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In the News

Contrasting approaches to managing road traffic

Tom White

11th September 2014

The transport economists amongst you will be giving considerable thought to the question of tackling road traffic congestion. I’ve picked up on two stories here because they take contrasting approaches. The first is to use technology and regulation to tackle the problem – the so-called command and control approach. The other relies on price signals, so might be described as a market led approach.

The first proposed fix for motorway problems involves technical and legal solutions. The Economist reports on smart motorways. Motorways in Britain are particularly jammed. Although the number of people driving in some urban areas such as London is shrinking, the rise of online shopping and a growing population are pushing more delivery vans and cars on to busy roads. Rather than spend lots of cash laying more tarmac, however, the Highways Agency has sought to invest in other ways to reduce congestion. In 2006 the Labour government ran a pilot programme, known as an “active traffic management” system, on part of the M42 in Birmingham. The scheme placed gantries with electronic signs every 500 metres along the motorway, installed CCTV cameras and allowed the hard shoulder to be used as an extra lane at busy times, boosting capacity by around a third. A variable speed limit was introduced, determined by sensors. Making cars travel at a slower, more uniform speed means more can be squeezed on the roads. On certain roads the hard shoulder can be used as a fourth lane at all times. Politicians like the scheme, which is far cheaper than traditional road-widening programmes. The M25 programme cost £129m. By contrast, adding more lanes between four junctions on that motorway cost £361m.

The second fix has been around for decades, but its time never seems to arrive. Alex Proud in the Telegraph launches into an impassioned plea for road pricing as a market led solution. He says that road pricing would not be a “flat rate, but a rate that rises and falls until it reaches the right level to keep traffic moving. At 6am on Sunday, even in London it’ll be cheap; at 8:00 on Monday, in urban areas, it’ll be prohibitive. Rural roads would end up costing peanuts most the time and of course, we’d exempt certain people, such as doctors, pensioners and the disabled. Some people might find alternatives or plan their jobs and lives differently. Some of the money raised would replace or reduce tax on petrol and some might be used to improve roads and public transport and introduce proper bike lanes to ensure that everyone has a transport option But that really is the size of it. You want to drive more in crowded places, you pay more – and if you can’t afford it, we’ll provide you with good quality alternatives”.

The main point of his comments is that delivering this policy appears to be politically impossible.

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