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Andrew Meaney gives evidence to parliamentary inquiry into urban congestion

Andrew Meaney, Partner and Head of Oxera transport team has this week given evidence to the parliamentary inquiry into urban congestion.

The Transport Committee's inquiry into urban congestion aims to identify cost-effective and safe strategies for managing limited road space in towns and cities, minimising disruption to local communities and businesses, and keeping urban traffic flowing.

The evidence provided by Andrew has been published as below.


Chair: Why are some towns and cities more successful at tackling congestion than others? Are there any lessons we can draw from experience? Who would like to start on that one? Dr Metz, do you have any ideas?
Andrew Meaney: I agree with what Dr Metz said. What you are looking at is a mixture of public transport provision. In some places it is very good and very available; in other places it is less good. You need a strong degree of public transport available to people, but that is not sufficient to deal with congestion. Congestion is a phenomenon that is there and will be more prevalent as urbanisation continues. What you need to be doing is dealing with congestion through small changes in people’s behaviour. It takes very few cars, lorries or vans to be off the road at particular peak periods to reduce congestion. Getting those small nudges and better information to people can really help.
Chair: Earlier on, Mr Meaney, you referred to public transport as dealing with this issue, but you said it was not only public transport because there were different situations in different places. Is public transport the answer? What is it that has to be added?
Andrew Meaney: It is a necessary condition for helping with congestion, but it will not solve it. It is not a sufficient condition. On congestion finding its own level and relationships between modes, it is useful. One thing that is important to add to that mix is the variability of travel time, because we can get our phones out and see how long we are expecting that journey to take and we can plan on that basis. If there is a bus priority scheme in place, for example, that gives us a degree of certainty about how long it will take us to get to our destination, but when the congestion is such that it is unexpected, that causes people difficulties. There are studies that link travel time variability to stress, for example, in commuters. I think we have all been worried about being late for that meeting and got rather stressed about it.

There is also the point about how people really value not only journey time, but the variability in journey time, which is a really big add-on to the overall journey time. One thing we should bear in mind in this discussion on congestion is journey time variability. Public transport can help with that where there are priority measures—where it is rail and it is getting you quickly to where you want to go to. In some parts of the country, that connectivity is not there. In other parts of the country it is there and it does help, but is not sufficient to deal with congestion.

Chair: Does anyone else on the panel want to give us not an opinion, but information, on what has happened with traffic levels and congestion when road space has been removed in this way?
Andrew Meaney: If I could draw your attention to what happened in Liverpool when the bus lanes were removed—there was an extensive study carried out on the impact of the initial pilot on each road where the bus lanes were removed, looking at the impact on bus journey times and also the impact on general traffic as well. In some cases what Mr Flello said was correct—you took the bus lane out and there was an improvement in journey times for the cars because they had maybe two lanes instead of one. On other stretches of road, not only were the buses slower but the overall traffic was slower. That was a mixture of the bus lanes being taken out, a lack of parking enforcement when the bus lanes were taken out—so, effectively, everyone was having to try to dodge the cars that were in the inside lane—and also there was not the priority afforded to buses at junctions to enable the buses to get through quicker. There was a balance of evidence there depending on the precise circumstances of each road that was being looked at, but it was the case, in some cases, that you took the bus lane out and everyone was slower.
Huw Merriman: I guess the point I am trying to get at is that car drivers can sometimes be quite a militant team, and it perhaps brings out the Jeremy Clarkson in them when they hear about removing road and pricing. Do you think there is a better way to sell public transport in the ways we talked about—that it is the way to travel and to work at the same time, for example? Do you think we do that well enough right now?
Andrew Meaney: I have a couple of points. Some surveys have been done on people’s activity while they are using public transport, particularly the train. In one survey people suggested they are more productive on the train than in their office, which supports what you were saying. More seriously, nudges can be made to enable people to think differently about public transport, such as working with housing developers so that when people go into their new home there is already information on local bus routes, for example. Work of that ilk is going on, as well as work on trying to present information differently. I opened Google Maps out of interest with the stuff going on today and looked at a trip from here to our London office. It puts the car first. If it offered bus and train fares, the evidence is there that the information would nudge people into behaving differently. There is a lot about how this evidence is presented and telling people that the car would cost 10 minutes rather than saying there would be a benefit of 10 minutes on public transport—putting things into frames that people understand and will react to. There is a lot of work going on at the moment to help us to understand how people really behave rather than how some of the transport planning models tell us they should behave.

