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Traffic unjammed

Atkins | 10 Jun 2008 | Comments

If our love affair with the car continues to deepen, cities the world over face gridlock. Armed with intelligent new technologies, are road charging schemes part of the solution, and can public transport offer a viable alternative?

“Traffic congestion means slower, less reliable journeys, which has a negative impact on economic growth and competitiveness at a local, regional and national level,” says Simon Mapes, transportation director with Atkins. According to the Eddington Transport Study, a landmark government-commissioned report published in December 2006, traffic congestion in the UK already costs around £7-8bn per year in delays. If left unchecked, that figure could rise a further £22bn in England alone by 2025.

With the stakes high, the search is on for ways to prevent the world’s transport networks from grinding to a halt. Cities from Stockholm, via London, to Milan have sought to unclog their roads by charging people to use them at times and in places where congestion is chronic.

Singapore was the world’s pioneer in adopting a congestion charge, introduced in 1975, and operated manually for the first 23 years. A motorist driving through the central business district paid a fee at a tollbooth. In 1998, Singapore upgraded to an electronic toll collection (ETC) system, which allows motorists to drive in and out of controlled areas without having to stop to pay. Remote sensors are used to detect cars and automatically debit a driver’s account as payment for using the road.

Has Singapore succeeded in reducing congestion? Yes. The original manual system introduced in 1975 cut traffic by 76 per cent during rush hours. The introduction of the faster ETC system in 1998 made further improvements, increasing average road speeds in the area by around 20 per cent.

A global drive

Other cities have followed Singapore’s lead. But many have found gaining the public’s acceptance to be a challenge. Stockholm is one city to have successfully overcome this hurdle.

The city certainly needed to be unclogged. Journey times were far longer during rush hour, and pollution levels were having a damaging impact on quality of life. Yet, despite the obvious effect of the traffic, two thirds of the population objected to road pricing. The solution came in the form of a seven-month trial to demonstrate the benefits of road pricing for everyone. It wasn’t just successful; it blew expectations out of the water.

Those running the trial hoped the pricing system would reduce traffic congestion by between 10 and 15 per cent. “The actual decrease was between 20 and 25 per cent,” says Lars-Olov Lissel, manager in the congestion tax department of the Swedish Road Authority Traffic Registry. Air pollution also fell more than expected.

Lissel says that key to the trial’s success was ensuring motorists were aware of the system and clear about how to use it well ahead of the launch. Another crucial factor was the smooth running of the trial itself.

“The system actually worked from the very first day to the last day of the trial,” Lissel says. The 2006 trial led to a referendum, with a majority of Stockholm residents voting in favour of a permanent congestion charge, which came into effect in August 2007.

According to Atkins’ Mapes, the Stockholm experience highlights the fact that support for road pricing hinges on the public’s ability to perceive tangible benefits. “Results vary from scheme to scheme, but when the travelling public are asked: ‘are you in favour of road pricing?’ typically the majority say ‘no’. But when asked: ‘would you support road pricing if the revenues are used to develop a more efficient and value-for-money public transport system?’, most are supportive.”

Unlike in Singapore, Stockholm’s motorists are not required to install any special equipment in their cars, although this was initially offered as an option for motorists who wanted to pay by direct debit. Instead, like London’s system, cameras automatically read the number plates of any vehicle entering and leaving the charging zone.

Elsewhere in the world, road pricing initiatives are also up and running. In Germany and Austria, for example, schemes that charge trucks and lorries on a per-kilometre basis have been operating for more than three years. Bergen in Norway implemented a congestion charge in 1986, and Oslo followed suit in February this year. Milan launched its own congestion charge in January, while London’s scheme celebrates its fifth anniversary this year.

The trend continues outside of Europe. Dubai launched a congestion charge, known as Salik (Arabic for “open” or “clear”), in July 2007, and has successfully reduced traffic on the arterial Sheikh Zayed Road by an impressive 45 per cent. However, some claim that congestion in other parts of Dubai is worsening as motorists seek alternative routes.

Taking to the track

Dubai is also embarking on a far more ambitious plan to reduce congestion. While it currently has no rail system at all, things are about to change – in the form of the Dubai Metro. Trams and water taxis will follow to provide Dubai with a fully integrated transport system.

Work on the Metro is now well advanced, with the first stage, the Red Line, due to open in September 2009 and another three lines progressively coming on stream. Managed by Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA), the Dubai Metro will be the world’s longest totally automated rail system, and could carry 1.2 million people a day – accounting for 12 per cent of all journeys in the city. It will feature interactive passenger communications and city-wide smartcard ticketing.

One of the biggest challenges for anyone tackling congestion in the Middle East is ending the region’s love affair with the car. The car has become a social symbol in this part of the world, so getting people out of their car and onto public transport will be more difficult than it is in London or other European cities.

However, many believe that public transit systems could make a huge difference to congestion, simply by proving to be the best transport option for specific groups of people, for specific types of journey. For example, commuters and tourists could be encouraged to travel to and from the airport on public transport, rather than taking a taxi.

Dubai is the latest in a procession of cities to deploy a new public transit system to take the pressure off their roads. Bangkok, for example, opened the Skytrain, an elevated metro system, in 1999. Although initially only accounting for 200,000 daily passenger journeys, this rose to half a million by the end of 2005.

In China, where car ownership is skyrocketing, the last five years have seen new public transit systems in five cities: Dalian, Shenzhen, Wuhan, Nanjing and Chongqing.

In the UK, says Nick Roberts, director of Atkins’ rail consultancy, investment in metros is also increasing. “While there are success stories, in general metros have struggled to get off the ground in the UK,” he says. “But I anticipate that urban metros, of the sort that are exemplified by the Dubai Metro, would be possible and would be backed in the UK.”

Cities in Australia and the US, meanwhile, are taking a different approach: car-pooling lanes. The idea is to devote one lane of heavily-used roads to vehicles containing more than one person – providing an incentive for drivers to take colleagues to work, for example, and thus reducing traffic. Such schemes can be found in or around Sydney, Melbourne, Boston and Seattle.

The road ahead

Back in the UK, policymakers are focusing on congestion in towns and cities, supported by Transport Innovation Funding.

However, in his 2008 budget, Chancellor Alistair Darling set aside new funding to explore technologies that could underpin a national road-pricing system. Tenders were invited to test the system, with the results expected next year.

Mapes believes new technologies would be needed to support any plans for a nationwide scheme: “Satellite-based systems lend themselves to larger-scale road pricing, particularly where the aim is to charge road users differently depending on on the time, distance and place of travel.

While this approach may reduce installed infrastructure at the roadside, you’d still need cameras to photograph the vehicle number-plate for enforcement purposes,” he says.

According to UK Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly, national road pricing is “many years away” and the current focus is on more immediate, and localised, solutions, such as car-sharing and toll lanes.

Trialled use of the hard shoulder in busy periods has spurred on the concept of a “managed motorway system”, including options such as high occupancy toll lanes, where users can pay to be able to use certain lanes.

However, a range of technologies will be required – congestion and speed metering systems, monitoring, signage, ramp metering – for such schemes to be effective.

Mapes is working with a number of local authorities in the UK, including Cambridge, to develop systems that meet their specific needs. He believes it is crucial that road pricing initiatives are developed in tandem with attractive public transport alternatives to the car – with revenues from the former funding the latter.

“Tackling congestion is ultimately about giving people choice. We need positive solutions that enable drivers to choose when and where to travel, and whether public transport is a more appropriate option,” says Mapes.

The challenges remain immense, but the economic future of the UK and elsewhere may hinge on the success of such schemes.

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