I have an article published in Highways Magazine, the text of which is below.

Recent advances in a number of digital technologies in combination are having a significant impact on travel behaviour on the road network by providing route guidance that takes account of traffic conditions. What may be termed ‘digital navigation’ involves the use of satellite navigation (satnav) to provide spatial positioning to high precision; digital mapping; the ability to detect vehicle speeds and hence the location of traffic congestion; and routing algorithms to optimise journeys. The combination of satnav location and digital mapping provides a navigation service that offers turn-by-turn route guidance.

While digital navigation is in widespread use by road users, remarkably little information is publicly available about performance, in particular how routes are optimised, the suitability of recommended routes, the accuracy of estimated journey times, and the impact on the functioning of the road network as a whole. Nevertheless, there is evidence to indicate an impact on the use of minor roads, of major roads, and on traffic congestion and the optimisation of the road network.

Recent revisions to British road traffic statistics appear to show that there has been a substantial growth of motor vehicle traffic on minor roads in recent years, an increase of 26% between 2010 and 2019, while traffic on major roads increased by only 12%.  One factor contributing to this growth is the increase in van traffic, including that arising from the growth of online shopping with home deliveries. However, in 2019 van traffic amounted to 15% of traffic on urban minor roads, and 19% on rural minor roads, cars being responsible for 82% and 78% of traffic respectively. So, the growth of van traffic on minor roads has been responsible for only part of the overall traffic growth on these roads.

The most likely main contribution to the large growth of traffic on minor roads is the widespread use of digital navigation, which makes possible the general use of minor roads that previously were largely confined to those road users with local knowledge, as well as extending such local knowledge. Diversion to minor roads is likely to occur when major roads are congested and represents an effective increase in the capacity of the road network, so generating additional traffic.

As well as encouraging use of minor roads, digital navigation may divert traffic from local roads to roads intended for longer distance traffic. One case that I have analysed where such diversion may have occurred is the widening of the M25, the London orbital motorway, between junctions 23 and 27 to the north of the city. There was substantial growth in traffic above the level that had been forecast, much of which arose from diversion of local trips, such as home to work, to take advantage of faster travel on the motorway, despite the greater distance and higher fuel costs incurred. The contribution of digital navigation in facilitating such diversion cannot be inferred from available data, but it is plausible. Regular users of digital navigation would have up-to-date information for each journey, while irregular or non-users would likely be aware that diversion to the motorway would offer the fastest journey.

The M25 case study suggests that local traffic may be expected to take advantage of the capacity increase of major routes in the vicinity of urban areas that generate much traffic, which are the locations where the Strategic Road Network is under greatest stress and where investments to increase capacity are thought to be most needed. However, this local traffic negates the benefits expected for long distance road users and so undermines the economic case for the investment. The growing use of digital navigation would tend to contribute further to weakening the case for such investment.

While the M25 case study is an illustration of the maxim that we can’t build our way out of road traffic congestion, nevertheless the development of digital navigation offers probably the best means available to mitigate the impact of congestion. Congestion arises in or near areas of high population density and high car ownership, where the capacity of the road network is insufficient to cope with all the trips that might be made. Drivers are deterred by the prospect of time delays and so make other decisions – to travel at a different time, by a different route, by a different mode, to a different destination (where there are options, as for shopping), or not to travel at all (by shopping online, for instance). Congestion is therefore substantially self-regulating, in that if traffic increases, delays worsen and more potential users are deterred on account of the time constraint.

Digital navigation that takes account of congestion in real time can offer less congested routes, so making better use of the existing road network and reducing road users’ exposure to congestion. One problem that may arise is that traffic may be diverted on to unsuitable roads, where local environments and neighbourhoods may be adversely affected, or even where large vehicles can become obstructed. Diversion onto unsuitable routes is a problem that could be mitigated through collaboration between digital navigation providers and road authorities.

Beyond the rerouting of traffic to less congested roads, there is a feature of digital navigation that mitigates the unwelcome experience of traffic congestion – the prediction of journey time, or estimated time of arrival (ETA). When road users are asked about their experience of congestion, both in surveys and in discussion, the evidence from their responses indicates that the uncertainty of journey time is a more important adverse consequence than lower speed. Accordingly, an important benefit of digital navigation is the forecast of ETA in the light of prevailing traffic conditions on the selected route, in this way substantially reducing journey time uncertainty.

