Poor air quality in East Reading hit the local news this week. The giant biscuit factory that once dominated the area has long gone. In a town with minimal industrial activity, the modern culprit is vehicle emissions, and especially those from the idling traffic along Kings Road that has gradually deteriorated from a brief peak-time issue, to virtually ever-present. In a town renowned for its congestion, Cemetery Junction is Reading’s flagship traffic jam. A third bridge and investment in public transport are clearly the focus for a solution, but I think we should look closely at how we use our limited road space to keep things moving better. The current situation is bad for residents, visitors, commuters and the environment, and I think we should explore other options.
Before proposing any measures favouring the motorist, I feel burdened to address two accusations that will inevitably be levelled. Firstly, “improving the roads just attracts more traffic”, and secondly, “we’re done with cars – they’re the past”.
On the first, this argument has slowly pervaded the country, and is probably behind the modern reluctance to invest in new roads to the same extent as previous decades. And it’s probably correct. But I don’t think those extra journeys are evil people driving around just because they can; they’re going to work, participating in leisure activities, visiting family etc. People want to be able to move around, and what is the purpose of a society if it’s not, within reason, to help people do what they want? Besides, the main idea in this article is that the town’s road network capacity is currently biased towards inbound traffic. Taking in more than can get out results in inevitable gridlock for everyone, which causes the delays, and ultimately the pollution. If we can keep things moving, even if that means more vehicle movements in total, this could be good for everyone.
Are we done with cars? Well, I certainly hope that the vast majority of transport spending is focussed on public transport and cycling infrastructure. The East Reading MRT is hugely positive, and I whole-heartedly believe it should be upgraded to a tram line in the future. But personal jetpacks are still confined to cartoons. In the real world, chemists are engaged in a race with computer scientists as to whether fully electric cars or self-driving cars will dominate first. But before either wins, it seems Uber will be scheduling the journeys and managing supply and demand. The future should be safe and clean “motoring”, if that’s still the right term. Maybe “car” is also the wrong word, but our streets will be teeming with small vehicles for many years to come, and the economic fortunes of a town will be tied to its capacity for moving them around.
So what about Cemetery Junction? I didn’t watch the film – I gather it was some kind of human interest story rather than a history of bus lanes and pedestrian refuge locations. But I hear that their Cemetery Junction had its own railway station. We don’t have that luxury, we have a busy crossroads between the A329 Reading to Wokingham Road, and the A4 from Reading to Maidenhead. The latter dominates the traffic flow, with the A329M taking traffic to and from Sutton’s Seeds roundabout, leaving the short section of London Road between there and Cemetery Junction as the principle bottleneck in town.
This stretch of road is three lanes wide. Currently, one lane leads traffic out of town, with two lanes inbound. For much of the day, traffic queues along the Kings Road to then fight its way along this single outbound lane. The left lane on Kings Road is reduced to a crawl as side roads and crossings slow things down, whilst traffic from the right lane also cuts in. ‘Team left lane’ don’t really like ‘team right lane’ very much – I’ve seen, literally, mutual applause amongst members when carefully coordinated bumper-to-bumper advancement leaves a ‘right-laner’ marooned at Cemetery Junction. ‘Right laners’ point to the signage to vindicate their strategy, but generally accepted Reading folklore decrees that cutting in at any point beyond the college is morally reprehensible.
This battle plays out all day. But the major problem happens at peak times. Frequently, the queue just to choose your side in this contest back up along Queen’s Road (IDR), which blocks the flow from Sidmouth Street, which backs up along London Road, through Cemetery Junction all the way to Sutton’s roundabout and beyond. The queue to get out of Reading to the east backs up full-circle all the way out of town to the east – it’s a never-ending Mobius strip of congestion.
I’m not a professional at designing road layouts. But after warning of the likely impact of last year’s A329M changes, then writing a piece on this site proposing solutions that reads almost exactly like the subsequent official review, I feel emboldened enough to throw some ideas out there. However, I’d very much welcome scrutiny, be that expert or otherwise.
I think we need to create extra outbound capacity along London Road to Sutton’s Roundabout. I’m not proposing demolishing any buildings – I think we have to work with what we’ve got. You could explore having the middle lane alternate between inbound and outbound depending on time-of-day. But I think the outbound queues are ever-present, and not an evening peak phenomenon. You could completely switch the middle lane to outbound, but I think we need to allow a good volume of inbound traffic through Cemetery Junction during its green phase on the lights, and that needs two lanes.
My suggestion is to switch the direction of the middle lane part way along London Road. I believe this will come very close to maintaining the inbound capacity, whilst substantially increasing the outbound capacity. After Cholmeley Road, the outbound flow takes the middle lane, meaning that Kings Road should flow faster able to fill up these two lanes. Meanwhile, retaining the two inbound lanes at the Cemetery Junction end should allow them to fill up steadily like a bucket of water from a tap, and then throw that volume through the junction during its phase on the lights, as currently. The plight of Newtown residents is not forgotten in my plan. They would lose the ability to right turn into Liverpool Road, having to use Cholmeley instead, but I think that’s a small price to pay to avoid being choked by near-stationary traffic all day.
Looking further ahead, and now I’m talking electric cars – clean, quiet and safe, it would be possible to have two outbound lanes for the full stretch of this road. By claiming around three metres from the Cemetery, and the pavement alongside Palmer Park (replaced by a footpath through the park), you could eek out the required extra space. The pedestrian crossing near Liverpool Road could also be replaced by a footbridge attached to the railway bridge, where there is space without encroaching, or even over-looking nearby houses.
In Reading we have several irons in the fire on transport improvements. The Third Bridge would prevent Caversham traffic from needing to battle through town (or Sonning) in the first place. The East Reading MRT bus lane from Thames Valley Park to Napier Road will divert buses away from this bottleneck, make bus travel more attractive, and lay the foundations of a possible future tram line. There is some investment in cycle infrastructure too. But I think we must continue to review the road network, because it might be that we could partly relieve our most notorious bottleneck for nothing more than the cost of a tin of paint and a few road signs. If they’re not already, hopefully those in charge might take a look…
What do you think? Comments welcome and can be left without any registration!