Congestion charge is the only way to free cities of traffic

Congestion charge is the only way to free cities of traffic

Traffic congestion has become the scourge of the modern world, or at least one of the scourges of the modern world.

Anybody who must negotiate the traffic in Dublin, Limerick, Cork, Galway or Waterford during the increasingly extended rush hours would realise just how much of a hell the experience is.

The private car was meant to have been a liberator of people, but the reality is that many now find themselves encased in a steel jail for large parts of their lives.

The costs of traffic congestion are significant and diverse.

They include the amount of time lost sitting in traffic and the damage to the environment from the carbon and other emissions from vehicles idling and going nowhere very fast are clear, but the impact on the quality of life is obviously more difficult to quantify.

Whatever way one looks at it, traffic congestion is no good for anybody and there needs to be a joined up and coherent approach to addressing it.

It will never be solved, but at least the correct cocktail of measures might just help alleviate it somewhat.

Lest we beat ourselves up too much, it is worth reminding ourselves that this problem is not unique to Ireland.

A visit to cities such as San Francisco, New York, London, Istanbul or Paris, to name but a few, clearly demonstrates that traffic congestion is a global phenomenon.

The reality is that the big issue all over the world is that the global population is growing too quickly. Also, in a variety of areas — including water infrastructure; healthcare systems; food production; and physical infrastructure such as roads - the design of our towns and cities are just not designed for, or capable of, coping with the growing size of the world population.

This week I took part in a radio debate on the introduction of congestion charges, with an environmentalist and a representative of a motorist’s lobby group.

The motoring interest accused both of us of trying to demonise the motorist. If that is the defensive attitude taken, then we have no possibility of making progress in improving the quality of life for all our citizens, including motorists let it be said.

I am fundamentally in favour of congestion charges, because I believe the only real and effective way that the behaviour can be changed in a positive direction is through the utilisation of financial instruments.

Witness the eminently successful plastic bag levy of a few years back. However, the design of such a congestion charge would obviously be of the utmost importance.

Taking account of the number of people in the vehicle and the emissions status of the vehicle should be taken into consideration.

However, the overall objective should be to reduce the number of private vehicles entering certain urban areas, and making sure that those which do, have the highest possible environmental credentials.

However, it is also vital that other options are made available such as proper cycling infrastructure, and the environmentally-friendly public transport options.

Remote working will also have to be part of the solution.

I cannot really understand why there is so much opposition and unwillingness, in policymaking circles, to congestion charges.

They are used in many cities, with London the most obvious and proximate example. By many important measures, the congestion charge in London has been a success: The number of vehicles driving into Central London is a quarter lower than a decade ago.

The charge has been particularly successful at deterring personal use cars from entering Central London; the number of private cars entering the zone fell 39% between 2002 and 2014.

Yet, competition for space on London’s streets remains high. While the congestion charge discouraged some drivers, the number of private hire vehicles is up.

With private hire vehicles exempt from paying the congestion charge, this leaves London without an effective means of managing the numbers of them on the capital’s roads on weekdays.

London’s busy roads also reflect lifestyle changes: data shows that people are making fewer personal transit trips, and there are more deliveries and more cab rides.

The congestion charge in London needs to be extended and made more expensive to make it work even better.

Extend it, for example, to the thousands of Uber drivers and, in the process, get people back on to buses and trains.

It is in everybody’s interest to alleviate congestion and vested interest grounds cannot be allowed stand in the way of positive change for society at large.

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