Delivering choice and reliability

Thank you all for coming here today.

And particular thanks to those of you who have worked with us over the past few months as we’ve been looking at the challenges ahead for our road network.

Road congestion is one of the most serious transport problems we face as a country, and as an economy.

It's bad for motorists. Bad for business. And bad for the environment.

As we travel more, and as traffic grows, tackling congestion becomes increasingly demanding.

There are six million more vehicles on our roads today than in 1997.

We now have more two car households than no car households.

And traffic looks set to continue growing - much of it on roads and motorways that are already operating at close to capacity during busy periods.

If congestion is left to grow unchecked, it will increasingly disrupt people as they go about their daily lives.

And it will hit our economy. In fact Rod Eddington estimated that unless we take action, congestion could cost us an extra £22 billion in wasted time by 2025.

That's not something we can allow to happen.

So we need to tackle overcrowding on our busiest routes today to avoid gridlock tomorrow.

But how do we do that?

We are adding new capacity. But building and widening roads is an expensive business. To keep a lid on congestion we'd need to boost our road building programme several times over. And that would be environmentally unacceptable.

So, while we will continue to commit sustained investment to improve the network - both nationally and locally - we know that simply building new road capacity on its own is not a practical response to congestion.

Instead we need to think about how to get the best possible use out of our roads - and how we can improve journeys for road users as soon as possible.

Over the past couple of years, the debate has been running about the potential for a widespread, national road pricing scheme.

It's absolutely right that we should actively explore and trial any new technologies and systems that could help underpin such a scheme in the future. That is why, over the next two years, we will run a number of demonstration projects to do exactly that.

We have invited companies to propose how they would run a pay-as-you-go system, with charges varying according to time of day and route chosen. We expect to see trials running this Autumn.

But since I became Transport Secretary, I've listened to people who've been telling me of their very real concerns about a national road pricing scheme - about personal privacy, about how fair a scheme might be, and what it might mean for them as individuals.

The reality is that we're still some way from having all the answers to these questions.

In fact it seems to me that much of the national road pricing debate has become sterile, with the 'yes' camp entrenched in one corner, and the 'no' camp entrenched in the other.

The enthusiasts have an optimistic view of how straightforward it would be to implement such a huge system, and to tackle the enormous technical challenges involved.

The 'no' camp sees these challenges as a brick wall, while offering no credible alternative.

And in the middle is the majority of the public, whose concerns are based on their experience of the roads they use every day.

They see a real need to tackle congestion now; to relieve pressure on the most overcrowded routes; and to give road users greater choice over the journeys they take. They put a premium on journey reliability.

So do I.

And therefore I believe we need a more immediate and pragmatic focus for the debate - targeting those parts of the network that are busiest, where even minor hold ups can turn into major delays, and where we think we can make real improvements to traffic flow.

As Eddington showed, congestion is most problematic on urban roads and motorways.

His report painted a picture of increasing delay and unpredictability spreading across our cities, on the very roads we use to get to work, to go to the shops, and to access key services like hospitals and schools.

It also showed rising congestion on motorways like the M1, M4, M6 and beyond - key national routes we rely on to get around the country, and that play such a crucial role supporting our economy.

With more than 80% of all delay caused by congestion occurring in cities, and traffic levels growing fastest on motorways, it is clear these are our two most urgent priorities.

Let me deal with cities first.

London has benefited enormously from the Mayor's investment in bus services and bus priority measures, together with improvements for cyclists and pedestrians, and the ground-breaking congestion charging scheme.   

I believe that other urban centres in England can benefit from demand management measures too.

So we have provided pump-priming funds for local authorities to investigate the potential for road charging in busy cities, and to develop a business case for a wider package of transport improvements.

In 2005 the Government announced that it was making available up to £200 million a year between 2008/09 and 2014/15 through the Transport Innovation Fund to support such packages.

I've been very pleased with the interest shown - with places like Greater Manchester and Cambridge taking up the offer of pump-priming money.

They have taken a hard look at the traffic problems they face, and the options for tackling them. This has helped foster a more informed debate, focused on real and recognisable problems, right across the country.

Of course, we're not expecting - and never expected - every area to make progress at the same time. Each city has its own issues, its own traffic patterns, and its own ideas on how to progress. Some will no doubt look at bidding for Congestion TiF funding, and decide that it is not the time for them.

What is notable, though, is that not only do we have our first business case for consideration - Greater Manchester - but other cities are continuing to come forward with expressions of interest.

Which is why I am today announcing more money for a further round of pump-priming in 2008 and 2009, to help more authorities work up their ideas to tackle congestion. I am publishing the detailed bidding guidance today.

Alongside this, I am extending the earmarking of Transport Innovation Funds - up to £200 million a year right up to 2018/19 - so there will continue to be investment available for good proposals.

Of course we will continue to learn from the experiences of charging schemes abroad - just as cities throughout the world have been studying the London Congestion Charge.

