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 Arthur Skeffington Mr Arthur Skeffington , Hayes and Harlington 12:00 am, 7th May 1959

The Committee will be very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) for having initiated this debate in such a very interesting fashion, and for having given the Minister the opportunity to review progress in the intractable problem of congestion in our large cities. It is one of the most serious social problems that all those in public life, in local government, business and commerce have to face. At its best, it is responsible for the loss of thousands of working hours every day in every large city and, at its worst, it is responsible for a good deal of frustration to the human spirit, and bad-temperedness. Indeed, in some cases, it is a cause of accidents.

Despite the hopeful pieces of information that the Minister has given today, the most depressing factor is that, on the whole, the prospects seem to be getting worse rather than better because of the rate of increase in the number of motor vehicles. One realises that when it is remembered that in 1939 there were but 3,148,000 motor vehicles, and that, by the last quarter of 1957—the latest accurate figure I have been able to get—the number had risen to 7,425,000. From 1946, that represents a rate of increase in vehicles of 8 per cent. per annum.

If that rate of increase continues, we shall be faced with what I regard as the frightful and frightening prospect of 14 million motor vehicles on the roads in 1966. I say "frightful and frightening "in relation to smell, noise and mortality. They are all factors associated with petrol engines that we can disregard at our peril. I hope that no one will regard 14 million vehicles by 1966 as a fantastic forecast. Writing in the Westminster Bank Review, in May, 1953, three experts forecast an increase to 6,100,000 in motor cars by 1965. In actual fact, that figure was reached two years after they had made their forecast. In any plans being made during the next ten years we have to contemplate a volume of motor vehicles of about 14 million.

Bearing that in mind, I believe that the plans we know about, and the prospects announced today, are totally inadequate. We have either to recast completely the whole of our road concepts. or take steps to develop much more rapidly than we so far have done alternative forms of transport.

We can express the increase in traffic in another way. In 1911, there was one motor vehicle for each road mile. Today, there are about 30 for each road mile. In this narrow island that means we have —and it is inevitable that we shall have them even if the rate of increase slows down, which I do think not likely to happen unless there is a new policy—the densest traffic conditions of any country in the world.

The Road Research Laboratory has given estimates of what this congestion means in terms of cash. It estimates that at present traffic delays cost the nation about £155 million a year. That is only the crude cost. If we add to that personal time lost in going to work, the petrol consumed when engines are idling, and so on, the cost is even greater. No one, therefore, can have any illusions. We are here considering one of the most serious problems of our civilisation.

I want to say something about London, as I have had a little to do with its problems. Until recently, I was for some years a member of the London County Council, and was glad to hear the Minister congratulate it on the schemes at the Elephant and Castle, Notting Hill, the Cromwell Road, and the duplication of the Blackwall Tunnel and others. Of course, progress has been chequered. Time and time again when action was about to be taken difficulties have arisen, sometimes about getting different interests to agree on the plan, but more often on uncertainty about finance.

It is extremely difficult for any planning authority—however much the work is co-ordinated—to get on with this type of major engineering unless it knows with much more certainty than is the case now what the Government's financial contribution will be. It is still the fact that the Ministry will not commit itself to financial obligations beyond the current financial year. That makes it extremely difficult far planning authorities to plan ahead with any degree of confidence.

In previous debates on this subject, I have given figures of the thousands of hours lost at the main intersections in London, but even since I last spoke the position has got a good deal worse, because more and more people are working in Central London and in the Greater London area. Between 1951 and 1954 the number of people working in the Greater London area—the Metropolitan Police area —rose from 3,841,000 to 5,149,000. In November, 1955, according to a check made by London Transport yin the central area alone—a radius of two miles from the Bank of England —1,142,000 people were brought into that area by public transport.

From time to time the Metropolitan Police take a census of all traffic at various points, from which one can judge the growth of traffic in the London area as a whole. In 1949, a traffic census taken at 78 points showed a total of 1,895,000 vehicles in one day. In 1956, that figure had grown to 2,725,000, an increase, making allowance for the fact that in 1956 there were a few more census points. of 33 per cent.

As my right hon. Friend has said, this has reflected in the vast increase in office accommodation in London, and particularly in the Central London area. Between 1948 and 1955, 36 million additional square feet of new office space were either erected or in course of erection, and a further 6 million square feet were added by office conversions. Bearing in mind the increase both in numbers of people and vehicles, I hope that the Committee will agree that the London County Council was quite right, in order to stop this increasing movement of population, in slowing down, or stopping permissions for, the provision of further office accommodation unless accompanied by some residential building as well.

The private motorists in London bear a tremendous responsibility for much of the chaos. I agree with my right hon. Friend that any scheme for banning the private car is neither practicable nor desirable on many grounds. But I hope that the 70,000 private motorists who come into the Central London area each day —and each car usually carries only one person—will appreciate the cost to the rest of the community as a result of their action. In London, we have now succeeded in bringing transport speeds back to the horse-bus of 1903.

I would very much like to see the motorists' organisations and everybody concerned taking part in a campaign to induce private motorists to use public transport wherever possible. There have been remarkable increases during the last two or three years in the number of private cars coming in. According to some figures from London Transport, the increases over 1939 and between 1952 and 1958 were as follows. There was only a 3 per cent. increase in private cars within the central area in 1952 over 1939, but by 1958 the increase over the 1939 level was 53 per cent.