While diversion onto less congested routes may be helpful for users of digital navigation, there is a question as to whether this is optimal for users of the road network as a whole. Digital navigation employs proprietary algorithms whose performance is difficult to assess externally. An algorithm might response to build up of congestion by diverting all traffic to a single alternative route until that became congested, repeating the process to spread traffic across available routes until congestion abated. Or the algorithm might spread traffic across all available routes at the outset. And the algorithm might anticipate the build-up of congestion based on historic experience. But in any event, the routing algorithm used by one provider would not take account of the activities of another provider. The providers of digital navigation services are very secretive and there is almost no published information on their design and performance.

The road system is generally well regulated to achieve safety and efficiency. Given the potential scale of impact of digital navigation devices on network operations, arguably a licensing regime would be appropriate for providers. This might require information to be exchanged with road authorities, guidance to be accepted to avoid adverse environmental and social impacts, and mutual collaboration to optimise the operational efficiency of the network as a whole, while at the same time optimising the experience of individual road users.

This blog post is the text of an article in Local Transport Today.

Cycling is widely advocated as a desirable means of travel – healthier, cheaper, more environmentally friendly and barely slower than the car for short-to-medium length trips. The Government seeks a step-change increase in cycling with £2 billion new funding, as a cost-effective way of reducing transport carbon emissions.

Certainly, there is substantial scope to increase cycling by investment in better infrastructure, witness Copenhagen with dedicated cycle lanes on all major roads, where 28% of all trips are by bike, compared with 2.5% in London. So when, at the outset of the pandemic, the Mayor of London announced his ambition to increase cycling by tenfold, you could see that this should be possible with the requisite investment. However, when you’re in Copenhagen, you are aware of the considerable amount of general traffic (and viewing Scandi noir crime dramas set in that city, you see very few of the characters using a bike). In fact, with 32% of all trips by car, Copenhagen is only slightly less car-dependent than London with 35%.

Aside from cycling, the other big difference between these two capital cities is that public transport use in Copenhagen is only half that of London, 19% versus 36% of trips. This indicates that you can get people off the buses onto bikes, but that it is much harder to get them out of their cars, even in a small, flat city with excellent cycling facilities where almost everyone has experience of safe cycling. Yet we don’t want to diminish the use of buses, which are an efficient means of moving people in urban areas, the diesel engines of which can be replaced by electric or hydrogen propulsion. Fewer bus passengers mean less fare revenue and less frequent services.

Data for other European cities indicate that Amsterdam is similar to Copenhagen, with 32% of trips by bike and 17% by public transport. In marked contrast, both Zurich and Vienna have excellent public transport responsible for 40% of trips, with cycling accounting for only 7-8%. More generally, while the pattern of urban travel reflects both local geography and history, we don’t find cities in developed economies with high mode shares of both cycling and public transport.

In seeking to reduce transport carbon emissions, we should be careful not to underestimate the attractions of the motorcar, which is useful for longer journeys and for shorter trips with less sweat, for carrying people and goods, including child seats and the stuff left permanently in the boot. The car is well-suited for meeting our needs for access to people and places, for door-to-door travel where there is road space to drive without unacceptable congestion delays and the ability to park at both ends of the trip.

But there is more to car ownership than the ability to go from A to B. The growth in popularity of SUVs suggest that there are feel-good factors that motivate purchase of these costly vehicles (it would be interesting to see the findings of the market research carried out by the car manufacturers, regrettably proprietary). The fact that cars are generally parked for 95% of the time is a good economic argument for car sharing. But conversely, this also indicates the value we place on individual ownership, to have vehicle available when we want it, a vehicle that reflects our personal consumer preferences. Cars are not unique in this respect. My washing machine sits unused more than 95% of the time. I could share with others at the laundrette, but it’s more convenient to have my own.

Car sharing in its various forms is advocated as a means to reduce car use, road traffic congestion and carbon emissions. Sharing has been facilitated by online digital platforms, which have been transformative of many aspects of the economy. For travel, we have the disruptive impact of ride-hailing as exemplified by Uber, and of online booking of trips by rail and air. By contrast, the growth of car sharing has been relatively slow, indicating the development of niche markets, with substantial replacement of private ownership looking unlikely.

