Wanted: a way to manage growth in freight traffic

Road traffic just keeps on growing, just like in the cheap oil price years before 2006. Then it reached what looked like a limit and several years of decline followed. Fuel prices rose, and demand levels stayed down. With the example of Sweden, where trends seemed to be showing the direction the UK was heading, the hot topic became "peak car".

But now we there is a turnaround. The 320 billion vehicle miles travelled on Great Britain's roads in the year ending September 2016 were not only 1.4% higher than the previous year, but 1.8% higher than the pre-recession peak of 2006/7. Traffic is at an all-time record high, having increased in each of the last 15 quarters.

This creates a stable policy environment for highway investment, which is proceeding at a pace not seen since the demise of "new roads" in the mid-1990s, following the battle for the Newbury Bypass. Volumes are growing most strongly on motorways, at 2.5%, while minor road use remains largely unchanged. Motorway traffic growth is partly a response to the programme of managed motorways with additional lane capacity; over the last year, traffic speeds and delays on the strategic road network have held pretty constant.

Focus groups will report back public support for road-building, and for less "interference" with "motorists' freedom". But ministers, if they seek advice, will be told that road network capacity expansion cannot keep up with demand growth.

Still, that might look like a problem that can safely left to successors, what with the excitement of hi-tech solutions like lorry platooning and autonomous vehicles, to which proponents, mistakenly I suspect, attribute a capability to reduce congestion.

It's only when attention turns away from the transport sector that increased road use is seen to have really awful consequences: poor air quality, with increasing non-compliance with statutory targets, contributing to multiple poor health conditions; children walking less and less – an obvious factor in the obesity crisis; over the last five years, road accident casualty rates no longer diminishing each year as had been the established trend. So there are still around 25,000 killed or seriously injured road users of all types, part of the huge strain on the NHS's accident and emergency services. You don't have to be an expert to make these connections. We'd get better outcomes if DHSS took over highways policy.

We can't build enough road capacity to solve the road traffic growth challenge partly because of the high level of suppressed demand that gets promptly released ("induced") whenever traffic conditions ease. And because of the wider health and environmental consequences, a fresh look at mechanisms to manage demand is needed.

Indeed, at the Highways Agency a decade ago, before the upsurge in road-building budgets, attention had turned to effective management of a substantially unchangeable network. This led to turf wars with developers keen to open business parks, retail centres and the like, many to be handily connected at motorway/trunk road intersections. The developers often won – and the legacy is queueing at key junctions.

One of the gentlest of the then available management measures was an obligation on developers to produce and abide by travel plans – especially at workplaces. For major new developments, showing in particular how peak journey-to-work car travel would be managed became an essential hurdle to gaining planning consents.

But travel plans are now merely tick-box exercises, with little fear of enforcement. Outside the unitaries, enforcement falls to district councils, which are not the highway authorities, and unsurprisingly, with massive budget cuts, their priorities lie elsewhere. And in any event, it's not car travel that is growing strongest: it grew by just 0.9% annually, according to the most recent DfT statistics.

No, it's HGV traffic, which grew by 3.4%, and LGV (van) traffic, which grew by 3.8%, to reach record levels in both categories. So it could be logical to try to manage the fastest-growing traffic sectors, which is freight/logistics, not private car travel. The challenge will be to do so in a way that improves rather than harms productivity, as the Government's industrial strategy will surely intend.
Nationally, HGV and van traffic – largely of course diesel – is affected much more by consumption patterns than by industrial activity. Rapidly evolving and highly competitive retail sector trends, with ever-shorter delivery times and free returns, are a key factor behind growth, at least for van traffic. So there is an important consumer angle, and the impact of high levels of van traffic will be felt at local, community, levels.

Current delivery patterns are probably not sustainable financially, and have poor environmental consequences; this has led business improvement districts, for example, to seek ways of consolidating delivery systems, for instance to large multi-user buildings.
It's surely better to try to manage van traffic than to face a deluge of drones.

Reference: Transport Times January/February Issue

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