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Traffic and productivity
If this column reads like a script for one of Jeremy Clarkson’s TV reports I apologise in advance. As a motorist in my fifties I find myself sharing Mr. Clarkson’s frustrations at a road system that appears to operate more slowly than when I first passed my driving test aged 17.
Let’s take it as agreed that for our economy to operate effectively we need reliable, fast transport systems. That time spent in traffic hurts the productivity of our economy. According to research by INDRIX and the Centre for Economic and Business Research the average cost to drivers of traffic congestion is £1168 per year. Direct costs relate to the value of fuel and the time wasted rather than being productive at work, and indirect costs relate to higher freighting and business fees from company vehicles idling in traffic, which are passed on as additional costs to customers.
This Easter the North East was connected to the UK motorway network for the first time, the M1/A1 from London to Newcastle became motorway all the way after the long-running and delayed upgrade from Bedale to Barton in North Yorkshire was completed. Two out of three cheers for that, but one snarky raspberry for the fact that after driving North along the newly opened motorway and enjoying the free flowing traffic, motorists almost immediately hit a new set of five mile roadworks from the A167 to the A689, which are to last six months. Over Easter the cones were there, but nobody was working. Furthermore, Highways England doesn’t tell motorists why they are being held up; only a call to its press office informed me it was due to central barrier work. Even the Highways England app, which warns of the roadworks, doesn’t tell us why.
There was a period under both John Major and Tony Blair, that roadworks seemed to be completed more quickly and information was more plentiful; the cones hotline was much mocked but it encouraged officials to keeping road users at the front of their minds. During this time the contractors were obliged to rent the lanes they were working on. Recently the Government decided to allow local authorities to establish lane rental schemes for contractors as a way of reducing the impact of street works on the busiest roads at the busiest times. The lane rental cost will be £2500 per day.
Lane rentalis a good idea, it provides a real incentive for works to be completed on time, with a greater motivation to work outside peak hours. It demonstrates a very clear relationship between the occupancy of the road by contractors and the real cost to the wider economy. Given the Government’s enthusiasm for lane rental within towns and cities, why does it not use the idea more widely on the national network operated by Highways England?
Meanwhile when you get off the motorway, urban traffic has never been slower. According to the Department of Transport, average vehicle speeds in A-roads on towns and cities has dropped to just 18.4mph.
Roadworks are only part of the problem. Trendy traffic management is also making an unhealthy contribution to slowing down urban journeys. In some parts of the North, the Metro provides a brilliant service and is to receive a substantial package of funding for improvements. However, in our free society, many of us assert our freedom by owning and using a car. In the North East a clear majority of commutes are undertaken by car. We pay vast motoring taxes for the privilege, yet our urban traffic planners are wedded to the orthodox thinking that cars are bad and public transport is good.
The issue of bus lanes is a good example. I realise many people want and need to travel by bus. But in parts of the region car commuting accounts for more than 70% of journeys. Bus lanes might be appropriate in some parts of some cities, but they are being universally adopted in towns where they only succeed in slowing everything down. Here are two examples: According to traffic flow maps available via The Centre for Towns (https://www.centrefortowns.org/maps ) the annual average daily flow of cars on the A167 through Low Fell is in excess of 12,000 but the number of buses is only 311 and in Darlington the town’s busiest route has 16000 cars and only 244 buses – yet both these routes have a large proportion of the road taken up by bus lanes, thus decreasing traffic speeds for the majority of car users. Buses need a very high average occupancy to justify this road space, but very often they are less than half full. Is it time for a rethink?
In my most ‘Jeremy Clarkson’ moments I dream about an audit of bus lanes with the removal of those which hinder ‘the many in the cause of the few’. In slow motorway traffic I cannot help thinking we need a moratorium on all but the most essential work on the A1, until our economy has had a chance to gain some of the rewards that we were promised as a result of the improvements.