Where road capacity limits car use in city centres, both public transport and active travel are attractive alternative modes. Agglomeration economics have led to increased population density in successful cities, which shifts travel away from the car. The growth of higher education in urban centres has contributed to reduced car use by young adults.  However, these trends may weaken post-Brexit and post-Covid. And while car use can be impeded in low traffic neighbourhoods in favour of cycling and walking, the aggregate impact may not be great.

We need to be careful to avoid optimism bias when projecting the impact of measures to reduce transport carbon emissions. The models that are used for this purpose are complex and opaque, with many input assumptions and parameters to be specified. Optimism bias arises when modellers make choices, consciously or unconsciously, that tend towards achieving a strategic purpose. Yet optimism bias leads to outcomes that fall short of those that are forecast. 

It is now part of the culture of transport planning to place emphasis on the opportunities for promoting cycling. But caution is needed. When addressing the impact of changing mode share, attention should be paid to the modes from which the shift to cycling is expected. For instance, the well-established Propensity to Cycle Tool, which assesses the potential to increase the amount of cycling, assumes that commuters are equally likely to shift to cycling from any prior mode. However, the evidence from Copenhagen and elsewhere indicates that a shift to cycling from public transport is much more likely than from car use, which would substantially reduce the carbon reduction benefits assumed from boosting cycling.

If optimism bias informs assumptions about mode shift from cars to bikes, or about the scope for car sharing, then disappointment is likely to ensue.

The House of Commons Transport Committee is holding an inquiry into zero emission vehicles and road pricing. I submitted evidence set out below.

Main points

  • There is a case for road pricing both to replace fuel duty revenues lost as ZEVs replace conventional vehicles and to help manage road traffic congestion.
  • The charge for road use might comprise two elements: one generating a revenue stream for the Exchequer and another for the local authority, which would allow substantial devolution of responsibilities for transport provision.
  • There would be attractions in the incremental introduction of national road pricing, building on the successful congestion charging arrangements in London.

Rationale for road pricing

The move to ZEVs will result in the loss of revenue from road fuel duty, as well as from VED were ZEVs to remain zero rated. Revenue from the former amounts to some £28 billion a year and from the latter some £6 billion. This prompts consideration of some form charging for road use to make up the loss.

The case for zero VED for electric vehicles (EVs) is to incentivise their uptake, a reason that will become irrelevant as the capital cost of EVs falls and as sales of new conventional vehicles are phased out. So, in due course VED could be applied to road vehicles generally, and if set at a rather higher rate could cover the annual cost of capital and current expenditure on national and local roads of £8 billion, obviating the need for road pricing to ensure that drivers pay for the roads they use.

One argument some make for road pricing is that without fuel taxation or a similar charge related to distance travelled, the running costs of EVs would be substantially lower than that of conventional vehicles, which would result in more miles travelled and thus more congestion, carbon emissions and other externalities. One scenario of the Department for Transport’s (DfT) 2018 Road Traffic Forecasts illustrates this expectation[1]. However, in recent years the average distance travelled by car has remained stable, being limited by the time available for travel, the speed of travel and the proportion of households owning cars, none of which have increased in this century. It is therefore not to be expected that the replacement of the internal combustion engine by the electric motor would have much impact on vehicle use.

Another argument for road pricing is to alleviate road traffic congestion, the intention of the London congestion charge. Experience has shown that reduction of congestion is quite limited at the level of charging typically employed, particularly in a prosperous city like London where many are able to afford the charge[2]. Charging for road use benefits those who can readily afford to pay by displacing those who are less able, generating increased inequalities in use of the road network that historically has been a relatively egalitarian domain. Nevertheless, congestion relief is in principle a possible aim of the road pricing regime, although the magnitude of the charge would need to reflect both the level of congestion and affordability in the locality if congestion is to be effectively ameliorated. Related to this is charging polluting vehicles, as in London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), the rationale for which will diminish over time as EVs are increasingly used, yet which may remain relevant in respect on non-tailpipe particulate releases from vehicles.

