Brake's response to the Urban Congestion Inquiry

Written evidence submitted by Brake, the road safety charity, submitted 9th December 2016

Brake is a road safety charity, based in the UK and New Zealand, dedicated to reducing death and serious injury on the road; campaigning for safer, more sustainable communities; and supporting those bereaved by road death. Brake’s vision for the future is a world with zero road deaths and serious injuries, with opportunities to access safe, healthy, clean and fair transport available to everyone.  

 Key points:

  •  Reduced reliance on the private motor vehicles;
  • A holistic approach to reducing urban congestion, integrating road safety, environmental, economic and public health policies in a more proactive manner;
  • A well-planned approach to developing a segregated infrastructure network, speed management system, enforcement measures and vehicle innovation to reducing congestion;
  • Many measures that reduce congestion on our roads also have the added benefit of reducing the risk of crashes resulting in death and serious injuries.

Integrated Strategies

The 21st century has seen an unprecedented rise in the global population, particularly within urban centres, as industry and individuals seek out new opportunities in a changing world. Increased concentration of people and businesses within urban centres has led to an escalation in both the number of vehicles on the roads and the length of journey times. Research has suggested by 2035 the number of cars on UK roads will rise by 43% and the average journey time will double over the same period, presenting policy-makers with the urgent task of reducing congestion within our towns and cities [1]. A holistic approach will be vital to securing the support and resources necessary to engender a shift in transport culture, whereas if current trends continue failure to act will result in a snowballing of road deaths, greenhouse gas emissions and the economic consequences of delayed journey times. Brake would support a position in which the government was required to take action quickly and comprehensively to ensure our cities are safe, sustainable, healthy and accessible to all. 

Over-reliance on motor vehicles has become a central characteristic of road transport policy over the space of many years. Rather than adapting the road network to the needs of the vehicle, that has significantly influenced the increase of air pollution in urban centres across the country, the government should focus on providing transport options that benefit the population. At present, 40% of local authorities in England are exceeding the nitrogen dioxide (NOx) emission standards, and without an effective, well-managed response the situation will worsen [2]. Road transport is responsible for 21% of greenhouse gases in the UK [3], and in local authorities exceeding emission standards, 80% of NOx has been attributed to transport, clear indicators that something must be done to reduce urban congestion levels [4]. The consequences are extensive and affect a range of government departments, including DfT, DEFRA, Public Health England, Department for Business Innovation and Skills and local authorities across the UK. The broad scope of congestion and its consequences require a cross-departmental response to react appropriately and comprehensively to the problem, and an approach that the government has yet to fully provide.

Although the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) have recognised the need for joined up working, setting up the Joint Air Quality Unit (JAQU) in 2016, Brake would support a more proactive approach. The government’s promotion of alternative means of transport, through the Think! Campaign and its decision to incentivise the development and uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs) by public transport providers, are steps in the right direction. But these are steps that must be supported by infrastructure development and enforcement to have any long-lasting influence on road traffic levels in our towns and cities.

A well-planned, segregated infrastructure network is essential to reducing congestion in urban centres. For example, incorporating distinct ‘bus lanes’ into an urban transport network can provide city inhabitants and commuters with an alternative means of transport that is unimpeded by the large majority of traffic within the city. As journey times have increased due to high levels of congestion, we have seen a distinct decline in public transport use: research has shown that as the operating speeds of bus routes fall, so too do levels of patronage. Government investment into increasing bus services and segregated bus lanes would provide commuters and inhabitants of urban areas with an alternative, more environmentally-friendly mode of transport, without the hindrance of private vehicle traffic [5]. Including a system of segregated routes within towns and cities can also encourage pedestrianisation of key thoroughfares, reducing traffic levels to an even greater degree within areas of high footfall.

Many roads within towns and cities were developed for much lower levels of traffic than they currently experience, leaving limited available road space where different modes of transport, including more vulnerable road users, like cyclists, are placed in direct competition. Over half (64%) of UK respondents to the British Social Attitudes Survey agreed that it was ‘too dangerous…to cycle on the road’ due to driver behaviour and the quality of the road environment [6]; while a survey by Brake and Direct Line indicated that as many as one in three non-cyclists would be persuaded to cycle if there were safe local cycling routes [7]. In 2015, 64% of journeys in England were made by car, 22% on foot and only 2% were made by bicycle [8]. Incorporating practical, segregated cycle lanes and pedestrian routes into urban transport networks is an effective way for the government to protect vulnerable road users and encourage the uptake of active travel, particularly for shorter journeys. It would also support public health policies aimed at reducing obesity, particularly within towns and cities, by providing individuals with the opportunity to cycle, the government is also providing a means to obtain the recommended levels of daily exercise, and reducing the stress associated with drawn-out car journeys.

