Out of the jam: reducing congestion on our roads - Transport Committee Contents

2  Maximising the capacity of existing road space

Shared space

8.  People travel not only by car, but by other modes of transport, including bus, bicycle, motorcycle, and on foot; and goods are transported by lorries, vans and other vehicles. Each mode of transport has its own specific requirements, and tensions can arise between road users sharing scarce road space. David Brown, of the Passenger Transport Executive Group (Pteg), described the multiplicity of travel patterns using different modes as "a complex mix that contributes towards overall traffic congestion".[15] Making adequate provision for specific groups of road users is an important part of managing the road network effectively. For example, bus lanes and other bus priority measures are tools that local authorities deploy to help make bus services more reliable and to ease congestion by managing traffic flows. We received more evidence in favour of priority measures for buses than against: ITS UK ("ITS" refers to Intelligent Transport Systems) wrote that "a double-decker bus carries the equivalent of 50+ cars but occupies the space of fewer than 5 cars".[16] Passenger Focus carried out research published in March 2010 which showed that "improving punctuality is the highest priority for bus passengers"; and their "Bus Passenger Survey" in July 2010 found that while "overall passenger satisfaction with their bus journey ranged from 84 per cent to 92 %", the proportion of passengers satisfied "was generally lower for the length of time spent waiting for the bus (68-82%) and whether the bus arrived on time (67-84%)."[17]

9.  David Brown, of PTE described the way in which South Yorkshire used Government funding to tackle congestion by supporting bus use:

We put that money into measure to support bus travel but also to reduce overall congestion. That was successful and led to increases in funding. Now, despite the fact that background traffic levels have increased over that four-year period, the average journey in the peak is lower than it was four years ago because we targeted that money, which is against a national outcome but was delivered on a local sub-regional level.[18]

Evidence also showed that well-designed bus lanes do not delay other traffic. Peter Nash, of Stagecoach, told us about an example in Newcastle, when traffic flow was measured before and after a bus lane was introduced: "The traffic flow was exactly the same afterwards as before, but the buses jumped the queues".[19] We also heard about the benefits of allowing other vehicles to use bus lanes at certain times, but that it depends on the location. David Brown, of PTE, said:

In places like South Yorkshire, we have differences between Sheffield and Doncaster. In Doncaster, we have introduced bus lanes as additional road capacity, purely for buses, cyclists and taxis, whereas in Sheffield, in certain areas, that is more difficult just because of topography. Therefore, we have had to concentrate on traffic light priorities in Sheffield. So it does vary depending very much on the individual locations.[20]

10.  Our recent inquiry, Bus Services after the Spending Review, concluded that bus services are an important and valued form of transport for many people, enabling them to participate in employment, education and voluntary services, and to access health services and shops. Bus lanes are an important means of supporting local transport, and if well designed, bus priority measures can also make a substantial difference to our congested roads.

11.  Bus lanes can provoke strong feelings both for and against and this was exemplified by the debate on the M4 bus lane, a controversial 3.5 mile bus lane on the eastbound carriageway of the M4 motorway, between Heathrow Airport and central London. The lane was opened as a pilot in June 2001 by the then Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, and was reserved for buses, coaches, motorbikes, emergency vehicles and licensed taxis (but not minicabs). It was suspended in December 2010 and the road width has reverted to all-traffic use. The bus lane will be reinstated temporarily for the 2012 London Olympics as a 'Games Lane' for accredited Olympic athletes, officials and others, after which it is likely to be scrapped permanently.

12.  The Campaign for Better Transport described the M4 bus lane as "a particular example which can help as part of overall traffic management" and wrote that:

One year after it opened, the Transport Research Laboratory looked at the bus lane and compared journey times before and after it opened. Their findings showed how effective the bus lane was at cutting peak-time congestion [...] Despite claims that the bus lane was always empty, TRL found that '7% of the vehicles on the M4 into London use the bus lane, but they contain 21% of the people, including drivers.' One in five people entering London via the M4 did so via the bus lane.[21]

However, Ministers refuted this point; Norman Baker MP said that "the bus lane was not largely used and was used particularly for coaches" and Mike Penning MP told us that "[i]t was not doing the job it was designed to do and was creating a more congested area before the elevated section of the M4, which is why we made the decision, after consultation, to remove it".[22]

In written evidence, the Department said:

Since the suspension of the M4 Bus Lane on 26 November 2010, journey times have shown an improvement in line with our modelled predictions. Initial investigations currently show an improvement in average daily journey times of approximately 40 seconds from M4 Junction 4 to J1 in an eastbound direction. However, further in-depth analysis will be carried out during 2011 to validate these early conclusions.[23]

13.  It is clearly too early to tell whether or not the decision to scrap the M4 bus lane has speeded up traffic flow, although there are early indications of modest improvement. We recommend that the Government publish early next year a detailed assessment of traffic flow on the M4 in the year since the bus lane was scrapped. If the evidence shows that the bus lane contributed to faster movement—taking account of all travellers—it should be reinstated.

