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