How I would free drivers from gridlock

Councils have gone mad: spending on bollards, chicanes, speed cameras - the more they do, the slower the traffic
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The Independent Online
We have gridlock. The rush hour begins just after 6am and is still in full flow three hours later. In many parts of the south east the traffic queue for one junction runs into the queue for the next and for the one beyond that. The station car park is full. The queue for Heathrow is long. The M25 regularly seizes up. Everyone tells me something should be done about it.

The authorities are far from idle. The more traffic that herds on to the road, the more barriers to its movement they impose. The slower the traffic flows, the tighter the speed controls are. Many a Lib-Lab county or borough has gone mad, spending a fortune on bollards, chicanes, red road surfaces, traffic lights and speed cameras. We now regularly enjoy radar traps to supplement the speed cameras, and police cars to supervise the jams.

The latest theory is that we will overcome the crisis by shifting people from car to bus and train. Berkshire County has solved the problem by writing a consultation document telling us all to get out of our cars and on to the bus. All of this has been thought up by a county that offers free parking places to its employees, 91 per cent of whom drive to work. When I asked them to explain why they do not practise what they preach, I was told that their jobs needed the flexibility of the motor car. Precisely! And so do many others need that flexibility.

What could the counties and boroughs of Britain do to make the situation better? They are not powerless. First they should stop cluttering up the main routes with unnecessary ironmongery and technology. Taking what little road space we do have out of circulation or deliberately slowing traffic too much makes the problem worse. It even increases the emissions to the atmosphere, as lorries and cars sit with engines running, waiting for the obstruction to clear. One man's traffic calming is another man's road rage.

They could start to solve some of the underlying transport problem. The traffic chaos is worst in term-time, when parents are delivering children to schools. Secondary school pupils should usually be expected to go to school themselves. They should be encouraged to cycle, walk or go by bus. Counties should ensure that, if there are not proper general service buses, there are school buses to do the job.

For primaries, counties should look at organising minibuses to pick up from main housing areas. More parents would pay for this service if the driver was responsible for seeing the child safely into school. As one of the largest employers in each area, the county or borough should organise employee buses for all their staff who would like to be spared the hassle and cost of a car journey. It would be an example for the other large employers to consider, if it worked well.

Transport authorities and central government should plan the road works sensibly. A few weeks ago, for anyone coming in from the west of London, there were roadworks on the M4, M3, A30 and A40 all at the same time. Blocking one lane on any of these roads is restriction enough. To impede four inbound lanes from the west causes seizure. More money should be spent to mend the M3, before spending money on the M4, and after that on the A40 or A30.

The main A roads, especially the main routes into London, should be freed of any traffic management impediments. There should be a uniform sensible speed limit - 60mph for dual carriageways and 40mph for single carriageways. At the moment the driver has to be constantly decelerating and accelerating - if the road is clear - from 70mph to 60 to 40 to 30 to 40 to 30. With cameras these speed restrictions are becoming dangerous in themselves, causing sudden breaking and bunching. Parking restrictions on radials into London should be firmly enforced by towing offenders away promptly and fining them heavily. Red routes should be universal on A-road radials to keep the traffic flowing.

People would use trains more if services were frequent and reliable, and if car parks are easy to use and safe. All too often people using the car park for day train trips find the car smashed up on return because no security system is in place. There need to be cameras or a guard for the car park. The new train companies seem keener on promoting train travel than BR used to be. If they can run frequent and reliable services more of us will use them more of the time. Oxford has shown how popular park and ride bus services can be - to the point where they now have a pollution problem from the diesel buses.

The authorities are getting in the way of a solution. Throwing more cameras, chicanes, humps and bus lanes into the battle will make things worse. They should spend less money and spend it better. Mend one road at a time. Create park-and-ride car parks for buses and trains. Clear through routes of clutter. Allow more houses and shops in or near town centres. Put more information about jams and freer routes on the gantries above the motorways. These are the practical measures which could stop the gridlock spreading.

The writer is MP for Wokingham and was Secretary of State for Wales from 1993 to 1995.

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