Last September, Birmingham City Council Cabinet Member for Transport and Street Services Len Gregory invited a wide range of local stakeholders onto a new Congestion Task Force to discuss solutions to the City’s traffic problems.

I went along to the Task Force's first meeting on 22nd April to represent Birmingham Friends of the Earth alongside Transport 2000, cycling group Pushbikes, taxi operators associations, the emergency services, bus operators, the Passenger Transport Executive, Centro, the Ramblers Association, disability organisations . . . and Jerry Blackett, outspoken chair of the West Midlands Chamber of Commerce and the West Midlands Business Transport Group. Task Force members were invited to identify congestion hot spots and suggest short and long-term measures to alleviate the problems at each location. Such exercises have a tendency to generate a wish list of temporary palliatives, like junction improvements, but unfortunately it looks like that may be the whole idea.

Quick wins
Cllr Gregory is looking for 'quick wins', minor technical fixes such as tinkering with traffic light timing in certain places. However, it’s fairly obvious to most people, including nearly everyone on the Task Force, that congestion is caused by too many cars using the roads at certain times of day. Cllr Gregory's quick wins may shorten traffic queues in one location only for the displaced traffic to migrate to another location. Such a piecemeal approach will not work. As the environmental transport movement has argued for many years now, building a bypass or widening a road just displaces congestion around the network while attracting more traffic to fill the space created locally.

The most effective way of reducing congestion is to reduce the number of car journeys taking place by, for example, switching to public transport, walking and cycling, or car sharing. So-called 'soft measures' can help people adjust their travel patterns and habits through a mix of carrots and sticks.

Unfortunately, Cllr Gregory remains unconvinced. "We cannot stop people using their cars to drive into the City Centre", he said. "If we do they will go to Solihull or Merry Hill instead". But we surely cannot carry on catering for more and more City Centre traffic while ignoring the deteriorating air quality, rising greenhouse gas emissions and social exclusion that excessive road traffic inevitably entails.

Part of the Government's ten-year Transport Plan is a target to reduce congestion on the inter-urban trunk road network and in England's large urban areas below 2000 levels by 2010. It's worth mentioning here that there is no agreed definition of congestion (and given that the roads will never be completely uncongested everywhere all of the time, can waiting your turn at the traffic lights really be classed as congestion?) The Department for Transport (DfT) instead calculates the average delay encountered by a vehicle travelling one kilometre by dividing the total delay encountered on parts of the road network (derived from the difference between actual speed encountered and a free-flow reference speed) by the volume of traffic (expressed as vehicle-kilometres travelled). The DfT is developing new ways to measure inter-urban and urban congestion and will publish new targets by July 2005.

Road user charging
Road user charging has traditionally taken the form of simple cordon schemes, such as in Central London, but recently Secretary of State for Transport Alistair Darling has sparked a debate about using satellite technology to apply variable road user charging according to time of day and the roads used, with higher prices in urban areas and during peak periods. The AA, RAC and the Society of Motor Manufacturers are all broadly in support of the concept. Even Jerry Blackett concedes that new roads and large scale road widening are no longer an acceptable option in the conurbation and that some form of road use charging will be needed in the conurbation, as a means of rationing road space and preventing gridlock. The only people implacably opposed seem to be the lunatic fringe of the motoring lobby and . . . Cllr Len Gregory, who has publicly stated that he would oppose plans to introduce any form of road user charging in Birmingham.