Orders of the Day — Traffic Congestion (Large Cities)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th May 1959.

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Photo of Mr George Strauss Mr George Strauss , Lambeth Vauxhall 12:00 am, 7th May 1959

As traffic congestion in our large cities is becoming one of our most serious social problems we felt it desirable to have an early discussion on the subject so that the House could hear from the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation what plans he has in mind, other than those he has already announced, to deal with the congestion in London and the many other provincial cities where conditions are as bad; and to allow hon. Members representing constituencies which are affected to contribute to the debate and to suggest remedies.

The problem is not so much the seriousness of the congestion in the centres of our big cities today, but what it is likely to be in ten years' time, when the number of vehicles on our roads will more than double, and delays are likely to quadruple. By that time, unless drastic action is taken meanwhile, it will be almost impossible for anyone who has not hours to spare to get into the centre of our cities for work, for shopping, or for social purposes; or to traverse them.

It is one of the strange paradoxes of modern society that as the community gets more prosperous and transport facilities increase, the more difficult does travel become. That is 'happening here and in many other countries. It is 'not merely the increase in the number of vehicles that has caused our trouble. Other outside factors must be taken into account.

In London, in recent years, there has been a material increase, said to be about 10 per cent. between 1948 and 1954, in the number of people working in the centre. That has resulted largely from the building of large blocks of offices which, in my view, should never have been allowed, While Central London office accommodation has increased in that way, the number of people living in the centre 'has decreased.

Many more people have moved to the outskirts, so that the total number of people needing to 'travel into London every day has risen substantially. We are glad that the London County Council, the planning authority, has decided virtually to stop office building in the central areas, or to be precise has said that it needs to revise its town planning provisions in the light of existing traffic conditions.

I will speak mainly of conditions in London, but we all know that the traffic situation in other cities is just as bad, and, in some cases, even worse. Whereas the average speed at which a vehicle can travel in London is about 11 miles an hour, it far lower elsewhere. I understand that in Glasgow it is less than 6 miles an 'hour. This is very serious, and again I ask: what is likely 'to happen in a few years' time, when the number of vehicles has doubled?

We agree at once that there is no simple remedy for this malady. It can be improved or, at least, prevented from getting worse, only by 'the application of a number of remedies of varying importance and expense. Our criticism of the Government is that they have not yet tackled the problem with the urgency it deserves. There has been far too little thinking and research, both of which must precede effective action. The Government's approach has been "bitty "doing a little here and there. There has been no general staff planning—indeed, there has been no general staff.

What we have had has been a number of enthusiastic committees unco-ordinated in their action and inadequately equipped with the necessary information. Above all else, this need for co-ordinated research into the traffic problems of our towns cries out to be satisfied. It is only when we have the information coming from research that effective remedies can be applied.

As many hon. Members may know, a most interesting series of articles on traffic congestion has been written by a distinguished American traffic expert and published in the Daily Telegraph but, in spite of that, I commend them to all hon. Members. The expert is Mr. Burton Marsh, and so important are his comments that I should like to read a sentence or two from what he has written, as he speaks with great authority. He opened his series of articles with these comments: …much British official opinion does not give to road transport anything like the importance we give to it in the United States. You have one third more vehicles per mile of road than we have, yet are spending relatively far less money and training for fewer people to think and research about traffic problems…There seems to be lacking in London the kind of adequately staffed traffic engineering department which has proved essential in our large cities to study the complicated problems of traffic and urban development. Indeed, without the many studies—the continual fact-finding and appraisal—which we do, we would not feel we had an adequate understanding of our traffic problems and needs.Without such understanding isn't there serious danger of wrong policies, unwise decisions, improper actions? He might well have added, "and unnecessary delays."

I am sure that Mr. Marsh's conclusions would be reflected by all the other traffic engineers in the United States. More than anything else we need an expert body to co-ordinate opinion and to find out facts. The activities of such an expert body are essential if we are to tackle this problem properly, and I hope that the Minister will give this aspect very serious consideration.

It is generally admitted that the set-up in London is deplorable. There are many traffic committees, but no central authority. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am glad there seems to be agreement on both sides of the House about that. The remedy for this state of affairs is not easy to find, but the present situation is ridiculous and intolerable. We have the London County Council as the highway authority and the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation has a financial responsibility. The police authorities, who are great experts in these matters, have, properly, to be consulted there is the London and Home Counties Traffic Advisory Committee, another important body, and the London Roads Committee—I think that is the name of the body presided over by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary.

There is also the London Traffic Committee, which is presided over by Mr. Alec Samuels. All these bodies act more or less independently, or else their work overlaps. None of them is a central authority able to make use of a body of traffic experts or engineers, or whatever we like to call them, such as do such effective work in the United States. I hope that some remedy will be found for this problem.