Over the Labour years car ownership has proved ever more popular. Thanks to global competition and new technology cars have got better and better, and the cheaper ones more affordable relative to incomes. People value the flexibility and freedom the car brings them. The car is never late for them but they can be late for the car. The car goes from home to where they want to go, rather than from one difficult to reach station to another difficult to reach station in the centre of a congested town. The car can take all their luggage and their friends and family. They can play the music of their choice or listen to the radio programme of their choice whilst travelling. Itâ€™s too good a package for the railways to counter for most journeys, and there are so few spare railway slots and seats at peak hours anyway.
Labour set out to get people out of the car. Aggressive policies were designed to limit the amount of effective road space in towns and cities, to control speed, and to remove capacity from highways by new signals and other controls. We were all urged to leave the car at home and take the train or the bus. Livingstone excelled at these brutal anti motorist policies, introducing the policy of only the rich should be allowed to drive in London with his Â£8 (formerlyÂ£5) a day charge for anyone determined to use the car. Despite all the exhortation, despite the restriction of road space and capacity, and despite record subsidies to the railways, the use of cars and roads went up and up.
After a few years of building no new roads, the government relented. They at last began to grasp the simple arithmetic. As only 6% of our journeys are by rail, if you expand rail by 50% (a task they failed to achieve) that only deals with one yearâ€™s growth in overall travel demand. The rest of the growth over the ten years goes by road. Every time you have the wrong kind of snow or engineering works on the line, the good old road system just has to take the strain of extra demand.
The truth is that after a decade of underinvestment the UK is short of transport capacity of all kinds. Yesterday we looked at ways of stimulating much more rail investment. Let us assume government does this and let us assume it works â€“ two big ifs. Even so we will need much more road capacity.
In the Economic Policy Report we proposed a short term and a longer term programme to create more road capacity. The short term programme can be easy and relatively cheap. It means reversing the worst of the clumsy restrictions imposed on the existing highway network that are getting in the way of the smooth flow of traffic at busy times of day. Out should go the all red traffic light sequences for traffic introduced at some crucial junctions (e.g. Victoria Street in London), and the ultra short green light phases (Trafalgar Square London). Where possible junctions should be widened to allow the segregation of slow moving right turning traffic form traffic going straight on or turning left. Artificial chicanes should be taken out and two lane running restored on wider main routes where this has been cut back to one. Bridges and tunnels should be introduced at larger city junctions where main route traffic could be allowed to flow unimpeded across the junction on a continuous basis by such investment.
For the longer term we need to improve the main routes, removing bottlenecks and increasing the number of lanes. The government has done a little of this on the M25 western sections with some success. We need to complete the dualling of the A303 to the west country, of the A3 to the channel ports of Portsmouth and Southampton, and the A27 south cost highway. We need more capacity on the M25, the A12, The A14, and the main M ways 1-6. Where there are competing routes we recommended offering a franchise on one of the routes to the private sector. In return for charging a toll for using the route the private contractor would be required to increase the capacity by road widening. If tolls are introduced on any scale other road charges and taxes would be reduced proportionately. Indeed the government could in the short term generate cash for the taxpayer by selling franchises for specified routes and time periods. The proceeds could be sued to repay public sector debt, and motoring taxes reduced by the amount of the interest on the debt saved.
We are in great need of more capacity on our highway networks. It is putting business off the UK, and putting more hassle into our lives as the daily inadequacies of the network hold us up. It is also the opposite of green as more and more hours are spent by more and more vehicles in traffic jams with engines running.