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.

Alert me about debates like this

Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett:

We are debating an exceedingly complex problem, one which is troubling not only this country but, I think I am right in saying, practically every country which has an advanced economy. This problem was acute in London many years before the motor car was invented. The long-term solution is a matter of such things as town planning, wider and better roads, segregation of traffic and improved parking facilities.

I do not think that anyone questions that for a moment. Those are matters of imagination, time and money. Of these three things, I think that it is the first, imagination, which, in the past, has usually been in the most chronic state of short supply. However, we must hope for the best, and I should like to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister and the Department and the Joint Parliamentary Secretary on the number of imaginative schemes which they have set in train.

The practical problem at any given moment is how to make the best use of existing facilities. It is to that problem that I wish to confine my remarks. Before going any further, I think that we must be absolutely clear about what the object is. I submit that the No. 1 priority is safety. The second priority, subject to the first, is the highest practicable speed of circulation for the traffic which has to move about within a town or city. I use the word "within" because it seems to me that the requirement for a swift flow of transit traffic through a town or city should be placed third.

I suggest that there are three basic approaches to the problem. First, to limit and, if possible, to reduce the total number of vehicles which enter a congested city area. Secondly, to keep the number of vehicles that are on the highway at any given moment to a minimum—in other words, the matter of parking. Thirdly, to improve the flow of traffic by keeping it under much stricter control than is the practice at present. I should like to say a word about each of these approaches in turn.

There is a number of ways in which the total volume of traffic can be limited. We can discourage the transit traffic from going through the centres of cities by having clearly marked and carefully chosen scheduled routes through which we want the transit traffic to pass. Of course, the best solution would be to have a by-pass, but I am dealing with the case where there is not a by-pass. How not to solve this problem is to be seen in a number of towns which I dare say hon. Members have had the misfortune to enter, where one is tempted off the main route through the centre of the city by encouraging signs which say that the road leads to Winchester, or wherever it may be, and once one gets into the back roads one is lost.

Five years ago, in a moment of folly, I was persuaded to pass through Birmingham on my motor bicycle, on my way south. Quite apart from the fact that the road appeared to be coated with a slippery composition which made it difficult to keep one's balance, the only direction signs which I saw showed the number of people killed in the area in the preceding month. It was a nightmare for strangers to get out of the city. That sort of thing enormously increases congestion in a city centre.

Surely it is desirable and possible in certain cases to impose strict special local limits on the size of commercial vehicles and public service vehicles that may enter certain areas of a city. By that means it would be possible to force long-distance heavy lorries to go round by some other route. It should also be possible to prevent the giant coaches going through the small streets in the centre.

We must also tackle the problem of the owner-driven car in the case where a person decides to use his car to go to his place of work in the city and to go home every evening. This point has been mentioned before. I must dissent from what my hon. Friend the Member for Merton and Morden (Mr. Atkins) said, namely, that we do not want to do that because we should impose a greater strain on public transport if we stopped such gentlemen from using their private cars. I think that that is a complete fallacy. If 60 young men have to get to the centre of a city, even if they all travel in the same bus, they are less likely to cause a nuisance than if they travel in 60 cars.

The solution to the problem falls under two heads. There is first the negative, repressive approach. Although I do not want to enlarge on this because I would be out of order. I think that my right hon. Friend should ask his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to look into the way in which certain cars are financed. Apart from that, the solution surely is to make it more difficult and expensive for these men to park their cars all day near their place of work. On the other hand, we must be constructive. We have not only to improve the public transport, but we must make it more attractive to that type of potential user.

Nothing has been said about the London taxi or taxis in other cities, hut I have always belonged to the school of thought which favours two sizes of taxi. I have always thought that it should be possible to run a small taxi suitable for one passenger. The advantage of the taxi over the owner-driven car is that it does not have to park at the other end and it is probably very much better driven.

Also, a more frequent motor omnibus service is required, and I should have thought that that could be achieved by having smaller buses. I am prepared to believe that the present London motor omnibus is a technical wonder, but I am equally certain that it is far too large for many of the roads which it uses. A mistake has been made by not concentrating on having smaller buses and running a more frequent services.

Finally, although I am sure that I shall not have unanimous agreement with this proposition, the Government would be well advised to encourage the person who is prepared to go to his place of work on a bicycle or moped. They are certainly the quickest method of transport in London and in many other cities. They are cheap and, except for the moped, they are quiet. In spite of all the criticisms, they do not occupy a tremendous amount of the road because in London cyclists do not ride three or, for that matter, two abreast.

I should like to say a word about the problem of parking. I wish to make only two short points. The first concerns bus stops. Quite unnecessary danger and congestion is caused when buses discharge or embark their passengers well out from the roadway or alternatively when they pull out steeply when going ahead. In nearly every case, this happens because a vehicle has been parked too close to the bus stop. I suggest that the area of the bus stop should be much more clearly marked on the roadway.

I do not know whether this would require legislation, but if it does then we should pass it. It should be made an offence for a vehicle to park or to wait within the studded area. That should be strictly enforced. It would be easy to enforce. Conversely, it is only fair to add that it should be equally an offence for a bus driver to take on or to discharge passengers with any part of his vehicle outside the area. In any case, the area must be established first.

