It shouldn’t be the case that prosperity means more traffic

Richard Bourn of the Campaign for Better Transport on the problems caused by congestion in our major cities - which are amongst the most congested in Europe.

By Richard Bourn of the Campaign for Better Transport

It is not surprising that UK cities fare so badly in the congestion league just produced by satnav company Tom-Tom. Apparently eight of the 20 worst cities for congestion in Europe are in the UK.

Though car ownership is higher in some other European countries, people use cars more in the UK than elsewhere. The Campaign for Better Transport’s Car Dependency Scorecard (pdf), published last year, showed that for many people car use is not a choice but is due lack of alternatives.

Some progress in addressing congestion was made under the last government. According to the latest National Travel Survey the distance travelled by car peaked in 2000 and has continued to fall, but the decline in the last couple of years has been faster as the economy has slowed down. It shouldn’t be the case that prosperity means more traffic.

But the last government never tackled some issues. There was never a serious national strategy to make cycling safer and no national strategy for buses. At a local level, provision of bus services continues to be a postcode lottery.

The coalition government could learn from Labour’s mistakes but instead it looks as though they might make things worse. The indications are that the National Planning Policy Framework will be weak on transport, road safety strategy remains inadequate and policy is unclear on giving local authorities the power and access to finance to make a difference.

Except in London, the amount of bus travel remains in the doldrums and this government has cut support for bus services. Some local authorities have cut all funding for buses. This doesn’t help tackle congestion. Campaign for Better Transport has set out (pdf) how investment in sustainable transport could reduce congestion, underpin jobs and help those returning to work.

It is something of a paradox that London does so badly in the Tom-Tom table. It has seen the introduction of the congestion charge and had more than a decade of pro-public transport policies. Car use has gone down in central and inner London and many outer London boroughs. But London is still the third most congested European city.

Much of London’s rail and Tube investment plans have yet to bear fruit. London needs more serious policies to improve road safety and boost walking and cycling. Unless it also implements measures to deter car use – instead of, for example, removing the western extension of the congestion charging zone – Transport for London’s prediction (pdf) of a 14% increase in congestion will prove to be accurate.

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