This article was published in 2018, in Newsletter 140.
I find it interesting that the number of cities that are going car-free appears to grow every week. Madrid. Paris. Oslo. Even that little town at the end of the railway line has been making great strides in reducing the numbers of people driving.
For example, London’s travel plan says that today about 36% of people drive to work in the capital, but in a few years they hope to reduce that to less than 20%. Yes. A city of 10 million people is trying to reduce the number of cars driven on the road by a million vehicles.
The Mayor of Paris has said that bike lanes have helped reduce the volume of car traffic in her city. In just the first five months of 2018 the number of people driving in the city has fallen by 6.5%. The number in the morning peak dropped by 8.7%. They haven’t added any new bus lanes, or built a new underground railway system. But they did build more bike lanes. Of course, we should compare this with evidence I’ve talked about before, where a new public transport service didn’t make any noticeable difference to the number of people driving. All it did was increase the number of people moving along a route.
The problem we have is that the only way to reduce congestion in Cambridge is to reduce the number of vehicles using the roads at peak times. There appear to be two main ways that are being proposed to achieve this. (There is another alternative of knocking down half the buildings along every main road in order to widen them, but I’ll ignore that.)
The first is to build some cycle lanes. A proven method that has worked in Paris, and Copenhagen, and Amsterdam, and pretty much every Dutch and Danish city. Car traffic, and therefore pollution, decreases. Because there are fewer cars on the road the buses can use the normal traffic lanes and need special lanes only where they can make turns not permitted for private cars.
The second is to build lots of new public transport infrastructure, possibly at the expense of space for people walking or cycling, and expect the traffic levels to reduce and congestion to disappear. This doesn’t work. I could go into lots of detail of why the Downs-Thomson paradox could mean that traffic would speed up or slow down depending on how fast that public transport is.
There is a third way. Congestion charging. If you don’t like cycle lanes, and you don’t think that buses will work, then there is really only one proven solution. And no, that is not an underground metro, because that is just a very expensive hole in the ground to put a fancy bus-shaped object into (a vehicle with a bunch of seats lined up and wheels underneath).
If you want my personal opinion, we should have a smart congestion charge and lots of cycleways. Use the money raised from the congestion charge to subsidise a fantastic bus network and to build and maintain a network of cycleways in the city and between the villages. This is not an engineering problem, this is purely a political one. So next time you are travelling in Europe, I encourage you to visit some of those cities that have congestion charges, or have built cycleways, and see if they look nicer than East Road in Cambridge.