Revenue from the London congestion charge and the ULEZ are retained by the city authority, as are charges for low emission zones planned elsewhere, ring-fenced for expenditure on transport services, and likewise revenues from parking charges. A national scheme for road user charging might comprise revenues both for the Exchequer as well as for local authorities, the latter setting levels of charges to reflect local conditions, including congestion and other environmental impacts of traffic, as well the need for revenues for road maintenance. There would be attractions in allowing local authorities to set their share of the road user charge to cover the full cost of local transport provision, obviating the need for grants from the DfT (other than perhaps for ‘rebalancing’ purposes). The Exchequer element of the charge could depend on the type of road, for instance higher for motorways that are funded nationally, and could vary by region to aid ‘rebalancing’ policies.

Introduction of road pricing

There would be attractions in introducing road pricing for EVs alone, on the rationale that they should pay their fair share of the costs of the road network that conventional vehicles are paying via fuel duty. However, the lower operating costs of EVs are a necessary incentive to purchase while capital costs remain higher. As capital costs fall, as is expected, scope would develop to charge users of EVs by introducing a road pricing regime from which conventional vehicles were exempt.

Introduction of general road pricing on top of fuel duty would be invidious for lower income motorists who are likely to continue to use conventional vehicles for longer than the better off. Accordingly, one possibility would be to introduce a general road pricing system but crediting conventional vehicles with the fuel duty they pay. This is the basis of a voluntary pilot scheme in Oregon[3]. Because this scheme is voluntary, uptake is incremental, in contrast to an obligatory scheme that would have to be imposed all at once.

It is worth considering options for incremental roll-out of national road pricing, given the potential difficulties of overnight national implementation of charging and enforcement technologies. In London, the existing congestion charging system functions sufficiently well and is publicly acceptable, but its scope is limited by the fixed charge for entering the charging zone.

There are a number of incremental developments of the London scheme that might be feasible:

  • Encourage participation via a smartphone app by offering a discount from the standard daily charge;
  • Take advantage of location awareness of smartphones to identify when the user is both in a vehicle registered for the charge and in the charging zone, backed up by camera enforcement as at present;
  • Encourage entry and exit from the charging zone outside times of peak congestion by offering a discount from the standard daily charge;
  • Increase the standard charge but offer discounts to encourage use when and where traffic is less congested;
  • Extend the charging to other areas of London where congestion is a problem;
  • Make the charging and enforcement systems available to other cities that wished to manage local traffic, incentivised by the revenues that could be used to provide alternatives modes of travel to the car.

Once a number of cities were using road pricing, there would exist the basis for national adoption in the form of an established charging system, which would need to be supported by the national roll-out of camera enforcement (unless a better enforcement system could be devised). This would be accompanied by the reduction and eventual abolition of road fuel duty, perhaps with the public assurance of no net increase in revenues from road users. There would need to be a daily penalty charge for those evading payment for road use, which, if not paid when requested, might be added to the annual VED charge, failure to pay which could result in clamping.

Whichever way to bring it about, a decision to adopt national road pricing would need to be strategic, commanding wide acquiescence, analogous to the decision to phase out internal combustion engine vehicles.

Conclusion

Adoption of a scheme of national road pricing would allow loss of revenue to the Exchequer from road fuel duty to be offset. A scheme that generated revenues for both central government and local authorities would allow substantial devolution to the latter of responsibilities for funding the provision of their transport services in the light of local needs. A national road pricing scheme might be developed incrementally from the congestion charging arrangements in London.

21 January 2021


[1] Department for Transport, Road Traffic Forecasts 2018, Scenario 7.

[2] Metz, D. Tackling urban traffic congestion: The experience of London, Stockholm and Singapore. Case Studies on Transport Policy, 6(4), 494-498, 2018.

