06 December 2011
The introduction of a higher maximum speed limit has recently been mooted to help reduce congestion and improve the economy. Both are admirable and inextricably linked objectives that would be hard to argue against, but will increasing the maximum speed limit by 10mph actually achieve them?
From the standpoint of identifying the huge costs of congested traffic – £23bn a year is one of the more modest estimates, from the British Chambers of Commerce – it is clear that something needs to be done urgently.
Losing that amount from the country's economy every year is bad enough but ignoring the problem, particularly in the current economic climate, could be considered foolhardy. For the road user the issue becomes even more frustrating, knowing that 90% of the £48bn annual revenue in road user taxes is not reinvested in the road network to start addressing the problem.
Furthermore, the picture worsens as it is forecast that, without serious attention, by 2025 business will lose some 656 million man-hours, while the total time wasted in England alone through a 37% increase in congestion will reach around 2.5 billion hours.
For decades, investment in our road network has been sidelined. Our roads account for 12 times more travel miles than railways, yet receive 15 times less investment on a mile-for-mile basis. To help the economy, better road connections are needed at the UK's main transport hubs, including ports and airports, as well as railway stations, with road network improvements across the country to ensure free-flowing traffic so that we can get our goods to market in a competitive way. The UK currently has more than double the number of cars per motorway mile than France and Germany. No wonder our network is congested.
The Road Users' Alliance (RUA) fully appreciates and supports the need for improving rail and other public transport, but this should not be done disproportionately or in isolation – it should be part of an integrated transport policy.
Is the 80mph speed limit the answer to tackling that costly congestion?
The simple fact is that most congestion on the major road network is caused by insufficient capacity. It suffers from pinch points where: lanes merge or slip roads need better design; lack of bypasses force inappropriate traffic flows through small communities; motorways have too few lanes to cope with the traffic flow; and lack of segregation of 'through routes' from local traffic. So there are already many well-identified places on the network where even the current maximum speed is not achievable. Easing congestion is not about increasing the speed of traffic, but about designing capacity to ease traffic flow, which would have environmental as well as economic benefits.
Common sense dictates that free-flowing traffic at lower speeds across the entire network would free more congestion than allowing higher speeds in certain places where eventually traffic will reach a pinch point, leading to even more localised congestion.
Providing more capacity makes sense on every level. The number of vehicles on our roads over the last decade up to 2010 increased by 21%, yet, during the same period, the major road network was expanded by only 1%. It doesn't take a traffic modelling expert to understand that too much traffic on too small a road network will result in congestion. That said, a massive road building programme designed to accommodate every potential vehicle would be completely unrealistic. The rational solution is to design additional capacity to accommodate increasing business and domestic travel demands in a way that will stimulate economic growth and be sympathetic to the environment.
The points in the network where such additional capacity can be designed in have already been identified. It is not a difficult solution but one that will obviously carry a cost. As the current economic crisis is highlighting though, there are some scenarios – and the stagnation of our economy and major road network presents one – that can be resolved by having the vision to invest.
One of the most frequently congested areas in the South East is on the M25 heading towards the Dartford Crossing toll booths, where miles of tailbacks consisting of a large percentage of freight traffic are a frequent sight. This dramatic and damning example of how that £23bn a year cost of congestion is generated is hardly the kind of service the road user should be paying for. The Department for Transport's (DfT) recent consultation on whether the Dartford Toll should be increased somewhat misses the point. Leaving aside arguments of what level of toll would be fair, or what type of system might help speed up traffic through the toll booth system, the plain fact is that there is simply too much traffic for the crossing to deal with efficiently.
The focus should be on providing a new or expanded crossing to improve the economic development in the East and South and, not least, for the Local Enterprise Partnership of Essex, Kent and East Sussex.
Reducing such obvious causes of congestion would bring environmental as well as economic benefits. Work carried out by the Highways Agency shows that three times more volume of exhaust fumes is generated by traffic stuck in jams at 5mph than that travelling at 70mph. The lowest emissions are generated by traffic travelling at around 50mph, so attempting to achieve regular, free-flowing traffic at this speed rather than the current stop-and-go effect (regardless of whether 'go' is 70 or 80mph) would seem a much more sensible and widely popular solution.
Across the country, 45 local authorities have placed their transport improvement scheme bids for a share of a DfT development pool that is 40% short of the total cost of the bids. Clearly, many will be disappointed when decisions are announced towards the end of the year. The vast majority of the schemes are for road improvements: ring roads, bypasses, bridge replacements, park and ride schemes and bus routes, to name just a few. Their total cost would be in the region of £1bn, although only around £630m is available. A green light on these schemes is exactly the kind of acceleration the economy needs.
In short, increasing the upper speed limit by 10mph is unlikely to help the economy much. On the other hand, improving network capacity through a programme of carefully planned enhancements will reduce congestion, be better for the environment, make travel more predictable for all road users, and aid the economy. It would certainly be a much fairer return for all those contributing to the £48bn in road user taxes.
Statistics in this article are taken from Road File 2011, published by RUA www.rua.org.uk