Tackling traffic congestion is a short-term air quality issue: it should not be a driver of long-term planning policy
As one does, I was meandering through some literature on “liveable streets” and came across a 1982 book review  written by Alfred A Woods of the long-defunct West Midlands Metropolitan County Council. No, I hadn’t heard of him either.
(In passing, it’s interesting to speculate whether Mrs Thatcher’s hatred of Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council – which drove her in 1986 to abolish not only the GLC but all the other metropolitan county councils for good measure – put back the cause of integrated urban planning further than many imagined at the time; after all, today’s Tory government is busily recreating the something very like the metropolitan counties in the form of combined authorities and mayorally-led city regions.).
I digress. Back to Mr Woods. In his review he wrote:
The motor vehicle is a sort of latter-day mule: in some countries it has a greater birth-rate than that of humans, it is capable of high speeds yet is difficult to master and it can be dangerous to onlookers. It eats space at an astonishing rate requiring pro-rata about ten times the space allocated to humans; moreover. it has heard of Parkinson’s Law and proliferates to occupy any space available. Where large herds gather, those areas become unattractive for humans to endure and although there have been some attempts to tame the creature by, for instance, driving large cohorts in one direction only, this seems to make them angry and they gallop faster. [……] Of course we are rather schizophrenic about the creatures; we are proud of them because we made them, they are extraordinarily useful and ownership of a fine animal makes us feel good and enables us to cut a dash in the paddock. But if we had been dealing with mules instead of motor vehicles, we would surely have tamed them more effectively than we have: keeping them out of the best rooms (the city is a series of open-air living rooms), controlling the manner in which they could roam the other rooms or charge down our bedroom corridors.
Despite flogging his metaphorical mule almost to death, Mr Woods makes a useful and vivid observation on our historic attitudes to traffic in towns. What is particularly striking today is that nowhere in his review does he mention the C-word – congestion. His focus is driver behaviour and its effect on the visible and consciously experienced urban environment. Contrast this with today’s thinking about traffic management where congestion is the centre-stage villain. It is responsible for two particular harms: costs and pollution. The costs of congestion are regularly highlighted, and consultancies make a good living in analysing traffic movements and the costs of delays. For example, the Centre for Economic and Business Research, stated in a report last year :
We calculate the total cumulative cost of congestion in the UK to be £307 billion from 2013 to 2030. Of this, total direct costs are £191 billion, and indirect costs equal £115 billion. By 2030, we estimate the total cost of congestion per household will be £2,057. From 2013 to 2030, the annual cost of road congestion will have risen 63%.
The report identifies three sources of these costs:
- The opportunity cost of the time wasted due to delays through road congestion (which includes ‘planning time’ for the possibility of traffic delays)
- The cost of the wasted fuel whilst vehicles are sat idle in traffic
- The impact of traffic congestion on the environment, and social costs involved”
The report was commissioned by the FairFuelUK campaign, which lobbies for lower fuel prices and, according to its website, is funded by the Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association, though the Guardian has identified other funders . Other cost-of-congestion studies are cited as justification for more road building. Back in 2006 Sir Rod Eddington’s transport study stated that eliminating congestion on the road network would be worth some £7bn-£8bn of GDP annually , though Eddington saw a combination of road pricing and modest infrastructure improvements as the way forward. Having said it agreed with the Eddington analysis, the New Labour government rapidly buried it.
The second regularly cited key harm from congestion is to our health, especially through nitrogen dioxide air pollution from vehicle emissions. The UK government’s poor record on tackling this issue is well-known: its latest plans have been heavily criticised , and those were only produced after the High Court ordered the government to do so .
The public health emergency from emissions requires serious and early action: an estimated 40,000 people die each year in the UK from inhaling particulates and nitrogen dioxide, for which diesel engines are the principal source . The government’s plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide  stresses technological solutions to reducing emissions with reducing congestion playing a secondary role.
Notwithstanding the impressive-sounding figures cited above, the economic costs of congestion are less precise, since the results depend entirely on the assumptions put into the modelling work and these are inevitably value-laden. And in any case, as Mr Woods reminds us, traffic increases to fill the driving space created by new roads; and since he wrote his review ample evidence has been provided to support his contention: most recently by CPRE  and as far back as 1994 by SACTRA – the government’s Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment  – thus proving that policy-makers are inept at learning from the past. The latter was so unwelcome to Mrs Thatcher’s road-building government that the Department of Transport sat on the report for months and, after a reluctant publication, rewrote the Committee’s terms of reference to prevent any more embarrassing reports.
