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Britain's roads are heading for gridlock, warns the RAC Foundation

The solution? Pump more money into already overstretched roads and charge drivers to use some of them

A report from the RAC Foundation warns that with congestion on the rise on Britain’s roads, the country is heading for gridlock. The suggested solution? Encourage people to change to other modes of transport such as cycling and walking for shorter journeys, and promote car-sharing and use of public transport for longer ones? Not even close. It’s to spend more money on roads, and to charge people for using some of them.

According to the charity in its report Keeping The Nation Moving, published today, “There will be at least four million more cars on the UK’s roads in the next twenty-five years as the population grows by more than ten million. The jump in people and cars will be accompanied by surges in traffic volume and delays on the UK’s roads, which are already the most heavily used in Europe."

In other words, if you think it’s bad now, just wait and see how much worse it’s going to get. As the RAC Foundation points out, the government’s own projections suggest that road traffic will rise by 40 per cent over the next 25 years.

The report, which in essence is a call to action to policymakers to start planning now for the challenges ahead, is peppered throughout with other statistics from a variety of sources that make you stop and wonder how we became a nation so dependent on the motor car to get around.

Here’s a few of them:

  • The UK has a higher average density of passenger road traffic per mile than any other country in Europe; only Italy comes close.
  • Most European countries, including France, have passenger road traffic densities at half or less of the UK’s levels.
  • Including journeys made on foot or by bike, a staggering 63 per cent of all journeys made in the UK are by car.
  • Half of all trips undertaken by car are of five miles or less; almost a quarter of all trips are no more than two miles.
  • A third of drivers believe “most people in cars could use public transport instead.”
  • However, almost four out of five say that they would find it “very difficult to adjust my lifestyle to being without a car.”

It’s a depressing picture of a country in thrall to the internal combustion engine, and one in which alternatives, according to the report, are limited; public transport, it insists, is too expensive to provide a realistic alternative, while the Smarter Choices pilot from 2004-08 is cited as evidence that spending money on promoting other options may result in “useful change, but not step change.”

Three choices are put forward. The first, clearly not a viable option, is to do nothing and let congestion strengthen its grip.

The second comprises a range of short-term measures designed, as the RAC Foundation puts it, ‘sweating the assets’ – in other words, growing capacity on the already overburdened road system by more effective management, such as letting motorists drive on motorway hard shoulders, as well as spending money on “some selective road building and improvement.”

Acknowledging that “we cannot ‘build ourselves out of trouble’,” the charity believes that such targeted schemes can help relieve existing roads already subject to congestion; but what happens when those new roads themselves become choked with traffic, as they inevitably will?

Then there’s the question of how such an interim package might be funded. Increasing “the rates of taxation on road users over and above the already high level” is ruled out as unworkable, citing previous protests over fuel duty.

So the alternative is “to divert government spending from other areas. In effect this would mean spending a higher proportion of existing motoring tax revenue on roads.”

You may have already guessed where this is going.

The RAC Foundation says “there is no sign of government accepting the logic of ring-fencing a higher proportion of road tax revenue” – while they may be referring to all monies raised from motorists from the likes of Vehicle Excise Duty and fuel duty, it again reinforces the misconception that motorists pay for the roads.

As is well documented on the site, they don’t; road tax itself was scrapped in 1937 in part to avoid motorists claiming ownership of the roads, the construction and maintenance of which is funded out of general taxation.

That point seems lost on the RAC Foundation, however, which goes on to say that “the continued inability of 34 million drivers to get a fairer deal is a symptom of the lack of a single, coherent consumer voice for motorists and a regulator to ensure that motorists get the service from the road network that they have paid for.”

They, and every other taxpayer in the country, that is – leaving aside the issue of how many of those 34 million motorists actually want more money pumped into the road system, rather than on alternative modes of travel that could help ease that congestion in the first place.

The third option put forward to address the looming – some might say existing – crisis is to give the Highways Agency greater independence and more of a strategic role in how the road network is managed and paid for, including the extension of pay as you go road charging, although it admits that other than for HGVs, there is little prospect of that happening for the existing road network under the Coalition Government.

With congestion on the rise and motoring costs set to continue to increase, particularly as the price of oil heads ever upwards, the RAC Foundation is to be commended on at least trying to instigate a debate; however, we can’t be alone in feeling that the obvious solution lies in finding ways to encourage people to reduce their dependency on their cars in the first place, rather than seeking to find ways of accommodating even more of them on the nation’s roads?

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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