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 Sir Richard Nugent Sir Richard Nugent , Guildford 12:00 am, 7th May 1959

I was about to observe that the four factors that will solve our problem, which were referred to during the debate, are: first, traffic engineering; secondly, highway planning; thirdly, enforcement; and, fourthly, public transport. Each one of these factors must receive the necessary attention if we are to get our traffic moving smoothly and keep the centre of our cities alive.

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) and my hon. Friend the Member for Merton and Morden (Mr. Atkins) referred to the newspaper articles by Mr. Burton Marsh. He is a great American traffic engineering expert and I think that we can learn something from the experience of America. Although the Americans have not been able to find all the answers, they have been living with the universal motor car for twenty or thirty years longer than we have, and they have had a great deal more experience. Necessity has driven them to learn some lessons. The first lesson, which they learned rather painfully, was that they started off on the wrong foot.

They thought that they would be able to solve their traffic problems in the cities by building vast new urban motorways, freeways, right into the heart of the cities. By doing that they thought that they would make it possible for the motor cars owned by everyone to go to the middle of the cities so that people could reach their place of work, and that then they could allow the public transport systems to become obsolete and fade out. Today, no forward-thinking traffic engineer in America holds that view. It is realised that a public transport system is basic to keeping the centre of a city alive, and that whatever great new roads may be built, they cannot carry more than a fraction of the total commuting traffic in and out of the cities.

Today, authorities in the American cities are making desperate efforts to revive the public transport systems which have been allowed to languish over the last two decades, and they are having a difficult time in doing so. Hon Members will probably know the state that Los Angeles has got into. It is a classic example of a city which built a comprehensive system of freeways and motorways. In the 3,000 acres of the city centre no less than two-thirds are taken up with roads, parking spaces and loading spaces, and only one-third of the city centre is left for building. So that it is not surprising that the "traffic boss" of Los Angeles, Mr. Taylor, says that the business of the city is languishing. It is bound to and, incidentally, the average traffic speed is still no more than that of a horse and buggy. So I think we may learn something from that.

We still have our public transport systems. Anxieties have been expressed about them, and rightly, because not only must they be maintained but we have to do all we can to improve them. The public transport system is the pivot of the life of a big city. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington correctly said that there are 1 million people who go daily to the central area of London and only 70,000 come in motor cars—or, rather, there are only 70,000 cars, which is roughly the same thing. With all the congestion we experience today, only 70,000 cars are involved. That is a marginal figure, less than 10 per cent., and it is evident that the public transport system is the first factor to consider.

That is one reason why we are modernising our whole public transport system, not only London Transport but the suburban and main line railways as well. Several of these have been electrified and others are in the process of being electrified. The first stage of the North Kent coast system is coming into operation next month. This improvement of services will go on progressively and make it possible to carry more commuters in greater comfort and, I hope, with less difficulty during the peak traffic periods.

I know of the troubles experienced by my hon. Friend the Member for Merton and Morden during the peak traffic periods on the line in his constituency, and the consequent discomfort. But I do not despair about the possibility of staggering working hours, or of a solution being found by the London Travel Committee which will result in the staggering of traffic. When one considers the amount of accommodation available in public transport during the off-peak hours, one realises that we cannot give up all thoughts of any scheme based on the staggering of hours.

In some way we must work out a means of using that accommodation so that people may travel in greater comfort; and the fact that fewer people may travel in motor cars will not mean that during the peak hours the numbers using the public transport will be worse than ever. I say straight away, therefore, that our view is that the public transport system is a basic factor and that we shall do everything possible not only to maintain it, but, where possible, to improve it.

Details have been given of road building schemes which are going ahead. The broad picture is that we are devoting a large slice of the total road expenditure, getting up to £60 million a year, to urban schemes. Wherever possible we are improving intersections and removing bottlenecks, not only in London but in other large towns. Urban motorways were mentioned, in, I thought, the right balance, by the right hon. Member for Vauxhall. The provision of such motorways may be right in some circumstances, but the cost is high not only in cash, but also in amenity and severance, and in sociological interference with the life of the community. However, as my right hon. Friend has explained, we are prepared to use them wherever they are justified.

It is quite clear from the American example that this will be only part of the answer and that we have to think of other things as well. We are certainly going in for long-term planning for urban roads. This is being done by the London Roads Committee, of which I am Chairman, and the other conurbation committees which are being set up in the country.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington mentioned the difficulty that the L.C.C. has in planning ahead. We are doing our best to help the Council in this. We have to accept that each year Parliament must vote the money which is needed to assist the L.C.C. in carrying out its schemes. I accept that there is, therefore, a practical problem for the L.C.C., but by consultation at official level we are able to help it put preparations in hand for two or three years ahead.

Traffic engineering, which has been mentioned a good deal today, is a success in America. The Americans have learned a great deal about it and have benefited from it in the movement of traffic in their cities. They have achieved smoother, faster and safer traffic movement. This is particularly so in Chicago and Detroit, where the progressive reduction in accidents over the last twenty years is really impressive. I am certain that there is something we can do here on those lines.

