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Roads Rage

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Transport & Distribution

Geoff Dossetter of the Freight Transport Association warns that unless more roads are built society will continue to waste billions of pounds and billions of hours idling in useless roads congestion

Roads are a vital part of everyday life. The entire population of the UK depends on the roads network for the movement of people and goods, but the sad fact is that today’s ultra-smart 21st century civilization is attempting to operate on a roads network that has been so neglected, so under-invested in and so allowed to decay that it has failed to keep up with the country’s progress and needs, to the extent that somewhere between £20 billion and £30 billion is now being wasted every year in roads congestion. The fourth-largest economy in the world is being delivered on a roads network that is simply not fit for the job. So what is going to be done about it?

The answer is, inevitably, not enough to solve the problem. Clearly, more roads need to be built. Not endless road building but rather strategic improvements on key trade routes and a start on the 500 or so bypasses that local communities are calling for to provide relief for towns and villages blighted with traffic.

Of course, the anti-roads lobby will claim that all that new roads do is generate more traffic. But the reality is that, here and now, there is too much traffic on too few roads and no one has yet come up with any alternative, apart from everyone staying at home and eating produce from their back gardens — hardly a 21st century lifestyle move!

But as well as building some new roads, the use of existing roads must be better managed than at present. The Government is in fact making some progress on this. Over the past 18 months there have been announcements about junction improvements, incident management schemes, the speeding-up of roadworks and better roadside information for drivers. There have even been decisions on the widening of some key motorways. All this from a government that, when it came to power in 1997, announced a total moratorium on road building, thus setting back the cause of better-flowing traffic and making a fundamental contribution to the growing problem that now exists.

The reality is that congestion will continue to get worse for the foreseeable future, and it is inevitable that, at some point, some form of road-user charging will have to be introduced. This will require a fundamental change in the way road users are taxed, ie by charging for the use of the road at that point of use and by the quality of road, time of day, level of demand and priority of use. Roads will, in future, have to be subject to some form of ticketing, similar to the railways. Overall, this need not be more expensive, but a variable price structure which allows people to choose what time, when and where they travel, and to be charged accordingly, will hopefully help to smooth out some of the current congestion problems.

However, this ‘big stick’ approach is still a long way off. The Government has promised it for trucks sometime around 2006 or 2007 but for cars certainly not in this decade and maybe not for 10 or more years. Such an approach is certainly supported by the freight industry but, as there are 50 cars on the road for every truck, its use as a ‘congestion buster’ can only happen when it is applied to all road users.

The cost of establishing a system of road-user charging for all vehicles in the UK will amount to at least £14 billion at current values, and probably much more. This figure will account for equipment on every one of the UK’s 30 million vehicles, satellite connections, an organization to run the scheme and to make the charges, and all the other infrastructure that such a system will require.

At present the UK spends just £1.5 billion a year on building new roads. Perhaps a better idea would be for the pot-bound roads network to be loosened up and allowed to grow. If somewhat more than £1.5 billion were spent each year then maybe it would not be necessary to spend £14 billion on a system to help reduce congestion.

One thing is certain; unless something is done about the problem, the UK economy will not develop in the way it should and will surely fail to keep up with the obvious benefits that having the world’s fourth-largest economy brings with it.

Wasting over £20 billion a year on congestion is ludicrous, and getting home late every night is a waste of people’s lives. There is a better way — common sense says build more roads.

Freight Transport Association, Hermes House, St Johns Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent TN4 9UZ; tel: (01892) 526171; fax: (01892) 534989; website:

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