Effective speed management is another means of reducing the burden of traffic on the road. The decision to slow traffic to a top speed of 20mph within urban population centres would allow for smoother journeys with fewer traffic jams and less stop-start driving. Studies have also shown that neighbourhoods that experience high speed, high density traffic are often less social [9]. Lowering speed limits also has the benefit of making the roads safer for alternatives to the car, including walking or cycling, where segregated routes are unavailable, and can improve local economies. This is because safer areas for walking and cycling are often seen by the public as more desirable places to live, boosting local businesses and increasing house prices as a direct result [10].

Vehicle restrictions, such as parking charges and low-emission zones, within city centres are also measures that could be implemented by the government or local authorities to reduce congestion. Driving is becoming increasingly expensive, with nearly half of households in England struggling with the costs of car ownership [11]. By providing alternative, segregated and sustainable modes of transport that are accessible and economical, while simultaneously increasing the costs to drive a privately-owned vehicle or fleet vehicle within the city centre, policy-makers can reduce the reliance on the car and lessen the related costs as a result. Low-emission zones also actively reduce the amount of freight entering urban areas during peak congestion times, reducing the number of vehicles on the road and removing dangerous and unwieldy HGVs from an already overcrowded environment. If implemented strategically, vehicle restrictions can be an effective tool for local authorities in particular, providing cross-departmental benefits and reducing congestion at the same time.  

Enforcement of these measures is crucial to safeguarding their effectiveness in the long-run. Without the support of road traffic officers, speed cameras and other regulatory measures, many of our suggested approaches are unlikely to reach their full potential. The cut in the numbers of specialist traffic police has had a dramatic impact on the levels of national enforcement, and Brake would urge the government to make roads policing a national policing priority to ensure that local authorities are able to enforce these congestion-cutting and potentially life-saving measures.

Newly developed vehicle technologies could also provide a means of tracking congestion levels within cities and potentially detecting drivers acting illegally behind the wheel. The benefits of telematics technology and connected cars have yet to be fully understood, but as this technology progresses a close eye should be kept on the practical applications for use within the urban environment.

Congestion is a growing problem in all urban areas across the UK, and the government and local authorities must engage with the issue, nationally and locally, with a proactive and committed attitude. This type of dynamic approach will help to develop our towns and cities into areas that are safe, sustainable, healthy and accessible to all.

Wider Considerations

Many measures that reduce congestion on our roads also have the added benefit of reducing the risk of crashes resulting in death and serious injuries. Fewer vehicles jostling for space reduces the likelihood of collisions, as does segregating more vulnerable modes of transport and implementing traffic calming measures, including speed limits and vehicle restrictions. If these measures are applied in a clear, practical and realistic programme of change within urban centres, the government could take serious steps towards reducing road deaths and fulfilling is commitment to a safe systems approach. [12]

A safe systems approach accepts that human beings make mistakes even when actively keeping to road traffic laws and regulations, and recognises that there is a shared responsibility amongst those that design, build, monitor and regulate our roads. A long-term, holistic and proactive approach to road safety, safe systems is managed in such a way that the different parts of the road transport system interact to keep its users safe and secure. It requires policy-makers and stakeholders to have an understanding of the interaction of speed, vehicles, infrastructure and road user behaviour; and adapt the road network accordingly. Each of these aspects could be adapted towards reducing congestion as well as keeping road users safe, if enacted in a comprehensive and practical way.   

End notes

[1] Keeping the Nation Moving – Time to face the facts , RAC Foundation, 2011
[2] Improving air quality in our towns and cities: DEFRA’s responsibility for air quality, presentation at UK Policy Forum, 24.11.2016
[3] 2013 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Final results , Office of National Statistics, 2015
[4] Improving air quality in the UK: tackling nitrogen dioxide in our towns and cities , DEFRA, 2015
[5] Begg, Prof. D., The impact of congestion on bus passengers , Greener Journeys, 2016
[6] British social attitudes survey 2014: public attitudes towards transport , Department for Transport, 2015
[7] Report on Safe Driving: A Risky Business , Brake and Direct Line, 2011
[8] National Travel Survey: England 2015 , Department for Transport, 2016
[9] Hart, J & Parkhurst, G, Driven to excess: Impacts of motor vehicles on the quality of life of residents of three streets in Bristol UK, 2011, World Transport Policy & Practice
[10] The Pedestrian Pound: the business case for better streets and places , Living Streets, 2014
[11] Locked Out: Transport poverty in England
[12]  Working together to build a safer road system: British road safety statement , Department for Transport, 2015