Friday, December 14, 2007

Same old traffic jams

The Evening Standard yesterday brought us an excellent article exposing the failure of London's 'landmark' congestion charge scheme.

Despite undoubtedly cutting car use in the zone (the only vehicles mayor Ken Livingstone ever likes to discuss), the latest Department for Transport figures have shown that average morning traffic speeds in London have now fallen to 9.3mph - well below the 9.9mph recorded before the congestion charge was launched in 2003.

That screams abject failure. But what's the reason for this strange anomoly?

The answer, Douglas McWilliams of the Centre for Economics and Business Research writes, is that lorries and, in particular, buses are now clogging London's roads.

He blames the fact that most transport experts use models that understate the congestion impact of large vehicles like buses in cities, like London, with narrow, congested streets.

So they miss the point that a charge that mainly targets cars will only do a limited amount to reduce congestion.

Buses clogging roads

Our roads, McWilliams suggests, are increasingly clogged up by more buses than there is either space or need for, with the infamous 'bendy' buses singled out for particular blame.

In Britain we have twice as many buses as in Germany, France or Italy. Apparently we have a fifth of all the buses in the EU!

And as we have said on this blog many times before, it's not as if buses are particularly environmentally attractive. For all the space they take up, they spend large parts of the time virtually empty. Over all services, from beginning to end of routes, the average number of passengers in a bus is just eight.

Since a bus does, on average, just 3.6 miles to the gallon, and since half of bus journeys would not be undertaken if the buses were not there, McWilliams has calculated that extra buses have about the same environmental effect as driving the passengers around in Bentleys.

This is Ken Livingstone's idea of traffic management.

Environment suffers

And what's his idea of helping the environment or public health? To fill London's streets with excess numbers of vehicles that, in the course of their operation, stand stationary for extended periods both blocking other traffic and spewing harmful diesel fumes in often densely populated areas.

TfL's excuse for the traffic slow-down is roadworks. But that conveniently ignores the fact that Livingstone prevented many roadworks schemes from happening just after the C-charge started, so as to give a misleading impression that charging had raised traffic speeds.

As McWilliams so rightly concludes: "Ken Livingstone's old-fashioned, anti-car policy has to be replaced with a more modern and flexible approach that allows for the fact that, for some people, cars are the only option. Without such a shift, we risk simply grinding to a halt."

If Livingstone is too stuck in his ways to do it, maybe we need a different mayor who will.

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