Do not let me leave the impression that nothing is being done here. Many of our highway engineers know a great deal about traffic engineering. But the main picture in our cities is one of piecemeal treatment; intersections are dealt with singly; single streets are made one-way as opposed to what I would wish to see, which is comprehensive traffic schemes for the whole of our cities.

To bring that about, it is necessary for each city to have a team of traffic engineers who can study the movement of traffic by origin and destination surveys, treating a whole city as a single unit, and then advise upon the regulations which will make it possible for the traffic to move smoothly and safely to its destina- tion by eliminating conflicts of traffic, and so on.

When I talk about traffic, I include the movement of pedestrians just as much as vehicles. In all our new road schemes we provide for pedestrian subways. I have taken note of the suggestion of the hon. Member for Bradford, East (Mr. McLeavy) that we might do something about the subway outside the House of Commons and I will see whether it is possible to make it a little more convenient than it is now. It is not a very attractive subway and it might be a useful "guinea pig" to show whether we can set an example in our own neighbourhood.

In this picture of traffic engineering we can no longer think, as we tend to do now, in terms of moving a single vehicle from point A to point B. It is now necessary for somebody, preferably the city authority, to think not about moving individual vehicles but whole streets full of vehicles; whole columns of vehicles, and, indeed, the traffic of the whole city. That to us is a new concept. No longer can we think about moving individual vehicles. We must think about the flow of all the traffic in the city.

One sees in American cities how the traffic is controlled from a central head-quarters by closed circuit radio control or direct electric cable to all the traffic lights at the intersections on the main traffic roads, so that at peak traffic periods morning and evening they can offset the intersections and get the smoothest flow of traffic with the minimum of interference to the fast traffic stream. They can also use the reversible lane system, so that there may be six in-traffic lanes in the morning and two out, and six out-traffic lanes in the evening and two in. They do that by means of traffic lights hung across the road, once again operated from a central headquarters.

It is quite easy to have refinements suggested by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett), such as a clear way on the main urban traffic routes at peak periods. I have seen that done by the closing down of street parking meters at four o'clock, after which no one is allowed to park. Such refinements can be applied provided that there are traffic engineers to study the position. That is a basic necessity. It is impossible to make traffic regulations until the facts are known.

As my right hon. Friend has said, we have been doing a lot about this. We realise that the first step is to get these men trained and, with the help of a generous group of industries and organisations, we now have the encouraging prospect of a chair of traffic engineering arid highway engineering being started at Birmingham. I might mention that there is already a post-graduate course at Imperial College, London, and at Newcastle, but I think that the Birmingham venture will provide an impetus.

I have also recently had consultations with the County Councils Association, the Association of Municipal Corporations and the Urban District Councils Association, whose members are the people who will employ these traffic engineers. We have a traffic engineering section in the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, but it is not our job to look after the traffic of a city, that is a job for the city authorities. We have to sell the idea to city authorities and get them interested in dealing with this problem, and in employing the traffic engineers after they have been trained.

I have asked the local authority associations whether they are willing to advise their constituent members to start developing traffic engineering units. I am hopeful that shortly we shall be able to get them to send out general advice on this subject. The traffic engineers will get the facts and it is up to the authorities to make regulations which will result in better traffic movement in our cities. This is also the way to safer movement and to the elimination of traffic conflicts which in themselves are a serious source of danger.

I noted the comment of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Vauxhall about posters for better driving. This is a matter of personal taste. Some people think that shock tactics are the most effective, others prefer the anodyne approach—and I know that the right hon. Gentleman has a strong stomach because recently he went to see "The Cenci", at the Old Vic. I think that we must leave the choice of posters to the local road safety committees.

In the meantime, on the question of traffic engineering, my right hon. Friend and I are pushing ahead to get more parking meters. A basic feature of traffic engineering is to control kerb space and stop the long-term parking which is cluttering up the streets. That has been accepted on both sides of the Committee, and I am happy to clear up any uncertainty by saying that it is our intention to press ahead with this matter.

Enforcement has also been mentioned. I have no time, in the concluding minutes of this debate, to go into that matter in detail, but I entirely agree that enforcement is a basic requirement. It does not matter how good are the traffic schemes and how well designed are the regulations unless there is proper enforcement. I have been assured by the police that they will be able to enforce the regulations as parking meters spread from one area to another, and I, for my part, would warmly welcome the experiment of using traffic wardens, who, I believe, would be a great help.

We have massive traffic problems before us and in the short time at my disposal I have indicated four factors by which we can solve these problems. We are giving vigorous attention to each one of them. We feel that they will progressively bear fruit, help us to reduce traffic congestion, improve the traffic flow, improve road safety and reduce the number of accidents in our cities. For these reasons, I feel that we can confidently say that the Government have this very difficult problem completely in hand.