19 NOVEMBER 1994, Page 45


Dr Mawhinney's secret traffic plan for London: random congestion


No emblem of authority enrages the modern Briton as does the motorway cone. These dunce's caps of red and white are the tidemark of the state's insidious creep over that Great Liberty, the open road. They divide the tarmac acres of joyful motoring from the sprawl of government incompe- tence. To every driver the cone is dictator- ship in plastic form.

Last weekend, the new Transport Secre- tary, Brian Mawhinney, decided to make his mark on the leisure classes by sealing off the western approaches to London. Trees were felled at Hammersmith and roundabouts dug at the Twickenham access to the M3. Those trying to reach the M25 found roadblocks manned by Mawhinney's Irish militias. The M4 slip roads round Heathrow were opened and closed like cat- tle pens on market day. The M40 was a crawling chicane of no-go areas, controlled by rival construction warlords. Hounslow was like Beirut in the bad old days. No Trotskyite could have caused more chaos than Dr Mawhinney last weekend. Once every five years the same story comes round. The car is said to be dead. Dr Mawhinney's predecessor, John MacGre- gor, bravely declared that he would intro- duce road pricing. Now both Dr Mawhin- ney and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution have concluded that 'the love affair with the motor-car' is over. Cars must be more rigidly controlled. Petrol must cost more. Road-building must be halved. The road lobby's game is up. I always find these stories nostalgic, since my earliest journalistic task was to write them. I can take out yellowed cuttings, frayed at the edges, that tell of such forgot- ten transport ministers as Barbara Castle and Bill Rodgers, and such London leaders as Desmond Plummer and Horace Cutler. They too said that car use had to be restrained as enough roads could never be built for all. There would be toll schemes and lanes for drivers with more than one passenger. Half the Strand would be pulled down to build a dual carriageway to the City. The only feature these lunatic schemes had in common was that they were all pie in the sky. Thus it will be with the Government's new 14-lane M25 and the 'Euroroute' from Felixstowe to Fishguard. There will never be electronic tolls on London's radial motorways. Nor will there be disc licences restricting access to the capital or £5 per gallon of petrol (pending inflation). These are schemes sold by manufacturers to impressionable young civil servants for pushing on ministers. The Commons trans- port committee loves them because they mean freebies to such exotic places as Hong Kong and Singapore to 'see them in practice'. None of them will come to pass here.

If there has been one intellectual break- through in recent years it is that most sensi- ble people accept that building city road- space does not cut traffic jams. The belief that traffic is a function of car ownership, long used by the transport ministry in argu- ing for money with the Treasury, is explod- ed. Traffic is a function of what economists call marginal utility. We take our car onto a stretch of road as long as, but only as long as, it gets us to a destination by a certain time. If Dr Mawhinney had told me that he intended to detain thousands of Londoners without trial at the weekend, we would have altered our schedule or stayed at home.

The theory behind the no-more-roads principle is simple. Drivers are not wholly stupid. That is why, despite all the efforts of headline writers, cities never 'grind to a halt'. Traffic achieves equilibrium at a cer- tain level of congestion. There is no point in adding four more lanes to the M25 round west London to relieve rush hour. Enough people avoid that part of the M25 during rush hour already — to the point where the traffic keeps moving at the mini- mum speed that those using it find tolera- ble. Add another four lanes and extra peo- ple will divert onto it until it reaches the same congestion.

How much congestion is tolerable remains a puzzle. Some traffic experts believe that most drivers will endure phe- nomenal jams rather than stay at home or `Clops — greasy palms!' switch to rail or bus. Average speeds of six miles an hour are accepted in Tokyo and in many Latin American cities. In London 12 miles an hour is considered tolerable. The chief determinant of city congestion appears to be not roadspace but access to parking. A driver who cannot park will not drive. Tokyo and Paris have masses of parking and bigger jams than London, which sug- gests that more parking in London would merely draw in more drivers who would accept even worse congestion. The one really sensible policy of the Labour Greater London Council was to close down central carparks and ban new ones.

The Royal Commission calls for a steady reduction in the proportion of London trips that are made by car: down from the pre- sent 50 per cent to 35 per cent in 25 years. This is to be achieved by road pricing and dearer petrol. I cannot see the point of this inflationary policy. Most London petrol is being paid for by companies, as would road tolls or special permits. Successive increas- es in motoring taxes have shown that drivers are not sensitive to price. The sim- plest way to cut traffic jams is to take out parking spaces. This Whitehall is reluctant to do, witness its recent fierce defence of its Horse Guards Parade carpark.

We are left with Dr Mawhinney's secret traffic policy for London: random conges- tion. A traffic jam is normally an excellent equaliser. It afflicts rich and poor alike and asks them all, is your journey really neces- sary? Most city traffic keeps moving because most city drivers know the streets and know how long each route will take. What destroys this equilibrium is an acci- dent or unexpected incident, like the pre- sent installing of underground cables. Since road planners tend to discourtesy and sel- dom warn drivers of congestion ahead, these incidents cannot be avoided and chaos results.

But even random congestion has its place in this rudimentary balance of demand and supply. I have reached my disutility thresh- old. I shall never try to drive out of London on a weekend morning again. I shall cede my patch of tarmac to somebody who, by the laws of the marketplace, is more ready than I to risk an unexpected traffic jam. Mawhinney's irregulars have me beat.

Simon Jenkins writes for the Times. His col- lected essays, Against the Grain, are pub- lished this week by John Murray.