Close the roads and traffic disappears

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If you found the roads slightly less congested yesterday, it may have been because it was National Car-Free Day. Organised by the Environmental Transport Association, it was the first national attempt to get people out of their cars and onto other modes of transport. There were notable local successes with, for example, all but seven of 350 workers at Newcastle- upon-Tyne government offices foregoing their cars, and many train companies offering cheap rail tickets.

While such initiatives offer temporary relief, the search is on for more permanent solutions. The Road Traffic Reduction Act, passed in the dying days of the last government, requires local authorities to draw up plans to reduce traffic in their areas. The need for action has been recognised by Labour, which has set up a review of transport policy to be published as a White Paper in the spring with a heavy emphasis on "integrated transport".

Massive road-building programmes have been ruled out as too expensive and environmentally unfriendly. But what about a much cheaper alternative, a massive road-closing programme? It seems so obvious. If you need traffic to be reduced, then the space available for it should be cut.

Traffic engineers have always argued that this would cause chaos and politicians balk at aggravating the motoring lobby. There is increasing evidence that if you remove road space, some of the traffic just disappears. The first study into this phenomenon, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, is due to be completed in the autumn.

Three years ago, an obscure government committee called SACTRA made the front pages with the discovery that building new roads, rather than providing an alternative route for existing motorists, generates extra traffic. People who used to go by bus or train changed to cars. Others, who might have stayed at home, took to the roads because it was easier than before. Result: more traffic and more congestion.

This might have seemed an utterly banal discovery. After all, when the first sheep trail was transformed into a rough road, all the local Neanderthals must have flocked to it. However, the notion of this generated traffic was news to the Department of Transport. For reasons lost in the mists of time, the DoT's way of calculating the value of new roads was based on the belief they did not attract extra traffic. Once it was accepted that they did - and that therefore they might not be worth building - the DoT had to recalculate its cost-benefits analysis.

So what about the obvious corollary that if you take road space away, then traffic on adjoining roads will not necessarily increase commensurately? Examples abound. It is the only enlightened policy that was ever stimulated by the IRA. After a series of bombs and bomb scares in London, in 1993 the City Corporation threw up a ring of steel (well, plastic bollards actually) around much of the Square Mile to prevent through-traffic using the area.

Researchers reckon that since then, traffic in the restricted area has fallen by 40 per cent and air pollution by 15 per cent. They have come up with the bizarre statistic that daily "a line of traffic from Harrods to Cardiff has been taken out of the City".

More recently, closure of the crumbling Hammersmith Bridge has not resulted in the gridlock in west London that had been predicted. Sally Carr, a researcher, said: "Five per cent of work journeys and 20 per cent of non-work trips are no longer made. Others have shifted to different modes, which means that a total of 29 per cent of the car journeys that used to go over the bridge are no longer taking place." The bridge is still open to walkers and cyclists, encouraging many former motorists to switch to these methods of travel. Barnes, on the south side of the bridge, has become a village again, and residents, while annoyed that they can no longer go north very easily, are happy with the closure.

There are other examples around the capital and in other cities, both in Britain and abroad. When space for pedestrians was extended at Buckingham Palace, there was extra congestion, but now it's back to its previous level and life is much better for walkers.

On Birmingham's inner ring road, reduction from three lanes to two lanes with much better facilities for pedestrians has not resulted in problems on adjoining roads. In Nuremberg, Germany, a 25-year "pedestrianisation" has squeezed nearly all traffic out of the town centre, but it still flows reasonably around the ring road.

Bus companies, such as London Transport, have a vested interest. They want more bus lanes but at present the lanes stop 20 metres short of traffic lights, delaying the buses. But if they were allowed to carry on up to the lights, while road space would be cut dramatically, buses would become quicker than cars.

The implications are revolutionary. If new studies confirm that road closures do not lead to chaos, then planners will have to change their tune. No longer will they be able to argue against pedestrianisation and other changes.

Rural areas beset by tourist traffic could also benefit. Councils in the Lake District are considering partially closing some roads but are worried about scaring off tourists. This research may allay their fears. After a century in which transport policy has been dominated by road-building, a policy of closing roads would be the biggest U-turn in transport history. But logic may suggest it is the only sensible way ahead.