Britain's Traffic Problems
September 6, 2000 6:06 AM   Subscribe

Britain's Traffic Problems
Sounds like the UK is trying its hardest to catch up with the US in auto-dependency. The Highways Agency is planning to spend US$1.75 billion on "intelligent transportation" improvements, but local motoring organizations are pushing for more lanes as traffic continues to worsen. [more inside]
posted by daveadams (14 comments total)
Being from the US, I hear a lot about America's automobile traffic problem, but not that much about the UK's. It seems they've learned nothing from our example, and despite having a good public transit infrastructure and a relatively small land area to cover, they're depending on highways and automobiles more than ever to serve their transportation needs.

This, combined with China's recent efforts to duplicate the US's massive highway infrastructure, should give everyone pause. Just think how auto-dependent and wasteful the United States has become over the past fifty years. In fifty more years, Europe and Asia could be just as bad. If you don't think we've got a crisis on our hands yet with the pollution, waste of fossil fuels, and degradation of quality of life this auto-dependence has brought to the U.S., surely you don't want the whole world to turn out this way?

posted by daveadams at 6:10 AM on September 6, 2000

Need I repeat that old urban planning saw?

"Building a highway to ease congestion is like loosening a belt to ease obesity."

(same goes for "smart" roads)
posted by Avogadro at 6:18 AM on September 6, 2000

England has one fifth our population crammed into an area the size of Illinois. Whether or not they use public transportation extensively (and they do) as well as smart growth, they're going to have a traffic problem.
posted by dhartung at 10:06 AM on September 6, 2000

Whether or not they use public transportation extensively (and they do) as well as smart growth, they're going to have a traffic problem.

I agree that Britain is a lot more crowded than the U.S. But that's a reason to avoid the auto-dependence the U.S. has become a model for. However, the article says that the British are driving more and more. Wider roads and intelligent transportation are only going to encourage that. Isn't public transportation a more efficient option in their case? So shouldn't the government be encouraging it instead of private automobiles?

C'mon people, I'm trying to pick a fight and I only get Dan's response? He wasn't even really arguing with me! C'mon, I'm in a mood to be flamed and no one is taking me up on it?

Want me to spell it out? Britain and other high-density European countries should take the initiative in getting rid of the private automobile. It's wasteful and inefficient and ultimately ruinous! Is that incendiary enough for you?
posted by daveadams at 1:55 PM on September 6, 2000

Sigh. Blair (and more significantly, Prescott) came into power with the promise to direct funds away from road-building into public transport. There was talk of tolls to enter cities (something that Ken Livingstone will introduce in London) and increased taxation on high-emission vehicles.

But the road haulage lobby is a powerful one, and the private rail companies' contracts have made it difficult to channel subsidies into actual investment. There have been a few improvements to encourage the use of smaller vehicles, but the road to hell is paved with... well, it's tarmac'd.

Then again, having been driven through Atlanta at rush hour, I can say with confidence that we've a long way to go to match the insanity of that city's traffic.
posted by holgate at 2:29 PM on September 6, 2000

More optimistically, rail passenger usage has risen steadily over the past decade. In spite of the failings of rail privatisation -- management enrichment, over-subsidisation on the worst lines -- people are using the trains.
posted by holgate at 2:33 PM on September 6, 2000

Building more roads won't solve anything, it's true. Studies have shown time and time again that more roads leads to more cars on them. Simply put, auto usage will expand to fit the space available. It goes against common sense, but then so do all sorts of examples of "common sense" on second and third glances.

But dumping private autos altogether? Don't count on it. The people want their cars. And public transportation certainly doesn't always get you anywhere near where you want to go, especially if you live outside major cities. You'll have a much easier time working for sensible change rather than needlessly radical ones. Aim for more efficient engines, gas/electric hybrids (which are already coming anyway, at least in the US), etc.
posted by aaron at 11:25 PM on September 6, 2000

You'll have a much easier time working for sensible change rather than needlessly radical ones.

You're right. I don't really propose banning all cars. But a combination of non-car-centric development planned around high-quality, efficient public transit, and a ban of automobiles from districts with sufficiently high density would solve a lot of our problems. Obviously the automobile is a necessity outside cities and in less dense areas.

