As economic growth leads to increasing demand, an economy can ultimately become the victim of its own success because as congestion rises, so it starts to dampen growth. This is the most direct way in which transport will impact on growth in a developed economy
The Eddington Transport Study
Excess congestion is the biggest single measurable cost of transport in urban areas. Congestion is also a key contributor to some of the other major costs of transport - poor air quality, greenhouse gas emissions and noise.
Road congestion currently costs urban areas at least £11bn a year. The delays and unreliability caused severely affect the productivity of businesses, as well as their ability to innovate and access new markets and resources. A survey of businesses by the British Chambers of Commerce put the cost of congestion at £17,350 per business. The same survey found congestion to be a problem for around 90% of businesses, with around 45% viewing it as a significant problem.
Congestion is costly for people who live in our city regions too, who find themselves stuck in traffic when they should be at work or simply frustrated at the time wasted in trying to get from A to B. Congestion is also one of the major causes of increased CO2 emissions from transport, with people living along congested routes – which are disproportionately concentrated in more deprived areas – suffering from poorer air quality and community severance.
The congestion problem is set to worsen, with a predicted 30% increase by 2025, focused primarily on urban areas. Meanwhile, the cost of this congestion is projected to more than double over the same period, from £16bn to £34bn.
Investing in new technologies such as electric cars will reduce the environmental impacts of congestion but will do little to tackle the overall problem - after all, a green traffic jam is still a traffic jam which will prevent people and goods from moving smoothly and efficiently. Investing in public transport, walking and cycling is the best way of taking cars of the road.
The results of such investment can already be seen in our cities. In Birmingham, for example, the majority of morning peak trips are now by public transport. In Tyne and Wear, the Metro system is estimated to remove 40,000 car journeys from the roads each day.
Meanwhile, buses were singled out in the Eddington Transport Study as offering ‘a very cost-effective way to reduce congestion and support productive urban labour markets.’ Buses are flexible, can deliver extra capacity very quickly, take up less space on the road and, when combined with priority measures such as bus lanes, can reduce delays and improve journey time reliability. In Leeds city centre, for example, bus priority measures have cut journey times on some routes by between 10 and 30%.
There is scope for public transport to help tackle congestion still further. Our urban railway networks, for example, provide the high capacity peak hour access that city centres need but under investment means that the network is struggling under the weight of demand and there is a real risk that commuters will turn back to their cars. Cycling and walking can also play more of a role, targeting schools and workplaces in particular to reduce peak time traffic and make our cities cleaner, safer and centred around people, rather than cars.