[3] https://www.myorego.org/

Below are the main points and implications of my analysis of the outcome of widening of the M25 motorway between Junctions 23 and 27, published as ‘Economic benefits of road widening’, Transportation Research Part A, 147, 312-319, 2021. Abstract available at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0965856421000872 Manuscript available from david.metz@ucl.ac.uk

  • The M25 motorway was widened between Junctions 23 and 27 as part of the Smart Motorway investment programme implemented by Highways England. Detailed traffic monitoring reports were published before the scheme was opened and for three years afterwards.
  • There was some increase in traffic speeds at Year One after opening, compared with Before opening, but this gain was lost subsequently account of increased volumes of traffic. At Year Three, average daily traffic was up by 16% compared with Before, and up 23% at weekends. This contrasts with an increase of 7% for regional motorway traffic growth.  
  • The conclusion of the Year Three monitoring report states: ‘These results show that increases in capacity have been achieved, moving more goods, people and services, while maintaining journey times at pre-scheme levels and slightly improving reliability.’ However, this could not have been the basis of the investment case, which in general suppose that travel time savings are the main benefit of transport infrastructure investment. Accordingly, reports of the traffic and economic modelling were obtained; these utilised the long-established SATURN and TUBA models.
  • The traffic model projected increased traffic volumes and speeds for the scheme opening year, comparing the ‘do something’ investment case with the ‘do minimum’ case without the investment. However, the increase in traffic volume was less than the observed outturn and the increase in speed forecast failed to materialise beyond the first year after opening.
  • The modelled economic benefits derived very largely from time savings for business users. There were also time savings for local users, commuters and others, but these were almost entirely offset by increased vehicle operating costs. This was the consequence of local users rerouting trips between unchanged origins and destinations to take advantage of short journey times made possible by diverting to the motorway, travelling somewhat greater distances.
  • The benefits forecast for business users were the main input to the economic appraisal that generated a benefit-cost ratio of 2.9, which was the basis for the investment decision. However, the time savings benefits did not materialise beyond the first year after opening, on account of the additional traffic above forecast.
  • The nature of this additional traffic cannot be deduced from the traffic monitoring. It is likely that much, possibly most, comprises local trips rerouting, of no net economic benefit; indeed, these trips would be of negative benefit on account of the additional externalities (carbon etc) arising from the increased distance travelled. The outturn BCR must be much less than the forecast 2.9, possibly even negative.
  • This M25 case is likely to be typical in that the Strategic Road Network comes under greatest stress in or near major urban centres where local traffic competes for carriageway with long distance users. Highways England has 10 smart motorway schemes in its current investment programme, with an average BCR estimated as 2.4. This likely reflects considerable optimism bias in the modelling.
  • The modelling to support decision making distinguishes between different classes of road user, yet the traffic monitoring does not allow such a distinction. The monitoring is therefore of limited use in refining the models and countering optimism bias. What is needed is monitoring of representative samples of road users over time to see how their travel behaviour changes as the result of the road investment. Such longitudinal studies, as they are known, are common in the areas of health and social sciences, but almost unknown for travel and transport.

Recent revisions to the road traffic statistics appear to show that there has been a substantial growth of motor vehicle traffic on GB minor roads in recent years, from 108 to 136 billion vehicle miles between 2010 and 2019, an increase of 26%. Traffic on major roads rose from 197 to 221 bvm over the same period, an increase of 12%.  (DfT Road Traffic Statistics TRA0102).

Road traffic statistics are based on a combination of automatic and manual traffic counts. Major roads are well covered in that traffic in all links is counted on typical days, although not every link in every year. Given the vast number of minor roads, however, it is only possible to count traffic at a representative sample of locations every year, and the observed growth is applied to minor road traffic overall. Estimates from a fixed sample may drift over time such that the sample becomes less representative of the changing minor road network. To account for any errors incurred in the fixed sample, the sample is revised through a benchmarking exercise every decade, involving a much larger sample of locations.

The most recent minor roads benchmarking exercise was published in 2020, based on 10,000 representative locations. Overall, the benchmark adjustment for 2010-2019 was 1.19, which is the factor to be applied to 2019 data from the original sample to bring this to the observed traffic level. Data for minor roads traffic for intermediate years are adjusted pro rata, to avoid a step change in the reported traffic data. There is significant regional variation in the adjustment factor, from 1.35 for Yorkshire to 1.09 for East of England, with London at 1.32. For B roads the factor is 1.25, for C roads 1.17; while for urban roads, 1.22, and for rural roads, 1.15. Applying the regional weightings yields an increase in traffic on minor roads of 26%, as noted above, whereas the increase based on the original sample would have been 6%.

