Traffic. It’s something we’ve all experienced and something we all hate. While we bemoan the difficulties of transportation and the fact that motorway traffic seems to be increasing there isn’t a day that goes by without some sort of congestion. How do we deal with it? The answer is simple: through an investigation into the cause of the problem, and the presentation of possible policies which could alleviate the difficulties that we face and work as a road map for a reforming government to improve public transportation for everyone.
We all agree that traffic congestion is a problem and yet we do nothing. Inaction is one of the greatest vices of the modern world and our government is certainly guilty of it; ministers trumpeted the 2040 petrol and diesel car ban, but such a distant goal will do nothing about today’s problems. As President Macron’s former Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot has suggested it does not present the radical reform that is necessary (while his criticism is of Macron’s reform, the United Kingdom’s plan is nearly identical).
Similarly, there seems to be no effort put into fixing the congestion that we see on our motorways and in our towns – the government feels more at home fiddling while gridlocked roads become more and more normal. Recently they have attempted to pacify motorists by announcing £420 million to “tackle the issue”. This linguistic trickery makes it sound as if they are doing something while giving local authorities money which isn’t, strictly speaking, to fix potholes, but rather to “tackle the issue”.
This effectively passes the buck to councils. The government can simply shrug its shoulders at the issue – it isn’t their responsibility if potholes aren’t being properly fixed; they gave the local authorities a great deal of money! Councils can say, somewhat truthfully, that they haven’t been given enough money to properly tackle the problem, so it isn’t their fault.
However, perhaps we are looking at one set of symptoms rather than the disease. While we can certainly improve roads by repairing them, this won’t stop them becoming congested. Motorway traffic will continue regardless, polluting the atmosphere and impairing the ability of people to return home easily.
The way to reduce this type of congestion is not to simply remove cars from the roads – it is to think imaginatively about how transportation in the United Kingdom should work and consider whether those solutions can be applied globally. Not only are our trains in a state of decay but so too are our bus services; trams and canals are similarly neglected with a network that was once the lifeblood of the country overgrown, unkempt or only used by the wealthy.
How can we say that we genuinely care about climate change and improving the lot of the British people if we won’t tackle the problem of congestion? Half a million people in Europe die prematurely every year due partly to the problems created by car fumes and congestion. The car-owning democracy that Margaret Thatcher envisioned will haunt us unless we can do something to fundamentally change our approach to transportation. This doesn’t simply mean investing in trains, though that’s a good idea; it means tackling how we travel, why we travel and the impact of our travel on future generations. Economics will and should play a role in this debate, but they should not bind us, and we should not be unwilling to change for fear of the unknown.
We should dare to dream and not think of traffic and transportation as merely problems but as challenges to our ability to improve our society. How often have we all felt deflated to see that we must spend hours or more waiting to get home or to get to work? We complain, but we feel unable to do anything to actively improve things, as if the situation is bad but unalterable. This acceptance of our own fate leads to political apathy – why should we bother to engage with political debate if something as simple as getting to work is mired in continual delays and problems that we are told cannot be fixed or will be fixed at some distant point in the future?
To ensure that we can change we must therefore present policy that is not only revolutionary but effective now. 2040 is an excellent goal but we should be moving towards it rather than waiting for it to happen. Reducing the amount of new petrol cars produced each year by 10%; making public transportation more available to people by repairing existing railways and investing in the expansion of networks; using the techniques employed in Beijing to free up roads by investing in a GPS tracked bike system; repairing and maintaining Britain’s canals so that they can be used by more people; and even expanding airports outside London to help reduce unnecessary strain on the roads and to encourage greater investment outside the capital.
These ideas will not end congestion alone. Yet if we do not begin to think and create a manifesto for cleaning up Britain’s roads then we will continue to be trapped in a cycle of traffic. Action has to be taken and it has to be taken now. The only way we can break the traffic of work that confines us is to institute radical changes to our lives and our lifestyle, to stop being constrained by the presumptions that the way we travel and consume products saves time when it so often doesn’t. Imagination is the key to this dilemma – the imagination to consider a world where fewer cars are used, where roads are better operated and where, instead of being so desperate to clog up our roads and poison our children, we focus on providing clean, effective and efficient public infrastructure for all.