For example, Stockholm has launched a city-centre scheme after a trial period. And a scheme is in development in Manhattan.

But how do we also expand choice and cut congestion on our motorways?

Although our national motorway network accounts for only around 1% of total road length, it carries nearly 20% of all traffic.

Adding new lanes on the network will continue to be part of the solution.

Funding for strategic roads rose from £1.2 billion in the three years to 2004/05 up to £1.9 billion in the three years to 2007/08. And we will continue to invest significant sums in the years to come.

But the Hard Shoulder Running pilot on the M42 has given us valuable, practical experience of a new approach to managing the flow of motorway traffic.

Through a mix of managing speeds and opening the hard shoulder as a running lane, the M42 has shown that it is possible to smooth traffic flow and improve journey reliability on a notoriously congested route.

And it has done so safely. Safety has been paramount throughout the pilot, and by providing emergency refuge areas, and monitoring traffic carefully, we've shown that safety levels are not compromised by hard shoulder running.

The results have been widely welcomed by those who used the M42 over the trial period. Last October we published the analysis from 6 months of operating with hard-shoulder running.

On average, over each weekday, the variability of journey times was reduced by up to 27%. Seven out of ten M42 drivers felt more informed about traffic conditions. And most of those who had experienced the scheme said that they would like to see it extended further.

And so in addition to announcing further local extensions of the scheme along the M42 and onto the M6, I commissioned a feasibility study to look at how hard shoulder running could be used more widely across the road network.

It shows how a package of measures could take us toward a network of "managed motorways" - offering smoother flow and more predictable journeys at a fraction of the cost of motorway widening.

It highlights which routes might benefit soonest from hard shoulder running - including some that had been earmarked for widening, for example on the M1 running north from the East Midlands up to Leeds, and others that hadn't, such as the M27 around Southampton. 

We clearly need to follow through the very encouraging implications of this analysis. It provides compelling evidence for developing the concept more broadly to improve motorway performance on congested routes in other parts of the country.

As a first step, the Highways Agency needs to establish that hard shoulder running will indeed work at least as well at 60mph as 50mph - and so offer the full range of benefits identified in the study.

We can then make sure that more stretches of motorway can benefit from schemes at an earlier stage and at a lower cost than would have been the case with conventional widening.

The study – and the comments you have made to us - also require us to think about the way we manage lane capacity. Where new lanes come on stream we should think about using them in a variety of ways. We already have HGV crawler lanes reducing delays caused by slow-moving vehicles.

And we've already signalled our interest in car-share lanes, which have been used for some time in the US. In order to get maximum benefit, access to car-share lanes is limited to vehicles carrying passengers, or in some cases drivers willing to pay a toll.

I'm keen to explore the scope for taking a similar approach here wherever we are adding new capacity.

You set us a challenge not simply to provide extra capacity on our motorways, but to lock in the benefits of all new capacity, to provide sustainable improvements to traffic flow, while giving road users greater choice about how they travel.

Allowing motorists to enter a reserved lane if they are carrying passengers or willing to pay a toll gives them a real choice without having to change their route.  More capacity comes on line, but instead of immediately filling up, we can manage demand over time, adapting to circumstances, maintaining traffic flow, and improving the reliability of motorway travel.

These are ideas that I want to explore further with road users as we work towards a Green Paper before the summer.

In a programme of design work over the next 9 months, we will analyse these proposals in detail - drawing up designs for specific stretches of road. I would like that work also to take a look at the case for differential speeds in different lanes.

I also want to ensure that we seek out the opportunities to unlock the benefits of private investment to help us meet the congestion challenge - looking beyond what the Highways Agency is already  doing with its Design, Build, Finance and Operate scheme.

Throughout, my overriding priority will be to ensure that not only do we deliver greater capacity – but also that we make the most of it to give greater choice and greater journey reliability for road users.

I think there's widespread understanding in Britain that we cannot simply allow our roads to grind to a standstill.

The argument is not whether we manage road space - it's how. If we do nothing, we manage road space in the worst way possible - by gridlock. It's the most blinkered, inefficient method of traffic management - and it guarantees the worst outcome for motorists, for air quality, and for our economy.

We all know that there's no single answer to congestion - no silver bullet that will solve all our problems - and we know that we may have to be prepared to change our travel habits to make the breakthrough that's needed.

But we also know that only a small shift in people's travelling patterns can make a big difference on our roads.

I will of course continue to talk to all of you about our proposals as we develop them. And we will also be looking to explain our strategy, and extend the debate more broadly with the business community, the haulage sector, fleets, and the motoring public.

I'm very grateful for the contribution that CFiT, the Motorists' Forum and the ATM Study Group have already made to the debate - and I look forward to working with you to develop a congestion-beating strategy that we can all support.

It's a prize worth fighting for - and a challenge I am determined to meet.

Delivered: 04 March 2008

(This speech represented existing departmental policy but the words may not have been the same as those used by the Minister.)

For related documents, pages and internet links, see the column on the right.