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Congestion Costs

2017 has opened to more of the same chaos blighting Britain’s transport. Thousands of commuters returning to work on Southern Rail have been warned to stay at home next week. Some reports suggest London’s tube drivers may be sucked into the strike. These continued rail strikes are a vindictive reminder of the fragility of the transport system and that it’s time for tough decisions on the franchise.

Meanwhile longer term problems have been allowed to fester in a welter of political inconsistency, buck passing and pure prejudice.

London, the lynchpin of the British economy and Europe’s largest city, is grinding to a dirty and potentially lethal halt.

Our city is gradually drowning in pollution and our governments have been complicit. So desperate has the problem become that doctors recently demonstrated in Parliament Square. Their principal target? Precisely the diesel vehicles so actively and enthusiastically encouraged by successive governments as a bulwark against climate change over the past decade, but now revealed to be causing an estimated 40% of nitrogen dioxide emissions in the capital.

A disturbing number of Londoners, recently estimated at 1.1million people, are said to have respiratory problems. This is said to result in nearly 9,500 premature deaths a year. Most schools in Inner London subject children to clean air standards below those considered safe by the WHO. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor, recently admitted that ‘London’s air quality continues to breach legal levels’.

And what makes these belching toxins still more deadly? Massive congestion which regularly brings the UK’s economic powerhouse to a grinding halt. Despite clear evidence linking congestion to pollution, our car-despising legislators continue to squeeze London’s cars and buses into ever more cramped and polluting space. Even the London Assembly’s Transport Group has recognised this, and identified pedestrian and cycle lane ‘improvements’ as contributing to the problem. though some of these bike lanes in the heart of Westminster are underused.

The result has been an average free flow speed which in central London has fallen from 11 to 6.7 mph in just the past five years. This has led to levels of congestion which Clean Air London reckons will make it impossible for the city to attain World Health Organisation guidelines on nitrogen dioxide – unless diesel vehicles are actually banned from pollution hotspots.

So what’s to be done? Simply spending more money, to just £173m for the next five years, which is Mr Khan’s feeble suggestion, is like blowing into a gale. To be effective, measures must be draconian and slay a few of the liberal left’s favourite sacred cows.

First, there are far too many diesel vehicles of ALL kinds in London – an estimated 775,000 in 2015. Delivery vans, ‘driven’ by online shopping, and older taxis proliferate, but so do our totemic buses, most of which ride around virtually empty in off peak periods. When did Transport for London last conduct a survey on bus productivity and passenger usage? In fact, bus passenger numbers are down by 5% and journeys are too. Maybe the left’s apparent reverence for them is not actually matched by their constituents’ actual use!

Second, much congestion is caused by an explosion in the number of badly coordinated traffic lights. These have increased in number by no less than a third in the past five years, apparently without any thought for traffic flow or coordination. They should be replaced at busiest junctions by ‘intelligent’ lights which react to maximise traffic flow. The technology has been developed by Carnegie Mellon University in the States amongst others, and London should be a world leader, not laggard, in implementing it.

Third, T for L must get a grip on road works. Again, non existent coordination between utilities has meant a record 8,146 works in London at the latest count.

Fourth, the Uber phenomenon. Whilst the black cab drivers complain that the fares system prevents them competing on price, tens of thousands of private hire licences are tossed away to part-timers, many from the North of England, whose idea of ‘the knowledge’ is a change of gear. They should all be subject to the kind of competence and personal checks (including criminal checks from their country of origin) required of the black cab trade.

If all that doesn’t free up our gridlocked road system, then we will really have to grasp the nettle by ‘number plate rationing’ for certain days of the week in the central areas of the city. What a blissfully free flowing and healthy prospect that would be. Unfortunately no politician, either at City or national level, seems to possess either the imagination or ‘cojones’ – the courage – to bring it about.

Anthony Coombs

Anthony Coombs has been Chairman of S&U plc since 2008. Between 1987 and 1997 he served as Conservative Member of Parliament for Wyre Forest.

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