Rory Sutherland

My plan to cut congestions on our roads

My plan to cut congestions on our roads
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Much of the current antipathy towards the car derives from the excessive influence Londoners exert over national debates. London is an outlier in being one of the very few places where you can avoid owning a car, and where cycling or public transport is faster than driving.

Indeed a car is less useful in the middle of London than anywhere else: you can’t drive to work, you can’t park at the shops and, if you set out from inner London, after 30 minutes of fraught driving you will merely end up in a worse part of London. This is not true in other cities, where 30 minutes’ drive will take you from the centre to attractive countryside and fast roads.

Using a car in London is also hateful. Not only do you have to contend with the peculiarly solipsistic driving style of Londoners, who lack the reciprocal altruism practised by normal motorists, but you need to take a co-driver with you, rather like the World Rally Championship. ‘Sharp left in 100 yards. Gratuitous 20mph speed-limit in 200. Left, left. Speed bumps for 350. Pointless road-narrowing scheme followed by empty bus lane. Traffic lights which turn green for a nanosecond.’

A friend’s husband was recently fined £100 for driving at 24mph along the Embankment. This means people below median income cannot risk driving into London even when it is essential. Is this really fair?

Besides, the idea that we must wage war on drivers to prevent ever-increasing road use is not borne out by the data. Mileage by car has been declining or mostly static since the late 1980s. The increase before then was largely caused by more people being able to drive (in the 1970s, only around 30 per cent of women held a licence). We seem to have a natural psychological ceiling for the length of time we’re happy to spend in cars, and most of us appear to have reached it.

There are better ways to reduce congestion than a psychological war on motorists. For one thing we could introduce a nationwide locker system for parcel deliveries – van miles have increased enormously. We could also redirect our ire from drivers towards parked cars. Many of London’s thoroughfares are effectively blocked by residents’ vehicles, often stationary all week. Typically, land worth about £100,000 is rented out in the shape of a resident’s parking permit for about £100 a year, a huge hidden subsidy. Remove parked cars from one side of many roads and you might add a cycle lane and an extra lane of traffic.

Finally, we do need to consider the potential of e-bikes. Even a car-fan like me admits there is room for a slower, smaller version of the car. Conventional bikes are too limited to ever reach mass popular appeal. They require a combination of fitness, flat terrain, good weather, no luggage and personal bravery that is rarely found in combination. Carving off road space for cyclists may not make sense. Carving off road space for cyclists and e-cyclists might actually pay. And the required infrastructure is largely the same.

It isn’t just about hills. With an e-bike, setting off from standstill at traffic lights is relatively painless, since acceleration is boosted by the motor (much arsey road behaviour among cyclists is driven by their obsession with maintaining momentum). You can also sacrifice pure efficiency for comfort and safety – adding fatter tires, for instance, and bright lights.

Maybe some e-cyclists could even sacrifice a few grams of weight-advantage to add a bell. Pedestrians would feel much less antipathy towards cyclists if they rang bells rather than either shouting at people or sneaking up on them like a stealth bomber. An electronically generated noise might not be a bad idea either.