We need to talk about congestion

While cycle infrastructure is steadily improving, congestion remains a thorn in the city’s side. Richard Dilks from London First argues we’re long overdue a fresh strategy.

Many positive things have happened to London’s roads in recent years. They have become quieter and less polluted; it is easier to cycle on at least some of them; it is more pleasant to walk along them or stop for a coffee by them. Road space has been repurposed away from motorised traffic, speed limits cut, many junctions made safer.

The experience in London and other developed global cities shows that these trends are here to stay — which is not, of course, to say it is ‘job done’ on any of them.

Yet there is something else that, left to its own devices, is also here to stay. And it’s the bane of city-dwellers everywhere — congestion. This has not improved in recent years, in fact it has got worse. Indeed mixing with heavy traffic is a major reason why many people feel it’s not safe enough to switch to cycling.

Average traffic speeds on main roads in central London are now barely above pedestrian pace. And peak congestion in central London is forecast to increase by 60% by 2031.

Let’s not forget roads matter hugely to London’s economy. They carry 80% of passenger trips and 90% of freight trips. We see congestion as an issue that bears down upon both companies and the economy more broadly. The uncertain and lengthy journey times that congestion imposes on the city drives up prices, causes stress and degrades air quality. It can also lead to more congestion: because to maintain service levels, operators of freight, waste or bus services may need to put on extra vehicles — inevitably adding to the problem.

Buses carry more passengers than any other public transport mode in London by far. And yet bus passenger numbers have gone down, particularly in central London, in recent years — the see-saw effect from congestion going up. One of the major beneficiaries of improving congestion would be the bus. From being a success story that was the envy of the rest of the country’s bus networks, London bus usage has stuttered badly. Something does indeed need to be done — and more intelligent charging would help clear traffic out of the bus’s way.

There also needs to be a fresh look at what more bus infrastructure London needs for the 2020s: options to expand bus lanes; how to turn more bus garages over to zero tailpipe emissions; how to get more responsive bus services that take people where they want to go.

Growing trends

There are many nuances to London’s traffic and how it behaves, but fundamentally there are simply too many vehicles competing for too little space, especially at peak times. As the city’s population continues to grow and road space continues to be taken away from motorised traffic, it is logical to agree with the forecast of significantly increasing congestion.

While the Mayor has a committed plan of action on emissions charging for central London, which is then planned to expand to the North and South Circulars if he is re-elected, there is no such plan to tackle congestion.

We do, of course, have our existing Congestion Charge. The rather gloomy picture we’re painting here does not mean that the Congestion Charge is no longer working. Instead, it points to the stark need to modernise it. It has been notably effective in cutting private car traffic in central London, with the number of private cars entering the charging zone falling by almost a third since 2000.

However, it only covers some hours of the day; it’s a blunt on/off charge with no penalty for repeated use of the zone; it covers only a small area of London; it exempts significant numbers of vehicles; and it carries several discounts, for example for residents.

The recent decision to end the exemption for private hire vehicles from being charged illustrates this. TfL’s own modelling anticipates a congestion improvement of just 1% from this move — partly because there will be an incentive for private hire vehicles to make the most of the zone once they have paid to be in it, balancing out the deterrent effect of being charged to enter it in the first place.

What are other cities doing?

The world has moved on in many ways since the Congestion Charge’s introduction in 2003 and it is time to look again at what congestion charging could do for London as part of a suite of policies to improve on congestion in the city, pollution and quality of place — something London First will be exploring further with its member businesses.

Other global cities such as Stockholm, Milan and Singapore have stolen a march on London’s early lead in this area, and to their benefit as their levels of congestion have come down, air quality improved and revenue been raised. That revenue is typically reinvested in public transport, as happens with London’s existing Congestion Charge — which brings in about £150 million per year (net). In Stockholm, public opinion switched from being against to being in favour; and in Milan a majority voted for expanding the scheme.

The great benefit of price is that it is an effective deterrent to those journeys that can be made in other ways or at other times — judged correctly and kept up to date in all aspects, it tips those marginal journeys away from using a non-shared motorised vehicle.

Yet we also have to recognise that some vehicles can’t be priced out. You only have to look at the traffic mix in central London on a weekday to see that deliveries, servicing and collections vehicles of all kinds make up a significant proportion of traffic. Freight traffic is predicted in the Mayor’s Transport Strategy to increase by 10% during the central London morning peak over the next decade if nothing more is done. We need freight. We need our waste collecting, buildings built, those coffee beans delivered. So the push now has to be how the city (which means TfL, London councils, boroughs, clients and the industry itself) can make freight even more efficient, retimed and remoded — where possible. This will mean some detailed, concerted work from all involved to lower the barriers to doing this. The art of the possible has been proved in so many small-scale examples, from the retiming of over 500 sites by TfL’s retiming deliveries programme, to the consolidation of waste collections on Bond Street.

The challenge now is to scale up and spread these practices across central London — something London First is playing a part in and will continue to do so. Planning permissions, building leases, staff availability, political nerves about resident’s reactions, traffic regulation orders — the list goes on — but this is the nittygritty that needs to be tackled collectively to achieve change for freight.

Parking problems

And this isn’t all just about the traffic — co-ordination of roadworks is a key driver of congestion too, and is something London still needs to make further progress on, despite the big strides taken in the last few years.

Last but not least, parking needs a rethink. Central London currently dedicates around 8,000 hectares to parking — the equivalent of 56 Hyde Parks! This has long been seen as a political minefield, but the opportunities are there, including the rise of technology that enables booking parking to be a lot easier (and kerbside to be used more efficiently). Likewise the growth of electric vehicles and the increased use of shared vehicles — ranging from private hire to car clubs — that spend far less of their time parked than private cars. And that’s all before any automated vehicles glide towards us from over the horizon.

You will have noticed only one brief reference to two-wheeled traffic so far. But bike travel is a key part of this overall jigsaw. It can be part of the solution on freight, with bike freight a growing and welcome presence across the city.

Most importantly, cutting the amount of motor traffic is critical to getting more people on their bikes — and getting more people on bikes helps cut motor traffic. In turn that frees up more space for the freight that can’t be retimed or remoded, for the bus of all kinds, for London to be a nicer place to be. So we need to continue to improve the on-the-ground realities for cyclists in London.

A prime way we can do that is to tackle congestion systematically. It is time for a congestion-busting strategy for our nation’s capital city — one that is bold, thought-through and is then kept fresh. That would be an investment in London’s future economy and society that will return dividends to us all.


This article first appeared in our Spring 2019 edition of the London Cyclists – you can find out more about out magazine here. Illustrations: Boing Graphics.