Road network 'is Europe's most congested'

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The Independent Online

A grim picture of snarled-up roads and over-stretched public transport was painted yesterday by a government report.

A grim picture of snarled-up roads and over-stretched public transport was painted yesterday by a government report. It said Britain suffers the worst traffic jams in Europe because the transport network had been "starved of investment".

Despite the stark findings by the Commission for Integrated Transport, The Independent has learnt that councils are abandoning plans to charge drivers to enter city and town centres after fears of a backlash from business and motorists.

Bristol is the only major English council outside London to have presented a detailed "congestion charging" scheme to the Government.

The commission discovered that nearly one in eight roads suffer bottlenecks of more than three hours and 25 per cent of the country's most commonly used roads regularly come to a near standstill.

Public transport suffers as a result, with London buses slower than those in Rome, Berlin, Madrid and Athens. British workers spend more time commuting each day (46 minutes) than their European counterparts – the average time in Italy, for example, is 23 minutes.

This country has the lowest subsidies for fares in Europe and, as a result, the highest fares. Rail, bus and bicycle use also compare unfavourably with the rest of Europe.

The commission welcomed the Government's 10-year transport plan – published last year – calling it a "long-awaited focus on integrated policies and a step change in levels of investment". But its chairman, Professor David Begg, said: "[It] demonstrates what a mountain we have to climb."

The Transport Secretary, Stephen Byers, said: "We have now got a plan which will make a real difference ... I'm confident we will see a real improvement in our transport system."

But it was revealed last night that city-centre tolls will not form part of the solution to chronic congestion. Some 35 councils originally expressed an interest in the tolls as a way of easing the pressure on choked-up central business and shopping districts. They have now put their schemes on hold as the practical problems of levying charges emerged and worries grew that the schemes could be deeply unpopular.

At Leeds City Council, which originally registered an interest, Derek Quinn, deputy director of transportation, said: "We're still interested in the principle and are doing studies as to how it might work. But there's no immediate intention to implement such a scheme."

Manchester City Council said it wanted to "learn from the experience of London" while Birmingham admitted most authorities in the West Midlands "aren't that keen". Next year, Durham becomes the first city to charge drivers, who will pay a £2 every time they enter its tiny centre.

John Dawson, a spokesman for the Automobile Association, said: "There is a real reason why virtually no one in the world has implemented a scheme. It is terrific idea theoretically, but the problems in practice make it very difficult."

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