The past month or two has seen several inter-linked pieces of news on local transport: talk of congestion charges, increasing car park prices, air quality concerns, and the planning refusal for the MRT. Let’s attempt to stitch together some of these threads and offer some analysis and opinions on the way forward.
The council’s communication announcing its study into a raft of measures including a congestion charge re-iterates the term “Demand Management”, which I find unhelpful. People aren’t using the roads for the fun of it. People are travelling around because they want to get somewhere – to work, for leisure, visiting family and friends. These aren’t trips that need to be eradicated. I have certainly turned down social occasions on the basis that I couldn’t quite be bothered with the logistics. I believe the extent to which demand is already being “managed” by congestion, costs of fares, journey times, dangerous roads etc is already regrettable. I think life would be happier – our town would be a better place – if people moved about more rather than less!
Clearly, however, we do have problems. Single driver-occupied private cars dominate, and with that comes air pollution and traffic congestion. If moving around more makes us happy, sitting around in traffic jams certainly doesn’t, and breathing dirty air is dangerous to our health. So let’s not call it demand management – let’s call it “air quality and congestion management”. Maybe it’s just semantics; tackling those issues probably entails reducing demand for car journeys in certain places at given times. But I think it’s important to be crystal clear what we’re trying to achieve, which is clean air, faster journeys, and as much capacity to move people where they want to go as possible.
The council has reviewed the town centre parking charges. The report published detailing the changes shows 29 specific price increases and only 5 decreases. It appears the idea is to target all-day town centre workers, in the hope of pushing them onto public transport, leaving spaces available to re-use several times per day with shorter visits that are more likely to be adding to the town centre economy. This is theoretically plausible, but it’s intuitively hard to reconcile price hikes with any kind of attempt to attract more shoppers.
Deserving of a mention given their prominence on this subject, I think the popular Green Party councillors play an important role on the key issue of the environment. They’re very visible on social media, campaigning but also supporting members of the community, charities and even out watering young trees in these arid conditions. They’re hard working, and they really care. However, I feel they are more of a pressure group on one side of the argument, and enacting their policies alone would be bad for Reading, and potentially even the environment. They bemoaned the parking charge increases on the basis of that tenuous possibility of it leading to more daytime short shopping trips, they opposed the MRT despite it being Reading’s first ever major local public transport infrastructure investment, and they’re fervent supporters of congestion changing.
I share the ambition for cleaner air, but the Green policies alone would be akin to throwing a fire blanket over the smouldering embers of our high street. Our town centre needs oxygen to fuel the range of shops, leisure, culture and employment opportunities, and that comes through our ability to supply people to it in significant numbers.
The social media reaction to the Get Reading stories on congestion charging were unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s easy to selectively quote individual responses to paint the picture you want, however I think it’s very fair to say the vast majority were hostile to the concept. Moreover, I think I can accurately select a single response to summarise a significant proportion of the sentiments, which simply said “Hello Basingstoke”. The wider environment loses if we eliminate car journeys from Shinfield to Reading, in favour of car journeys from Shinfield to Basingstoke!
Trying to change people’s behaviour is always going to be difficult, so you need to tackle it from both directions: making public transport more appealing, whilst making driving less appealing. Not only will that approach double your chances of changing behaviour, but it will also be perceived as fairer. “Get on your bike” is not enough!
The MRT (mass rapid transit) is a plan for a dedicated busway from Thames Valley Park into town, guaranteeing reliable travel times, quicker journeys, and thus facilitating more frequent services that could be enjoyed not only by commuters to the business parks but also by park & ride users from various sites to the east of town, and new express bus routes from Woodley too. It’s also a flat, straight, dedicated public transport alignment conducive to subsequent upgrade for trams, or similar, finally fulfilling its “MRT” potential.
New transport links always benefit locations at either end. Access to Reading by public transport improves, but the scheme would be a major boost for Thames Valley Park. Vast areas of the business park are unoccupied, as the photos below show. Office parks are struggling to redefine themselves. This article from America caught my attention claiming Millennials prefer city centres and, pertinently, “proximity to mass transit”. The MRT could save Thames Valley Park, and with it significant business rates income for Wokingham’s council.