My second point concerns the so-called no-waiting restrictions. They are certainly unpopular in many districts and I am not convinced that they are properly enforced or, indeed, properly enforceable. My feeling is that we must have one of three choices: either unrestricted parking, parking for long enough to shop, or to attend a business meeting—in other words, the kind of parking which can be controlled by the parking meter; or, thirdly, we must have no stopping or waiting at all, a method which my right hon. Friend described as the "clear way". The no-stopping rule is not difficult to enforce and I suggest that it would be acceptable for the main routes in and out of our great cities, at least for certain periods of the day.

Why should we not have a clear way established on the main exit routes for one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening? I realise that it would not be the same hour everywhere and that it would change as one moved away from the city centre. This system could be advertised and indicated by lights or some other display and during these periods the roads in question should be devoted to the sole purpose of people entering or leaving the city area.

If, in addition, we could make those roads one-way roads just for those critical hours, so much the better. That would be a much better solution to the great peak hour problem than trying to stagger the working hours. I would like to know from my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary whether this has ever been considered or tried. I do not think that it would be particularly unpopular.

Having said that, I must admit that there are one or two refractory or difficult problems in connection with parking. There is, for example, the problem of the doctor in the great cities. I do not pretend to offer a solution, but I am not at all sure that it should not be on the wholly different lines of asking the Minister of Health to run, if necessary, a subsidised service of drivers which doctors could call upon to avoid their cars having to be parked at whatever point they have to visit.

In turning to the more general question of control, I refer, first, to the greatest and most vital control of all in built-up areas, namely, the 30 m.p.h. speed limit. I have been for five years without a motor car, but I have recently started driving again. After this interval of time, nothing has shocked me more than the extent to which the 30 m.p.h. limit is now disregarded. I would go so far as to say that at least one driver in three cheerfully accelerates to over 40 m.p.h. whenever the way ahead is clear and that one driver in ten accelerates to 50 or 60 m.p.h. whenever the way is clear.

There is the further special case, which, unfortunately, is not so uncommon as we would like to think, of those of our fellow countrymen who make use of motor cars for their getaway after committing crimes. These gentlemen are usually in a particular hurry. They are a menace to the circulation of traffic in the city centres. I very much regret that when we considered the Road Traffic Bill we did not think of adding a Clause making it an additional statutory offence to use a motor car in connection with the commission of a crime. This practice is now sufficiently common to justify a measure of that nature.

To revert to my main theme of the speed limit, not only are these bursts of speed dangerous, but they slow down the flow of the traffic. This point is not sufficiently realised. It takes only a quite small proportion of impatient drivers who indulge in these little bursts of speed to produce what is technically called a state of turbulence, which disturbs the even flow of the traffic and slows it down. For that reason, it is most important that the enforcement of the speed limit should be strictly observed.

I would go further and say that in exceptionally crowded streets, the flow of traffic would be improved if a lower speed limit were imposed. If a 15 m.p.h. speed limit were imposed in a place like Piccadilly, I think that it would be found that the flow of traffic there at busy times of the day would be accelerated and would render possible something which I have always wanted to see tried, namely, the idea of the whole street going "red" or "green". Hon. Members will be familiar with this idea. When the street goes green, all the traffic moves forward. When it goes red, all the traffic, wherever it may be, stops. This would enable us to dispense with pedestrian crossings in these streets. The pedestrian can cross the road when it is "red" and is not allowed to step off the pavement when it is "green." This is a method which should be tried.

That brings me to say a word or two about pedestrians. Like my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, I speak as one who walks about London quite a lot, so I am not antipathetic to the pedestrian. I am, however, sure that in the interests both of pedestrians and of traffic as a whole, they should agree to accept a greater degree of control in city centres. For example, where pedestrian crossings are numerous, it should be unlawful to cross at other points. Where there are traffic lights, the pedestrian should obey them. Where bridges or subways are fitted, surely pedestrians should be obliged to use them.

There are many other ways in which the circulation of traffic could be speeded up without any added danger, simply by enforcing stricter controls. Some of them are so obvious that one wonders why more progress has not been made with them. Time does not permit me, however, to enlarge upon them now.

In conclusion, I pose this final question: what added powers are needed and who should exercise them? This by itself could be the subject of a whole debate. Like my right hon. Friend the Minister, I am convinced that far-reaching changes are necessary. I do not believe that we shall improve traffic conditions in London, or, for that matter, anywhere else, without drastic changes. Reform is necessary just as much in the interests of road safety as in the speeding-up of the circulation of traffic. That was one of the reasons why, when speaking in the House on the subject of road safety three weeks ago, I advocated a Royal Commission. In matters which are so complex and controversial, only the conclusions of a strong and independent body are likely to carry the necessary weight to pave the way for the requisite legislation.

I hope that my right hon. Friend is right and that the Royal Commission dealing with local government in the Greater London area may help us in the special case of London and in the rather restricted There in which it will be able to work. None the less, I still would like to see the appointment of a Royal Commission to deal with traffic problems as a whole and on a national scale.