Taking motor cars entering the central area, there was a 6 per cent. increase by 1952 over 1939, but a 56 per cent. increase in 1958 over 1939. If private motorists feel that they must come into London by car, the cost to the rest of the community is very high indeed.

I freely admit that one of the difficulties is that, just at the time when one would like to induce people to use public transport, public transport in many parts of London is worse than it has ever been. I believe that this is largely due to the financial framework within which London Transport works and the directives it has had from the Government, which have meant that it had to cut its costs. By reducing services, it has driven more people to use the Underground or their private cars.

It might be very much wiser if the Government said that, in all the circumstances, they did not feel that London Transport need make its contribution of £5 or £6 million a year to central finances of the British Transport Commission but should run a better service. If a better service were provided, people certainly would use it. I myself go by public transport whenever I can, but there are occasions when it is extremely inconvenient to do so, particularly when one has a number of calls to make in a limited time. This is especially so in my constituency, Hayes and Harlington, which is not in the Central London area. I would often prefer to go by public transport, but, if I have to make three or four calls in one evening, the bus service is too infrequent for the purpose.

I am not asking for a general subsidy for London Transport. What I say is that the financial contribution which London Transport has to make to the central funds of the British Transport Commission ought to be revised, having regard to the peculiar travel problems of London.

There is no simple solution to London's traffic problem or indeed to the traffic problem in any other city. I have no words of wisdom to offer the Committee, but I should like to advance a few tentative suggestions. Before I come to them, I must say a word about the British Road Federation. I am becoming highly suspicious of the propaganda continually sent to me by the Federation. I may be unfair to the Federation, but it gives me the impression that if only we spent vast sums of money on new roads, in a few years there would be no traffic problem. It is a quite honourable Federation, no doubt, which has members interested in road making, road building and road use, but I cannot help regarding some of its propaganda rather as I should regard evidence in favour of the continuance of capital punishment submitted to a Royal Commission by a professional body of public executioners.

The British Road Federation is misleading a number of people by its suggestion that the problem can easily be tackled. The idea that one could easily have greatly improved road communications between cities and thereby solve the problem without rebuilding the cities completely, is quite futile. We must remember that there may well be 14 million cars on the roads by 1966 if the expansion continues as it is now. To do something of that kind would mean changing the character of many of our cities out of all recognition by making a large number of through roads. The loss of their character, charm and distinction would mean, in many cases, that they would lose their appeal to tourists, and the tourist industry is now one of our most important dollar earners.

I have already mentioned the readjustment in London Transport's financial commitment which I regard as absolutely essential to enable it to provide a better service. Secondly, I should like an appeal to go out from the Minister, backed by the motoring organisations—they seem generally to be quite silent about this—urging motorists not to come particularly to the centre of London unless it is absolutely essential. As I have said, they are largely responsible for our being back to the speed of the horse-bus, and that is a disgrace.

The Ministry's financial undertakings for new schemes should be made more flexible. The Ministry should be able to go beyond the current year and say what the probable contributions would be. It is very difficult for local authorities, especially authorities like the London County Council, to plan ahead when they are uncertain of the amount they will receive in grant from the Ministry. If there were more certainty there, we should be able to move very much more quickly with improvements in dealing with bottlenecks, and those improvements would be the ones to give quickest relief to traffic problems within cities.

I have in mind such things as flyovers, the widening of junctions, turn-offs left and right, and so forth. These improvements are not expensive compared with new road construction, but they could make all the difference to traffic flow, as I tried on a previous occasion to demonstrate to the House, and as the London County Council well knows from evidence in its possession.

I would again make a very strong plea for the Victoria Tube. Much has been said about that, and I will say no more now. I hope that, simultaneously with the appeal made to private motorists, every inducement will be offered to encourage people to put what traffic they can back on the railways, particularly goods traffic. It is extraordinary that the centre of London should be cluttered up with traffic passing through on the roads, a good deal of which could go by rail. There are difficulties on the railways, but I believe that the railways themselves, with their modernisation plans and the special freight services which they are now developing to various parts of the country, are ready and able to take the traffic. It is a public duty for all of us to put everything we can on to the existing railways which are well able to take it.

I am glad that reference has been made to clearways. On some main thoroughfares where police supervision is not good or, perhaps, cannot be made effective, there are as many as 500 cars parked to the mile. The Road Research Laboratory has estimated that in those conditions, particularly with cars coming in and out of parking, traffic is slowed down by something in excess of 3 miles per hour. In another connection, the Laboratory has calculated that, if one could in urban areas achieve an increase of 1 m.p.h. for vehicular traffic, £27 million a year would be saved. Putting it in another way, every hour's waiting time for heavy vehicles adds about 47 per cent. to the cost of running the vehicle.

What we do with the Queen's highway in keeping it free is tremendously important in London, not only in such areas as St. Marylebone and Westminster but on all the thoroughfares in and out of London. There must be greater coordination between traffic authorities if we are to have a quick solution, particularly in the Metropolitan area. I hope that all concerned will lose some of the defeatism which has been apparent in the past. It is no good being too optimistic without great efforts, having regard to the forecasted increase in vehicular traffic, but it is astonishing to think that the Barlow Commission, in 1940, took the view that, despite all the skill and ingenuity exerted it seems impossible for effective action to keep pace with traffic requirements. It almost looks as though the Commission was writing a kind of epigram o motto on London's traffic and the traffic of our other cities today. I hope that it is not so. I trust that everyone who has a responsibility in this matter, such as the Ministry and private motorists, will realise that this is one of the greatest problems which we as a nation have ever had to tackle.