Clearly, new infrastructure always has an impact somewhere. Despite the architects working hard to refine the plans, safe-guarding the attractive riverside Willow trees, the current scheme was denied planning permission by Wokingham Borough Council. The visual appearance of the bridge over the Kennet was, quite reasonably, the main issue for Wokingham, as twitter coverage from the meeting highlights below. Hopefully, a more elegant design can be put forward to allow this critical piece of infrastructure, which already has central government funding, to go ahead. Once delivered, “demand management” measures can be more easily justified given the improvements to the public transport offering as a more attractive alternative.
Before we look into the “demand management” options, there’s one other transport solution that deserves another look. Uber has now committed that all its vehicles in London will be hybrids by 2020, and by 2022 in the rest of the country. Inching along central Reading’s congested streets at low speed would almost certainly be powered by the battery. The council could insist upon the 2020 London date as a condition for allowing Uber. I may be wrong, but the legacy black cab fleet in town are unlikely to match these environmental standards for some time.
Moreover, the Uber model is effective at joining up routes, with drivers more likely to be picking up their next passenger near the previous drop-off, not heading back to a taxi rank in town. And as demand grows further, Uber’s “pool” option of allowing you to share your ride with another user making a similar journey would be invoked more frequently: more people moved around for the same environmental and congestion impact.
If we’re going to evaluate our transport options on the basis of being low on pollution and either easing congestion or increasing capacity, then Uber looks like a strong option that must be reconsidered.
Reading Borough Council’s assessment is that nitrogen dioxide pollution from exhaust fumes is the main air quality issue right now. But they highlight a further issue that I think is worth explaining further. Like many others, I’ve been guilty of assuming that electric cars would eliminate air quality impacts from motoring (aside from whatever impact is occurred where the power is initially generated). Sadly, this is not the case. When you replace your tyres or brake discs because they’ve worn away, or negotiated road works as worn surfaces are replaced, have you ever wondered where those worn away materials actually went? It turns out that, in part, they are released as tiny particles into the air, collectively known, along with similar particles from other sources, as PM2.5. This class of pollution is dangerous as it can penetrate deep into the lungs, leading to a multitude of health risks.
Now, it gets more complicated. Fragments of engine wear also cause PM2.5 and those would be reduced by electric vehicles, but that appears to be minor when compared with tyre, brake and road surface wear. Technology will offer further solutions; Bosch has already designed a brake disc to emit 90% less PM2.5. But it will take a long time to roll out such improvements. There is further complexity given that all of these motoring-related sources are still only a minority of total PM2.5, and that these particles travel long distances. Apparently more than half of London’s PM2.5 originates from outside the capital, although the map below still shows a discernible elevation around major roads.
By way of comparison, Reading’s figure for PM2.5 was 9 micrograms/cubic metre in 2016, although from what I’ve read, there’s no “safe limit” as such. Reading only has one monitoring point for PM2.5 and if this is to be a new frontier of the transport air quality battle then further monitoring at other locations would be a wise next move, because regrettably, electric cars will not be the end of the road for traffic pollution.
All that said, we’re still some way short of electric cars or even hybrids ruling the roads, so the focus remains on NO2 from exhaust fumes. This form of pollution is more localised to the immediate vicinity of major roads. Below is the equivalent map for London which highlights that quite clearly.
Certainly, researching this article has left me more concerned about air quality, especially the incredible statistic that 8% of all UK deaths can be attributed to air pollution – that really is frightening. All of this does point a need to reduce the amount of time car engines are running in town. It’s difficult to see that happening without fewer peak time car journeys taking place. It’s in that context that the council is investigating congestion charges.
People have speculated something of the order of a £5 fee for a zone defined by the IDR (inclusive). But then what about someone from Caversham travelling to the hospital for an appointment? Apart from being harsh to charge for that, you’d be likely to use Sonning bridge to avoid paying, travelling further and defeating the environmental aims of the scheme. So I think you’d need to include the hospital in the zone, and probably London Road right out to A3290. Charging for peak times only would be sensible to align with the worst of the congestion, whilst protecting town centre shopping trade. Failing that, combining ANPR for the charging zone with the same solution in the town centre car parks could see the charge baked into the parking fees, saving would-be shoppers from paying two charges separately or the hassle of having to register their vehicle in advance of driving into Reading. If we get this wrong for our visitors then others stand in wait, as one of Bracknell’s lead councillors couldn’t wait to mischievously advertise:
Personally, I’m sceptical that a congestion charging scheme like that would happen. For a start, collaboration with neighbouring authorities will be necessary to understand and agree any displacement of traffic onto their roads. In echoes from the national news, I think “no deal” would be the default position. Equally, given the huge public hostility to the concept, any council pursuing the idea could be described, in Sir Humpfrey terms, as “courageous”.