Aim for more efficient engines, gas/electric hybrids (which are already coming anyway, at least in the US), etc.

Those are great ideas, but the use of fossil fuels and the resultant pollution isn't the only problem with massive use of private automobiles. The required space for parking and roads along with the fact that half-ton vehicles hurtling along at 40mph or faster is amazingly dangerous together make car-centered development inherently unfriendly to pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transit.

It's like a self-fulfilling prophecy. You build an area with wide roads and big parking lots to make car access easier. Well, soon a car becomes the only way to get to those places. It's too expensive to effectively run public transit into suburban areas, and it's too dangerous and inconvenient to walk or bike through these areas.

Oh well.
posted by daveadams at 6:40 AM on September 7, 2000

People continue to drive, though petrol is 80p/litre. People continue to smoke, though cigarettes are £4/pack. Thus is life.
posted by holgate at 10:04 AM on September 7, 2000

Here in the U.S., even if gasoline were as expensive as it is in Britain (if I calculate correctly, it's less than 1/3 the price), people would still buy it. Because they have to! For the majority of Americans there is no other alternative. Even if gas were $20/gallon or more. They'd have to pay it. They might drive less but they'd still have to drive. Our cities are just built that way.

You're right, though, people love their vices too much. It's not purely about money or people also wouldn't buy $100 jeans and $200 purses and multi-million dollar houses.
posted by daveadams at 1:19 PM on September 7, 2000

I think the British government has been caught between the carrot and the stick when it comes to its public transport policy. Do you penalise urban car use (tolls, hiked parking fees, tax disincentives for office workers) and risk alienating drivers, or encourage public transport with subsidies, park-and-ride facilities, and tax breaks? Ideally, you want to balance the two: but who's to decide what's "essential" or "necessary" use?

That said, I think the traffic problems in Britain (like the problems of violent crime) are a pale shadow of those in the US. My gf just moved to Hartford, CT, and I found out that there's one train a day to Boston: a city which, more than most, needs to get people off the roads.
posted by holgate at 2:11 PM on September 7, 2000

Hm. I just looked in my Amtrak timetable, and there's definitely more than one train a day to Hartford; looks like 6-7 each way per day. Not as many as on the main Metroliner route, but that's because Hartford's more than halfway up the state. In any case, Hartford's about equidistant between New York City and Boston, and not particularly close to either. Going to either city is a good 2-hour commute each way, and thus Hartford's not a place people tend to live if they actually work in either of those cities. The Northeast Corridor is where Amtrak makes most of its money; if there was a bigger demand for trains between Hartford and Boston, they'd be there.

In any case, the Washington-NYC-Boston megalopolis is probably the best-served by transportation in the entire country. Tons of trains, buses, limos, shuttles, planes, etc, all over the place.
posted by aaron at 4:11 PM on September 7, 2000

The Northeast Corridor is where Amtrak makes most of its money

True. Well, actually IIRC, the DC-NY-Boston route is the only one on which Amtrak makes a profit. It's unfortunate.

While the Northeast is well-covered (for the US anyway) with train service, we aren't so lucky in the Midwest. There's no Amtrak service here in Springfield, and the two routes that do run through Missouri (one from KC to St. Louis, another through St. Louis from Chicago to Memphis) only run once a day in each direction. Obviously that makes train travel so inconvenient as to almost preclude even considering it. Especially since the train ride from KC to St. Louis is slower than the drive.

Meanwhile, the state of Missouri is worried about the traffic on Interstate 70 between KC and St. Louis, and is considering investing billions of dollars in a parallel freeway, money which could instead be used to dramatically improve train service, making it as fast as flying and cheaper than driving. I really think that if train service in the US on short routes like this was upgraded to be speed-competitive with flying, while remaining cheaper and easier, a lot more people would take the train rather than driving.
posted by daveadams at 7:50 AM on September 8, 2000

True. A lot of the reason Metroliners/Acelas are so popular here in the NE Corridor is because the trains actually take you downtown. Even the slow ones are about as fast as jets once you factor in the extra travel time to/from the airports.

>>could instead be used to dramatically improve train service...<<

Could they? State money being state money and Amtrak being federal, and all that.
posted by aaron at 2:25 PM on September 9, 2000

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