14.  A wider range of road users affects congestion on local roads. Christopher Peck of the CTC, the national cyclists' organisation, told us that "you can carry 14,000 cycles per hour per lane, as opposed to 2,000 per hour per lane for a car".[24] Living Streets made the point that many streets are places for experiencing and living in, rather than simply a means of moving to and from a destination.[25] Car clubs and car sharing schemes are on the increase; Mike Penning MP told us that "we are a nation that loves its car"[26] but schemes such as these can meet that need, while making better use of existing road space.[27]

15.  Making the most of the road capacity for all road users requires active management of the road network by the highway authorities and they need the appropriate tools to do that. The Traffic Management Act (TMA) was intended to prompt local highway authorities to tackle congestion effectively and to give them additional powers to do so. Part 6 of the TMA provides for the rationalisation and extension of civil enforcement of parking, bus lane and other moving traffic contraventions. However, it is only in force in relation to parking. While there is other legislation covering bus lane enforcement—and, in London, other moving traffic contraventions such as in relation to box junctions, banned turns and access controls—the free movement of traffic across the road network outside London is hindered by the inability of local authorities to enforce moving traffic offences. Mark Kemp, of the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT) spoke of its success in London:

You can see these things working in London and, to some degree, some of the benefits they have had have come from these powers. But, quite clearly, there is a win to be had in getting that part of the Act through so that local authorities can take on that responsibility should they wish to do so. I know that some of the major cities around the country are keen to do that.[28]

16.  We can see no reason why Part 6 of the Traffic Management Act 2004 should not be fully commenced to enable local authorities to deal more effectively with moving traffic contraventions and we recommend that the Government bring this part of the Act into force, by 2013.

Managed motorways

17.  Maximising the capacity of existing road space can help to alleviate congestion and the managed motorway scheme is one means of achieving this. Since 2006, a pilot 'Active Traffic Management' scheme has been operating on part of the M42 south of Birmingham, which involves traffic being allowed to drive on the hard shoulder, under controlled conditions, at busy times of the day. The scheme involves information signs, ramp metering[29] and an incident management system that allows operators to open or close any lane to traffic and to reduce the speed limit, in order to help alleviate congestion or to clear an incident.

18.  Our evidence was predominantly in favour of the managed motorway scheme. In written evidence, the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) described the merits of the M42 pilot scheme:

The evidence of its success is well documented, which includes a 24% reduction in average journey times, 27% improvement in journey reliability and a rollout which was 40% cheaper than building an extra lane. Personal injury accidents also decreased from 5.1 to 1.8 per month.[30]

Andy Graham, of the ITS UK, told us that "many of the stakeholders who were concerned about it at the start of the project over the three years it has been monitored have all believed it to be a success".[31] Nick Reed, from the Transport Research Laboratory, told us:

From the studies we have done, we find that people generally behave quite conservatively. They follow the signs; they do what is being asked of them by the managed motorway information. That really does help to improve the traffic flow—the traffic situation—and increased throughput has been observed on the active traffic management scheme on the M42.[32]

19.  Nick Croft of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) generally supported managed motorways but went on to say that

on the M42 around the Midlands, most of the junctions are very close, so we do not tend to get very long tailbacks. Our only concern would be where we have four lanes of stationary traffic over 12 miles between junctions. It is how you get the emergency services to people. If it is a matter of life or death where, very unfortunately, minutes can make the difference between someone living or dying where their airway is blocked, for instance, we need to get people there quickly. There is just, I suppose, an element of caution for us to say how we make sure we can do that. There are ways round it, but we just have to make sure that when we go for those schemes, we are going into them with a full knowledge of how we access the route at times of crisis.[33]

20.  The DfT's written evidence described its intention to introduce managed motorway schemes on other motorways:

As part of our future spending programme, we will be taking forward a number of managed motorway schemes across the country. The M42 pilot of hard shoulder running showed that the measure can improve reliability and reduce the number of accidents, delivering a substantial proportion of the benefits of conventional road-widening solutions, while securing cost savings of at least 40%.[34]

Indeed, the future spending programme includes introducing the scheme to sections of the M62, M4, M6, M1, M25 and M60 between now and March 2015, which represents the majority of approved major road investments for this period.[35] It illustrates a major change in emphasis from widening motorways to using the existing network more intensively, perhaps also reflecting the criticisms made by the National Audit Office of the poor cost-effectiveness of the current M25 widening scheme:

The Agency should have given greater consideration to hard shoulder running from the outset of its project. Even in late 2008 and early 2009, when the Agency had satisfied itself on the general benefits and savings of hard shoulder running, we believe it should have given great consideration to the approach before its final decision to let the widening contract. […] We estimate there were potential construction and financing savings to consider of £400-700 million (12-21 per cent) over the private finance widening.[36]

21.  We agree with the Government that the 'managed motorways' approach should be implemented on other parts of the strategic road network, but are realistic in recognising that the approach may not alleviate the whole problem of congestion. Also, we share concerns with the police about safety on stretches of motorway where junctions are widely spaced and where the use of the hard shoulder by motorists could prevent emergency vehicles from reaching accidents. The Government needs to address how to manage congestion on stretches of motorway where the 'managed motorway' approach might not be appropriate. In addition, we expect the Government to monitor the effectiveness of the managed motorway approach as it is extended more widely, with particular reference to cost and safety issues.

15   Ev 18 Back

16   Ev 85 Back

17   Ev w15 Back

18   Ev 20 Back

19   Ev 22 Back

20   Ev 20 Back

21   Ev w21 Back

22   Ev 63 Back

23   Ev 124 Back

24   Ev 7 Back

25   Ev 175 Back

26   Ev 61 Back

27   Ev 82 and Ev w21 Back

28   Ev 15 Back

29   Ramp metering involves the use of traffic lights on a slip or ramp road, to control the flow of vehicles onto a motorway. Back

30   Ev 161 Back

31   Ev 30 Back

32   Ev 15 Back

33   Ev 52 Back

34   Ev 123 Back

35   http://www.highways.gov.uk/roads Back

36   National Audit Office, Highways Agency: procurement of the M25 private finance contract, HC 566 Session 2010-11, p 31 Back

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Prepared 15 September 2011