There could be another way of applying charges: levy the whole borough, with cameras at the boundaries and along main roads, at a much lower rate, say 50p per day (billed weekly). This wouldn’t have the same displacement issues – Caversham to the RBH now incurs the charge as soon as you leave your drive so no incentive for weird routes, and the lower rate would change behaviour far less anyway. However, it would act as an “infrastructure tax” levied on local motorists, and could raise vast sums. So as a “long game” it would reduce car usage by virtue of the improvements to public transport it would fund over a longer period attracting more patronage. (Note, you’d need exemptions for those living within a few hundred yards of the boundary to stop them parking outside the borough every night, and probably an allocation of free trips for pensioners). Whilst this scheme would still be unpopular, I think the neighbouring authorities would allow it.
There are other options under consideration that might be seen as more sensible places to start. The work place parking levy is a charge on business based on the number of parking spaces they offer employees. Nottingham has implemented this. It’s another “long game” option, in the ilk of my charging design: it’s barely changed behaviour initially but has funded an extension to their tram network, which will ultimately attract motorists onto public transport. The issue in Reading is that many of the large corporate car parks are in the neighbouring boroughs, and therefore a joint scheme would be needed to avoid one business park instantly losing out to another (or in the case of Green Park, one side of the road to the other!).
Some kind of “Low emissions Zone” is also under consideration. The Greens point to Oxford as a success here. Oxford has managed to deliver a retail offer that has leap-frogged our own, and attracts 7 million annual tourists to boot. So a glance northwards in certainly in order. Although I suspect their five huge peripheral park & rides, and six Thames bridges might be helping them along. The council counters that Oxford’s scheme is just a ban on older buses that Reading has rid itself of anyway. But some kind of exclusion targeting lorries might be workable. Displacement onto the motorway network wouldn’t upset our neighbours especially, and lorries can’t vote! However, are there really enough HGVs cutting through Reading for this to be a sufficient solution to our air quality and congestion issues?
This post has sat in draft for a week as I struggle to reach any conclusions! In short, there are no easy answers. I’d like to live in a town at the front line of dealing with these modern urban issues, rather than following years behind. So I’d encourage the council to be brave enough to try something out once their studies into the options concludes.
To finish, having liberally dished out the advice for the council and the Greens, I’ll end with a plea to the Conservatives. Given the need for co-operation with our neighbours to solve the problems of congestion and pollution, and given the blue dominance within councils in all directions, perhaps the local Tories can help form a wider consensus to build some bridges – literal and figurative – with those other authorities. Now that would truly be a breath of fresh air.Follow @readingonthames
I’m a keen commentator and not a professional on these issues. Comment very welcome, be it expert or enthusiast… No registration required
15 thoughts on “A Congestion Charge for Reading?”
I think one of Reading’s main problems is the lack of bridges over the Thames. This is unlikely to change anytime soon with likely objections from Oxford CC and avowedly to protect their area from “urban sprawl” from Reading. With all legislative time tied up in some other issue (!) I predict nothing is likely to change substantively in the near (or distant) future.
LikeLiked by 1 person
There are plenty of successful examples where getting the motorist to meet part of paying for the externalities caused by driving (pollution, noise etc.) through congestion charging (London) and extra taxes (certificats verts France). These revenue raising measures (cue “war in the motorist” responses) are used to fund improved public transport and sustainable travel choices (priority for walking and cycling and associated infrastructure).
Reading is not special or different to anywhere else. There’s just a lack of political will to take on the vested and selfish interests in maintaining the status quo.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Thanks Simon. Presumably you’re happy that the council is considering these kinds of measures then? Or do you expect the ideas to fizzle out?
Trams are proven to switch people from their cars. Fixed routes with regular turn up and go timings make it easy for regular and periodic users of the system. Perhaps Reading should be more ambitious in its plans?
I cannot help believe Reading Council’s arms-length ownership of Reading Buses and the number of councillors affiliated to Reading’s community of taxi drivers are stopping any innovative thinking.
