RAC – The Congestion Challenge

In July 2009, UK’s RAC Foundation*, sponsored a study. It’s foreword, copied here in its entirely, deserves to be widely read. I will comment next week on a way out of the very real challenge it exposes -- and a challenge that may affect a country near you.

In an age where the political emphasis is on reducing car use, it is perhaps worth reminding those who run the country of a stark reality; over three-quarters of drivers would find it difficult to adjust their lifestyles to being without a car.

That is just one of the findings of this joint RAC Foundation / Ipsos MORI report which provides a barometer of opinion about car use and congestion, at a time when environmental policy is aiming to deliver important climate change objectives during great economic uncertainty. It underlines the importance of taking the needs and views of road users into account when developing a strategy in this area. Policy must not be developed without regard for public opinion, or at least the need for public explanation.

And here are a few more things to bear in mind. Congestion, although still considered a serious problem by two in every five motorists, is not thought to be as big an issue as it was ten years ago. This is a marked shift in opinion, created not by reduced traffic volumes, but because motorists appear to have reluctantly accepted the phenomenon of congestion, and believe it will only get worse in the future, particularly on motorways.

Improvements to the situation are considered unlikely and supposedly radical solutions like road pricing carry decreasing support. Additional charges for travel into town centres and motorways, no matter what the caveat, are unpopular, even more so than at the beginning of the decade – witness the resounding defeat of the Manchester TIF scheme in the referendum of December 2008.

Unsurprisingly support is highest for the options that cost the ‘public purse’ rather than the individual, such as public transport improvements. However previous backing for these initiatives has not translated into a change in people’s travel behaviour. In fact, there was actually a greater willingness to swap from the car to another mode of transport ten years ago.

Managing motorways better, through hard shoulder running and the adjustment of motorway speed limits during periods of high congestion, was generally welcomed, and more than six out of ten people favoured the widening of existing motorways where there were congestion problems, a similar level of support to measures that increase the number and frequency of bus services.

But on the whole, drivers remain unconvinced by alternative modes of travel - so much so that over half would rather take the chance of being stuck in a traffic jam than get on public transport. Only three out of ten people think it is likely they will use public transport to make a journey they currently make by car over the next year. This appears to illustrate both a reluctance to change behaviour and also disappointment with the alternatives that currently exist. Despite Government rhetoric about improving public transport, fewer than three in ten people are optimistic about its future, with the majority believing performance will stay the same or get worse.

The resounding message is that the travelling public are extremely pessimistic, and resigned to a future without performance improvements across the various transport modes. Those who anticipate a worsening in traffic congestion over the coming years are no more inclined to support any form of road pricing, in fact they are more likely to oppose policies, which could improve the situation. A stalemate seems to have arisen.

A radically different – or rather, a radically better – future is hard for individuals to grasp and accept. And while there is apparent widespread support for improving public transport, it is clear that for many it will never be an alternative to the car. The challenge then is to make the vehicles people use smaller and greener.

In the short term more can be done to enhance the ‘performance’ of the road network such as providing motorists with reliable journey times. The Highways Agency’s Managed Motorways scheme has started to do this and politicians must ensure it has the money to see it through.

Longer term, any more radical changes to the way drivers use the road system – possibly through the introduction of national road pricing – have to be implemented with public support. Convincing sceptical motorists of the merit of such fundamental shifts in policy will not be easy. But that is no reason not to do it.


Professor Stephen Glaister
Royal Automobile Club Foundation
The RAC Foundation, a registered UK charity, was originally set up in 1991 fundamentally as a research arm of RAC. Following the de-merger and sale of RAC in 1999, the Foundation took on a new and wider role to include researching and promoting issues of safety, mobility, economics and the environment. The Foundation explores the economic, mobility, safety and environmental issues relating to roads and the use of motor vehicles, and campaigns to secure a fair deal for responsible road users. Independent and authoritative research for the public benefit and informed debate are central to the RAC Foundation’s standing. (from the RAC Foundation site.)

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