London's road congestion: Be careful what you wish for

Issue date: 10 October 2016

Dr Steve Melia, Senior Lecturer in Transport and Planning at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol), will be giving evidence to a committee which has been investigating the causes and possible solutions to road congestion in London. Dr Melia submitted a written response to a call for evidence published in July and has now been invited onto a panel of experts at the London Assembly Transport Committee meeting at 10am tomorrow (Tuesday October 11).

Dr Melia's book, Urban Transport Without the Hot Air, challenges some of the conventional wisdom on road congestion and its effects on the economy. It also includes a chapter about transport in London, for which he interviewed Ken Livingstone and Sir Peter Hendy.

Steve said: “The argument that 'congestion costs Britain X billion pounds a year' should be taken with a pinch of salt. No-one has ever proved that changes to transport systems make any significant difference to national economies. A certain amount of road congestion might actually be good for London's economy. London is richer than anywhere else in Britain because certain high-value industries are concentrated there. If there was no road congestion anywhere, and everyone could travel easily and quickly in all directions, London would lose economic activity to other places.

“Obviously congestion causes great inconvenience to many people, which the London Assembly is trying to address. It is possible to solve the problem of road congestion, but is that what people want? In a heavily congested city any positive moves, like better public transport, will remove some vehicles from the roads, making space that will be quickly filled by other vehicles, unless there is some mechanism to prevent that, such as a congestion charge over a wider area.

“The current congestion charge is a blunt instrument. If London's leaders really wanted to tackle the problem, a variable congestion charge would be more effective; people would pay more to drive on roads that were most congested. If drivers and voters are not willing to accept that type of restraint, then urban congestion is here to stay.

“If congestion is too politically difficult to solve, then the city's leaders should concentrate on other issues, like quality of the urban environment, which can be improved.”

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