There is a tube strike today. A paper published last year looked at the tube strike in 2014 and found that 5% of people changed their route permanently as a consequence of the tube strike kicking them into doing something differently. You can use that notion to ask whether we can get people to use the bus free for a day to try it out and to get them to change their behaviour slightly and perhaps to move to a better alternative.

Chair: Can anyone on the panel tell us how bus lanes are measured for effectiveness now, or indeed if they are?

Andrew Meaney: That principle will still hold: you look at the costs to other road users and the benefits to bus passengers. What any of these schemes that take capacity away from one type of road user and favour another are doing is trying to incentivise people to use that particular mode of transport, whether it is a high-occupancy lane or a bus lane. You can demonstrate that the people using that particular mode will be able to get to their destination not necessarily any quicker, but at least with a more reliable journey time. They can say, “If I get this bus, I know that nine times out of 10, it’s going to get there at this point in time.” It’s not just bus lanes that enable that; it is bus priority at particular intersections. A set of tools can be used in order to enable the bus to be a more reliable and more attractive mode of transport, and to help congestion in that context.

Will Quince: Chair, we touched on another issue earlier, which is around sat navs and other technology within a vehicle. I have it within my own car, so it advises me on my route if there is congestion ahead and it will ask me if I want to detour, but I am just conscious that it is probably telling hundreds of other people, if not in some cases thousands of other people, exactly the same information, so I wonder how much sat navs and other technology of that nature actually lead to more congestion in certain areas.

Andrew Meaney: I don’t think anyone is saying that more information is worse. It should be giving you the choice, whereas historically we haven’t had that choice, so that there are benefits being presented through the system. What it perhaps is not taking into account is being able to predict that, if 100 other vehicles are also going down that road, that is going to get congested.

Iain Stewart: I would rather the responses were on road pricing generally, rather than numbers specifically. It is fair to say that road pricing has not commanded public support in recent years, with heavy referendum defeats in Manchester and Edinburgh. Do you think there is a potential for public opinion to change if it was designed in a way that was fiscally neutral for the average motorist—in other words, if there was a reduction in fuel duty, road tax and so on to compensate for the cost that road pricing entails? If we had a dynamic pricing whereby driving into London or any city at 8 o’clock in the morning was three times the price of driving in at 1 o’clock in the afternoon, it would achieve a more efficient pattern of traffic movement. Is there the potential for public attitudes to change if that was presented in the correct manner?

Andrew Meaney: Economically, there is no price for using the road at a particular point in time. It is important for us to remember that congestion is not just about a particular location; it is about the time of day as well. The sort of mechanism you are talking about that adjusts the price—as long as people know what they are going to pay before they make their journey, it will encourage those few people who are potentially causing congestion to travel outside of that time and move people outside. That would be economically an improvement on the situation today.

Whether it could be presented as people having more choice about how they pay for using the road—at the moment, you pay for the fuel you are putting in your car and the vehicle tax. Whether you could put that together, so that people say, “Instead of always having to pay that, I’ve got a choice about how I pay for using the road. If I use it when it’s less expensive, I’ve actually saved money.” If we give people those choices and it is presented well and is distributionally fair, so that the people who have to travel at a particular time to get into work do not find themselves paying a lot and so that people who have the flexibility to choose don’t have to pay so much, I think that might work.

Robert Flello: I have two questions. The first is just a bit of clarification. We already have road pricing in London—a congestion charge—yet while the number of vehicles has declined the congestion is increasing. So that is not really a very good advert for congestion charging, surely?

Andrew Meaney: I think you have to look at what would have happened if the congestion charge wasn’t there. As we know, you increase road capacity and more people come in to use it. As you change road capacity in London, people know that if they are coming in at the peak times they are going to have to pay for it. You can say that congestion may be increasing, but I think probably most of us would agree that if that congestion charge wasn’t there congestion would probably have increased by much more, given the population increase we have talked about.