When you consider, for example, that the number of cars currently circulating in what is soon to become London's congestion charging zone is the same as what it was in 1964, it makes you wonder what all the fuss is about.

Remember the halcyon days of 1970, when cars travelled around London at speeds two miles per hour faster than today? Ah, those heady days; the things we used to do with those saved minutes.

While other cities and towns around the UK have less of a problem than London, the perception that there is a real problem overrides any consideration of the real facts pertaining. So much so, that the first place to introduce a congestion charge was Durham in the North East; a quiet cathedral town which had the princely number of three cars per minute passing through the main street. Thus is congestion redefined to suit our paranoia that 'things ain't what they used to be'.

Actually, not much has changed.

We have simply become more sensitised to delay and more intolerant of queuing - and rightly so. Unfortunately, delays caused by roadworks, accidents, constricted roadways or even, as Londoners have found to their cost, the mystery of the rephased traffic light, are still put down to congestion. Thus we lose sight of the need for improved infrastructure and spend all of our time being suspicious of the right of other people to use the diminishing road space.

Constriction charge Let's be honest, since the total amount of UK roadspace has increased by just 25 per cent in the past 50 years while over the same period the number of vehicles has increased 700 per cent, is it really any wonder that we suffer from congestion? The answer is not to rein back on personal mobility, but providing it with greater convenience.

Alistair Darling's much-heralded roadbuilding U-turn in fact amounts to an additional 360 miles of roadwidening (not new roads, but adding an extra lane or so attached to an existing road) in a strategic road network of some 9,000 miles; a lousy four per cent increase. Notwithstanding the crucial need for improvements and additions to all modes of transport, as far as I am concerned, current congestion problems result from too many cars on not enough roads. Bring back predict and provide, all is forgiven.

Undoubtedly, congestion - whatever that is - should be eased.

However, we should not get too hung up about it and our part in causing it. If we build more roads, more people will drive on them, argue the parochial moral majority.

Good, I say - that is what they are there for.

The Transport Research Group is organising a free series of weekly evening debates at the Bloomberg Auditorium, London EC2 entitled: 'The Congestion Question' (February 13); 'Infrastructure, what Infrastructure?' (February 20); and 'Local v Global' (February 27). Speakers include Evan Davies, Jonathan Meades, Edmund King, Christian Wolmar, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, James Woudhuysen and many others.

All debates will be chaired by Austin Williams of the AJ. For details visit www. transportresearch. org or email mail@transportresearch. org. uk. Pre-booking is essential.

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