The average motorist in Paris, Rome and London spends 10 days a year stuck in traffic jams, and the average last km speed is now down to around just 12 km/hr in all three cities. The same shocking pattern is repeated across Europe and much of the world. It’s such an utter waste of time, money and energy, and is literally choking our communities and shortening people’s lives. And whilst autonomous connected electric cars will tackle emissions, they are likely to have only a marginal impact on congestion. Indeed, some studies, such as one based on Boston, show they could make matters worse.
So, what can be done to solve these problems, which according to the European Commission is costing Europe €250 Billion a year? I believe there are three practical solutions, which could drastically cut congestion and cut costs for businesses and taxpayers alike, whilst delivering our decarbonisation goals.
Firstly, we need to take land use planning much more seriously. Following the rush to liberalise in the 80s and 90s many governments and councils now only pay lip service to land use planning. We need to return to the golden age when we used planning to tackle social challenges of the day. In the past it was used to tackle poor health and hygiene. Now it is needed to promote sustainable development, by integrating public transport, cycling and walking into new developments. The World Economic Forum has published countless studies pointing the way, and towns and cities in the Netherlands are actively practising what others are still preaching.
Secondly, again another tried and tested method to tackle congestion which has fallen out of fashion, in Europe at least, the humble bus. New buses can be efficient, comfortable and, if electric, emission free. And through digitalisation can offer many of the benefits of autonomous vehicles, whilst tackling congestion. The average bus can replace over 40 cars, and we can no longer afford to treat this mode as the Cinderella of the transport tool kit. For example, we need to electrify our bus fleets. Whilst the recent adoption of targets in the Clean Vehicle Directive will spur European public procurement of electric buses, with between 33% and 66% of new public buses – depending on the EU country’s population and GDP – needing to be clean by 2030, it is not fast or extensive enough. 99% of the world’s electric buses operate in China. We need to bring that level of ambition to Europe.
Third and finally, we need to ensure the polluter really does pay. Despite the howls of protest, including some among the yellow jacket movements, cars simply do not pay the full external costs they impose on society. Bold schemes, such as the London congestion charge, need to become the norm, and to pave the way a new social contract must be struck between motorists and government to ensure the revenues raised go into making our public transport system first class for all.
These three evidence-based practical steps could dramatically cut congestion on the roads, decarbonise our towns and cities, clean up the air we breath, and save business and taxpayers the cost, delays and frustration that is simply becoming unsustainable on every level.
What are we waiting for?
Mark Watts is a former MEP and member of the TRAN Committee of the European Parliament. He is a Director at LP Brussels, and Co-ordinator of the trade body, UK Transport in Europe (UKTiE). He writes in a personal capacity.