LikeLiked by 1 person
A congestion charge levied along all of the borough boundaries would be highly impractical and harsh on people living very near to the ‘wrong’ side.There are West Berks streets in Calcot and Theale where you cannot reach the outside world by car except by entering Reading Borough.A political party would need to be ‘courageous’ if they wished to bring this in AND win Reading West.
I agree that boundaries along the boroughs would not be good. I live within west berkshire, with both of the ways out of my road in Readings boundary. I work for Wokingham council, so it would cost me quite a lot in the long run to go to work every day and get back home.
Hi Reading OnThames can we know who you are please?
Hi Tamzin. The Twitter account references my personal account and provides an email address. I’m not trying to hide behind anonymity, just not seeking publicity either! I’m not a member of a political party. Peter
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks Peter. I thought that was you but didn’t want to assume.
LikeLiked by 1 person
A congestion charging has so many problems its not a solution that is practically implementable.
The park and rides in Oxford are definitely a model though, there should, at a minimum, be an improvement to that system. Caversham needs at least one, possibly even three to cover the east, west and northern approaches.
There should be another in TVP and out in Tilehurst/Calcot. Ideally you’d want both rail and bus connections to the centre from Winnersh, TVP and Green Park.
The areas around those heavily connected centres can then be developed in a hub – hub type model. Admittedly, you then get congestion around Reading station but it’s able to cope in my opinion.
Caversham should be the priority imo and not just because I live there (admittedly a big factor). Its where congestion is most chronic and the bridges as they are currently are very poorly laid out. Caversham Bridge has ridiculous footpaths, stupid road widths and dangerous cycling infrastructure.
To expand on that, the footpaths are really very large, way bigger than required capacity on the western side. There are utterly pointless bollards taking up essential space on that bridge, space that could be used to sort out the cycle paths and make the lanes wide enough to allow a bus/truck and a car to pass each other, something that creates needless congestion.
The cycle path on the west side is useless, you have to jump up on the kerb on the Caversham side, swerve through the people walking in it over the bridge and then pull a highly risky manoeuvre crossing the exit by PBA, then get yourself onto the roundabout in a move that feels like it shouldn’t be legal. God help you if you want to get to Tilehurst while making that move. As for the cycle path on the west side, it is utterly useless. A pain to enter, probably illegal on the Caversham side.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks Frank. A few people have told me I’ve under-played the role of cycling in this article, so thanks for highlighting the issues around Caversham bridge. My guess is that those four traffic lanes are too narrow by modern standards, so whenever they do anything to change the layout there they’d need to lose a lane, which would incur a furious reaction from many! But perhaps your point about the wide pavements might be a solution. Or maybe cantilever on a new footbridge to free up the whole existing bridge for four proper lanes and maybe a bus lane and dedicated cycle lanes?
There’s only three lanes on Caversham bridge now — the lane markers which used to make two lanes southbound have been removed.
Dr John Walker, Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Transportation Research Group, University of Southampton, UK wrote an interesting piece on using ANPR as a low-cost alternatives to the MRT. You can read his observations here https://saveourancientriverside.co.uk/alternatives-to-the-mrt/anpr-as-a-low-cost-alternative-to-the-proposed-east-reading-mrt/.
Are you sure the MRT is the first major transport investment? Wouldn’t our beloved IDR be an example?
Thanks Tamzin. I know you and I have distinctly different positions on the MRT, and I respect your view. From my perspective, we must provide fast, reliable, affordable public transport first (i.e. MRT) then consider congestion charging to give people a helpful nudge to change their habits and use it.
My phrase was “local public transport infrastructure” so the IDR isn’t public transport (and I would classify Reading station as a regional/national).
The MRT is also the only option that would allow for further enhanced green public transport (trams or equivalent). I think it’s a forward-looking environmentally responsible approach, and I really hope it goes ahead. I don’t doubt your motives Tamzin, but I believe the Green party would support this had it not been in their electoral back yard (note Green support for Edinburgh tram), so I find that aspect frustrating.
Thanks for clarifying Peter. Yes I am against the MRT, and I am campaigning with SOAR to stop it. I am not convinced at all that it will reduce congestion or improve air quality, and I don’t think it is worth the environmental damage it will cause. I can’t speak for the Green Councillors, but I would be surprised if they would support this scheme even if outside their ‘area’. I think Josh’s record on the planning committee and his speech on the MRT, referencing his commitment to upholding local and national planning policy speak for themselves.