Traffic management innovation
Traffic management in UK cities will face different challenges in the future than those it faces now - new vehicle formats and driver habits among the possibilities - and will be a more advanced science as a result.
The issue isn’t new. Various studies have concluded that traffic congestion imposes significant direct and indirect costs on the economy of cities and, by extension the country. Transport for London (TfL) has calculated that traffic delays cost London £5.5bn in 2014-2015 and that things are getting worse, as measured by journey times and minutes lost to traffic delays, particularly in central areas. Traffic speeds in the central zone are now slower than they were when the congestion charge was first introduced in London in 2003.
Figure 1: Annual daytime vehicle delays, million minutes per kilometre, London 2012-2015
Source: Transport for London
The Centre for Economics and Business Research argues that the total cumulative cost to the UK economy from traffic congestion (not all of it ‘urban’) could reach £307bn by 2030. The London Assembly has argued that the current congestion charge is no longer fit for purpose (although as we write elsewhere, that hasn’t stopped a range of other UK cities from considering their own versions) and should be made more progressive by targeting more directly those journeys that, in terms of timing and duration, contribute most to congestion. Traditional interventions may need to be enhanced and augmented with new or expanded approaches, perhaps including road pricing and changes to Vehicle Excise Duty.
Congestion isn’t all down to increased use of private cars. Indeed, in London the opposite is true, with the finger of blame pointed increasingly at buses, taxis and ride-sharing services, and e-commerce and parcel deliveries. But in any case, it would be hard to argue that the underlying problem of how to allocate or ration space on busy urban roads has been comprehensively solved.
Some of the more innovative possibilities stem from changes in the nature of demand; others from new ways of managing the issue. Currently there are only around 100,000 electric vehicles on UK roads out of a car fleet of over 31 million. Technology improvements and tighter restrictions (or outright bans in some cities) on petrol and diesel-fuelled vehicles will undoubtedly push this figure higher; and, as we write elsewhere, in any case the sharing economy includes cars: millennials’ aversion to car ownership means that the number of 21-29 year olds with driving licences fell from 75% in 1994 to 66% in 2016.
Alongside the rise of cleaner or smarter vehicles, there is a very wide range of smart traffic management mechanisms that could be deployed including autonomous vehicle strategies, dynamic traffic lights and volume-sensitive signage, cashless tolls and a variety of apps for smart parking, ride sharing and real-time public transport updates. A forthcoming study co-sponsored by CBRE, Smarter Cities 2025 (with ESI ThoughtLab) found that, across a group of 14 UK cities, 27% considered themselves to be at an advanced or maturing stage across a range of smart mobility initiatives, compared with 17% for a global sample of 136 cities.
So there’s a good chance that, as well as lower pollution, we might be able to look forward to smarter journeys and fewer delays by 2040.