Dr Steve Melia, an academic at UWE Bristol, has argued that congestion will always be with us . He cites the four options open to planners for addressing the rising volume of traffic in urban areas set out in the 1963 Buchanan report , and examines each in the light of our understanding 50 years later. In my summary below, which elides any nuance from his discussion, Melia says:
|Buchanan/Melia option||Melia commentary|
|1. Rearrange the road/rebuild the area to accommodate more traffic||Extending capacity at one point shifts the congestion somewhere else, and allows total volume of traffic to increase. To have any impact, knocking down the town and spreading it out would be required, which is politically impossible.|
|2. Restrain vehicular access||Can reduce traffic volumes but unlikely to improve congestion.|
|3. Voluntary behaviour change, ie reducing car use or changing its distribution/timing||Getting people out of their cars can free up road space for other drivers to fill, so no impact on congestion.|
|4. Squeeze more traffic into a finite space, and accept the consequence of congestion and a degraded environment||Marginal gains only as long as drivers make their own decisions on when and where to travel.|
Personally, I think Melia is too dismissive of option 2. As always, it is the detail of a given scheme that will determine success or failure.
The government’s expectation is that congestion will cease to be an air quality issue once nitrogen dioxide levels have been brought within statutory limits. The Defra/DfT plan summary offers restricting vehicular access as a relevant measure – but almost of last resort – and warns:
However, local authorities should bear in mind such access restrictions would only be necessary for a limited period and should be lifted once legal compliance is achieved and there is no risk of legal limits being breached again .
Bear in mind also that as vehicles get cleaner, the case for traffic restraint on public health grounds fades away.
So, although measures to tackle congestion are needed to deal with the health emergency, we cannot rely on those same measures to deliver improvements to our mental and physical environment in the broader sense. They will not rise to Mr Woods’ implied challenge on how to deal with rampant motor vehicles which make areas “unattractive for humans to endure”. In the future, you could have an emissions-free environment with streams of vehicles still belting along at 30mph on residential roads – and there are many main routes into cities and towns which are primarily residential rather than industrial or commercial.
“Liveable streets” are surely what we urban-dwellers want? Why would we not want them? Streets where the domination of the car – moving or parked – has ceded priority to pedestrians, cyclists and people with child buggies or mobility aids. Streets with places to sit and talk; streets with trees and hedges; streets with spaces to play and have barbecues. We should be able to love our streets rather than endure them.
If Dr Melia is right, and congestion will always be with us, then that is not necessarily a bad thing. What we have now is the wrong kind of congestion: polluting, wasteful and unpleasant. We need to find ways to move to the right sort, the sort that makes private car journeys in urban areas deeply unattractive and which in the process supports a “liveable streets” environment.
Some ideas on how this might be achieved, using Exeter (where else?) as a practical example, will be the subject of a future post.
 In The Town Planning Review, Vol. 53, No. 2 (Apr.1982), pp. 217-219 (accessed through JSTOR). Mr Woods was reviewing a 1980 book entitled Livable Streets by Donald Appleyard, Professor of Urban Design at the University of California, Berkeley.
 The Economic Effect of Road Investment, CEBR . February 2017. Accessible via https://www.fairfueluk.com/publications/roads.html
 Quoted in House of Commons Library Research Paper 10/28 Transport Policy in 2010: a rough guide, March 2010 (page 25), downloadable from https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/RP10-28
 Every Breath We Take, Royal College of Physicians, 2016, available at https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/projects/outputs/every-breath-we-take-lifelong-impact-air-pollution
 UK plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations: An overview. Defra and Department for Transport, July 2017. Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/633269/air-quality-plan-overview.pdf
 The End of the Road? Campaign to Protect Rural England, available at http://www.cpre.org.uk/resources/transport/roads/item/4543-the-end-of-the-road-challenging-the-road-building-consensus The Campaign for Better Transport has a very useful page on induced traffic at http://www.bettertransport.org.uk/roads-nowhere/induced-traffic
 Trunk Roads and the Generation of Traffic, Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment, 1994. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http:/www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/economics/rdg/nataarchivedocs/trunkroadstraffic.pdf – Warning: slow download
 Urban transport without the hot air, vol 1, Steve Melia, UIT Cambridge, 2015. See in particular pages 211-214.
 Traffic in Towns, Professor Colin Buchanan, HMSO 1963. A more accessible shorter version was published in 1964 by Penguin Books.
 Para 18 of the report cited at .
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