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Richard Schooling's blog: 18th August: Jams tomorrow

Date: 18 August 2014

Richard Schooling is chief executive of Alphabet

It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future" - Niels Bohr, Danish physicist

This year marked the 36th anniversary of what is still the longest traffic jam ever recorded in Britain.

Easter 1988 was warm and sunny. People poured out of the cities in their cars. And when everyone set off for home on the Monday evening, the M4 seized up all the way from Bristol to London. Some drivers covered 120 miles at little more than walking pace.

Since vehicle ownership was growing strongly at the time, a lot of people predicted that this monster snarl-up was a foretaste of even worse things to come. Some even warned that the entire UK road network would be gridlocked within 20 years.

But thirty-odd years later, there are 50% more cars and trucks on our roads and we're still waiting for everything to grind to a halt. Indeed, total gridlock seems very like commercial nuclear fusion - it's always another 20 years into the future.

With hindsight, it's not hard to see why congestion hasn't become as big a problem as people feared. We now have sophisticated systems for managing traffic flows on heavily-used stretches of road. Drivers can turn to technologies like GPS and mobile data that weren't available 20 years ago.

And although vehicle ownership and use is still growing, it's doing so at a much slower pace than in the past. The latest National Travel Survey found people making less use of cars for commuting, shopping and visiting friends or family. Many activities that used to necessitate a car journey now take place online. By 2012, the average number of trips per person had fallen to levels last seen in the 1970s.

Looking ahead, 'smart mobility' trends like car sharing, plus fewer and shorter trips in EVs, and the continuing tendency for people to live in cities will all counteract the pressures that a growing population would otherwise put on road space.

Of course, there are still plenty of persistent traffic hot spots that need fixing. But we could do that via targeted investment, rather than by imposing a universal deterrent to driving, such as road charging.

Unfortunately, those scary congestion forecasts just won't go away. According to the Department for Transport, vehicle use will increase by 19% between now and 2025 and 40% by 2040.

Members of the government's Transport Select Committee, discussing rising traffic at a conference in April, were even warned that the UK's road network could seize solid.



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