Managing Gridlock
by David Rudlin and Nick Dodd

The car has given people freedom to live and work where they wish. Road transport has freed industry from locational constraints, and the car industry is an important part of the national economy. Such is the seduction of the private car that the unfettered ability to drive and park is seen as a right. People seem prepared to put up with enormous expense, disruption, pollution, and even death and injury in pursuit of this "right." It is however clear to anyone that projected increases in car use are unsustainable and will soon start to limit people's freedom to use their car even without government intervention. It is therefore right for government to ration what has become a limited resource--road space. This will take political courage, since measures to limit people’s right to use their car will be deeply unpopular.

Subsidize cities, not suburbs
It has been estimated that at least 70% of energy usage is affected at some point by planning decisions with key influences including built form, layout and density. It is common sense to suggest that housing built in locations remote from services, employment and facilities will become car-dependent. Likewise it makes sense to suggest that out-of-town shopping, business parks and leisure facilities will fuel car use, particularly if they lead to the closure of facilities accessible to public transport within towns. This has been confirmed by studies which demonstrate that cross-town traffic is inextricably linked to the urban layout and the accessibility of facilities. There must therefore be a role for more dense, urban, mixed-use development to reduce journey distances, make public transport more viable, and promote walking and cycling.

Critics have suggested that it is wrong for the government to force people back into dirty, dangerous and overcrowded cities, that this would lead to "town cramming," that it is not practical and that, even if it were, the benefits are not as great as have been claimed. Whilst the proposition that higher density development reduces travel has been questioned, this is not the main focus of criticism. The argument is rather that the disbenefits of high density development are so great that they outweigh any environmental or transport benefits that may result. Yet if cities really are so terrible that decent people can no longer live in them, the answer must surely be to reform urban areas rather than to abandon them.

Our view is that not feasible for governments to force people to return to cities against their will. However as car use becomes more difficult it is likely that many people will return to cities of their own choice to escape the horror of commuting. This can be seen in Central London where the delays caused by congestion, the sheer hassle of driving and the difficulty and expense of parking cause most people to leave their cars at home (only 17% of London commuters travel to work by car). There is much that can be done to promote this trend by developing pleasant, safe, mixed-use urban areas.

Make drivers pay their way
An important aim of policy should be to reduce emissions from cars, and to limit engine size. Options should be explored to promote alternatives such as biofuel-, fuelcell-, and electric-powered vehicles. However this will not overcome the problems of congestion and gridlock. It is therefore important to reduce the overall level of car use, and one effective way of doing this is through fiscal measures such as higher fuel taxes, road taxes graded to reflect engine capacity or miles travelled, higher purchase taxes on new cars, and the removal of tax breaks for the use of company cars and company parking lots. It is also important to increase parking charges, and to introduce tolls on trunk roads and road pricing within towns. This should be linked to changes in planning policy such as maximum rather than minimum parking requirements for new developments, or the promotion of car-free developments as in Edinburgh. It may also be necessary to consider more drastic measures when air quality deteriorates to unacceptable levels; such measures were used during the recent smog alert in Paris.

In implementing these policies it is vital to ensure that they be applied evenly. Urban road pricing, for example, could drive people (literally) to out-of-town facilities where there are no tolls and where parking is free, hastening the decline of existing centres and reducing facilities accessible by public transport.

Support public transport
However, studies suggest that road pricing and taxation alone will not significantly reduce private car usage. The car is seen as a necessity rather than a luxury--indeed, if there is no alternative, it is a necessity--so however expensive it becomes, people will find the money to continue using their car. The stick therefore needs to be balanced with the carrot of improved public transport. Road pricing should be directly linked to investment in public transport, as illustrated by Ove Arup Economics who have developed a strategy for investment in the London Underground, financed by revenue from road pricing.

New development should be accessible to public transport and be sufficiently dense to ensure that heavy use support local services. This can be combined with subsidy and investment in a sector which has been starved of both for many years and where the public sector’s powers have been eroded by deregulation. Thanks to this neglect, public transport has become "second class"; it is shunned as much because it is shabby, downmarket and dangerous (particularly late at night) as because it is inconvenient. This image must be transformed, and we need to learn from Europe where public transport networks are a cause for civic pride.

Buses are the most flexible form of public transport and are in greatest need of improvement. In addition, light rapid transit or tram systems such as the Metrolink in Manchester demonstrate the potential to transform the image of public transport. They play a symbolic and practical role as a "premium" mode that commuters tend to favour over bus services. Governments should continue their commitment to the expansion of existing systems and the introduction of new ones.

Manage road capacity
Even these measures taken together may not solve the problem. However hard the motorist is hit in the pocket and however attractive alternative modes are made, there will still be those who refuse to change their travel habits. It is therefore also important to consider the issue of highway capacity. It is now widely accepted that road building generates more traffic. Building roads makes driving easier, encouraging more road use. Traffic then increases to the point where roads once again become congested. This suggests that whatever the capacity of a given road network there will be a tendency for traffic to increase to just below saturation point. Increasing road capacity will simply raise the saturation point.

This effect is not confined to road building. It may also result from measures to reduce car use. In Bristol (U.K.), for example, a park-and-ride scheme succeeded in taking thousands of cars off a major route into town. This improved congestion for a period but gave other people the opportunity to bring their own cars into town. Within months the road was as congested as ever. Measures to shift people out of their cars and onto public transport may therefore only free up road capacity for someone else who has the resources to pay the tolls and parking charges. This suggests that the only way to reduce the total volume of car use is to reduce highway capacity, and thus the saturation point of the road. This will bring about the opposite of what happened in Bristol. Conditions will be intolerable for a few months, but, as car use becomes more difficult, people will stop using their cars, so that use will fall to just below saturation point. Provided that this is linked to initiatives to relieve pressure through public transport improvements, there is no reason why capacity could not be progressively reduced over time, significantly reducing the volume of traffic.

Capacity could be reduced by lowering speed limits which would also reduce accidents and improving energy efficiency. Roadway widths could be reduced to create bus lanes, bicycle routes, and even room for street trees. Care would, however, be needed to ensure that trade is not displaced to out-of-town locations.

An integrated approach
The term "an integrated transport policy" means different things to different people. To transport professionals it often means little more than the co-ordination of timetables and ticketing on public transport. The approach we suggest here is a framework for a truly integrated policy. The four elements must work together. Urban containment alone is not enough. Road pricing or capacity reduction without good public transport will only breed resentment and congestion, but public transport investment alone will not counter the attractions of the car. We therefore believe that this four pronged approach should form the foundation for an integrated transport policy.

David Rudlin, Nick Dodd
URBED/Sustainable Urban Neighbourhood Initiative

See also:

Can America Survive the Suburbs? by James H. Kunstler
Subsidy-Switching: We Can Do It Now by Richard Risemberg
Promenade de la Commune by Wade Eide