Decongesting roads

What can be done about the ever-increasing amounts of traffic on our roads?

In desperation, successive governments have built new roads and widened others. For example, the justification for the proposed A40 “improvements” in Oxfordshire has been (a) to put in bus lanes to encourage people to leave their cars at home (sensible) and (b) to increase the road’s capacity (encouraging them back into their cars again) and to “improve” conditions for business and commercial traffic.

As everyone except governments and road lobbyists acknowledge, this simply results in more traffic and congestion. Nor does it seem that electric cars will improve things, even if they do manage to reduce pollution and our carbon footprint. The jury is out on driverless cars, but there is little reason to suppose that those who prioritise the privacy and convenience of their own car will automatically change their behaviour when it drives itself – unless road-use charging becomes widespread.

The response to the problem of one island, much smaller than the UK, may provide some stimulus to creative thinking. Bermuda is a tiny collection of islands. It has a population of 62,000 and covers an area of 21 square miles. In such a small space with a comparatively wealthy residential and transient population, traffic has been an urgent issue for years.

There are buses and taxis, but the 22-mile railway line only operated for 17 years (1931–48), when it fell victim to the private car. Bermudans have since come up with various attempts to contain the problem.

Scooters have been encouraged and are widely used, but they are dangerous.

They have tackled the speed limit. According to the Bermuda 2020 Crime & Safety Report: “The maximum speed in the city of Hamilton is 25 kph (15 mph) with a 35 kph (21 mph) limit on the rest of the island. However, traffic typically moves much faster, with average speeds closer to 50 kph (31 mph) or more . . . On average, there is one traffic fatality per month.”

Many of these fatalities are scooter riders.

The most radical restriction has been on car ownership. Adults with a qualifying local residence may own and drive only one private car for their household.

As an island ourselves, Great Britain is rapidly approaching a similar crisis point to Bermuda, albeit on a larger scale, and is in serious need of radical measures.

We are making some headway with two-wheeled vehicles, although motorbikes and bicycles are still unacceptably risky forms of transport. Speed limits are being introduced in many built-up areas, although more could be done. Has the time come for restricting car ownership to one per household?

This would be difficult to implement, and there would need to be a number of exceptions. Owners of multiple properties would have to be prevented from registering a car at each address. And so on. But it could work in towns and cities. It certainly needs to be seriously on the agenda.

However, the best way to decongest, perhaps along with restrictions on car ownership and road-use charging, is to take a two-pronged approach. Completely cease the building of all new roads, while restricting “improvements” to safety concerns and make public transport (for people and freight) and active travel so much more available, affordable and attractive, not least by deliberately allowing the roads to clog up with traffic, that people and freight are forced, and prefer, to rely on the alternatives.

Nigel Pearce