How much longer will we have to put up with the appalling traffic in central London? This is not just a parochial concern. London is one of the three leading cities in the world and is the motor of the British economy. Congestion is now the biggest disincentive to doing business there. Solving the congestion problem may increase the cost of living or working in London, but if nothing is done the city will slowly lose its pull.
Here are some facts. Last year 1.1m people entered London on a typical weekday between 7am and 10am, and the number is rising. Most people come by train, bus or tube, but the four Thames bridges, Blackfriars, Southwark, London Bridge and Tower Bridge together carry over 150,000 vehicles a day. The average travel time for people to get to work in central London in 1998 was 55 minutes, more than twice as long as the national average of 25 minutes. The average traffic speed in central London is about 10mph, and it has been slowing since the 1960s. Car journeys that begin and end in central London take nearly twice as long, on average, as those by bicycle.
Ken Livingstone says that he will revive public transport and introduce congestion charges for central London. This, he claims, will reduce road traffic by 15 per cent by 2010. But a congestion tax may not survive a legal challenge and, in any case, there are more effective means to improve traffic flow. Consider these ideas.
Delivery vehicles of any kind for central London should be restricted to between 7pm and 7am. Some zones of European cities have adopted this idea, which obliges shops, hotels and restaurants to have staff available to take deliveries between set times. Similarly, road contractors for central London should be asked to quote for weekend and night work, particularly in office and shop areas. Both initiatives would increase costs a small amount for some businesses, but the benefits would be big.
There should also be much better coordination of roadworks between local authorities and the gas, telecom, cable-laying and other services which seem to disrupt our main traffic arteries with impunity. Penalties must be imposed for late completion of jobs. London is currently awash with roadworks and, as frustrated drivers know only too well, whole sections of road are often blocked off without any sign of work going on. There are also too many absurd cases of contractors refusing to cooperate-for example, digging up exactly the same stretch of road within days of one another. A high-profile congestion watchdog should be established as part of the Greater London Authority with an easy-to-remember telephone number which people can ring to report any unauthorised cause of congestion.
In the longer run, we may have to consider even more radical measures, such as restricting the use of cars in and out of central London to those who live there. Each London household would be allocated a permit for the use of one car only. No other cars would be allowed in. Imagine London roads without heavy traffic. It would mean a quality of urban life that Londoners can now only dream about.
Public transport would have to fill the gap created by the restriction on car use. If it cannot do so, we would need to consider huge “park and ride” schemes around the city’s perimeter. The authorities in London will have to do something radical over the next 20 years to stop the city from seizing up. Such policies have important implications, and the authorities need to think boldly about them now. They can start by issuing a consultative “green” paper to prepare Londoners for the changes ahead. For centuries London has been a planners’ nightmare, but if these ideas work, it could become a model for congested cities around the world.