The previous benchmarking exercise published in 2009 found a smaller overall adjustment factor of 0.95, with a regional range of 0.81 to 1.08.

The substantially greater adjustment required following the recent benchmarking, compared with the earlier exercise, suggests that there has been a real change in use of minor roads, beyond errors arising from drift in the sample. Importantly, had the increase in minor road use been spread evenly across the national road network, the traffic estimation based on the sample would have been close to that from the benchmark exercise. Hence the major difference between sample and benchmark indicates considerable heterogeneity of minor road traffic growth. Moreover, the fact that the sample failed to detect the traffic growth suggests either that the process for establishing the sample was deficient in some way, or that significant changes occurred in use of minor roads over a decade.

DfT statisticians have created a revised minor roads representative sample (4,400 locations) from the latest benchmark data, which will be used for the coming decade. It would be desirable to have comparative analysis of the previous and the new samples, to gain insight into what has been happening on the minor road network. Regrettably, the statisticians only report findings, and do not attempt to explain them, which leaves uncertainty as to the nature and cause of the reported changes to traffic volumes. The representative nature of the new sample must be questionable if the reasons for the failure of the previous sample to reflect reality are not understood and addressed.

Transport for London has recognised this uncertainty. The recent Travel in London Report 13 discusses the implications of the minor roads traffic correction (p92). The revisions mean that, for 2018, the DfT estimate of vehicle kilometres was 20% higher than previously reported last year (and included in Travel in London Report 12). The previous estimate suggested a fall of 1.8% in vehicle kilometres in London between 2009 and 2018, whereas the revised series now suggests an increase of 17.9% over the same time period, this change wholly arising from revisions to the minor road estimates. TfL notes that it is currently working through how the DfT have made this assessment, and also what this could mean for London data sets. For the moment, TfL is relying on its own traffic monitoring data, although it does not report traffic on minor roads separately.

The National Travel Survey could provide a cross-check on the traffic data. Average distance travelled by car/van driver decreased from 3388 miles per year in 2010 to 3198 miles in 2019, a decline of 5.6% (NTS0303). The GB population grew from 60.95m in 2010 to 64.90m in 2019, an increase of 6.5%. The net increase in car use of about one percent is inconsistent with the new road traffic statistics which show an increase in traffic for all roads of 17% over the same period. The NTS employs a fresh sample of respondents each year, so sample drift should not be a concern. However, it is not clear that the travel diary technique would pick up rerouting to minor roads, given that respondents are asked to provide their own estimates of distance travelled for each trip.

Possible causes of increase in traffic on minor roads

One factor contributing to the growth of traffic on minor roads is the increase in van traffic, including that arising from the growth of online shopping with home deliveries. The number of vans (light commercial vehicles) registered in Britain increased by 28% between 2010 and 2019. Total van traffic increased by 34% over this period, with an increase of 49% on urban minor roads compared with 10% on urban ‘A’ roads, although ‘delivery/collection of goods’ was less important in respect of journey purpose than ‘carrying equipment, tools or materials’. However, in 2019 van traffic amounted to 15% of traffic on urban minor roads, and 19% on rural minor roads, cars being responsible for 82% and 78% of traffic respectively. So, the growth of van traffic on minor roads is responsible for only part of the overall traffic growth on these roads.

Another possible explanation of the apparent large growth of traffic on minor roads is the widespread use of digital navigation (satnav) that offers routes that take account of traffic conditions and estimated journey times. Such devices make possible the general use of minor roads that previously were largely confined to those with local knowledge. This is likely to occur when major roads are congested and represents an effective increase in the capacity of the road network, so generating additional traffic – the converse of the ‘disappearance’ of traffic when carriageway is reduced. Increased use of minor roads is problematic when policy is concerned to decarbonise the transport system and to promote active travel, which these roads facilitate.

The possible role of digital navigation might be investigated by an analysis of the correlation of the upward adjustment factor for each minor road sample location with traffic volumes on nearby major roads – to test the hypothesis that there would be more use of minor roads in areas where major roads were most congested. If so, this factor should be taken into account when setting up the new minor roads sample for the coming decade.

The use of digital navigation has been growing and may continue to grow in the future. A better understanding of the phenomenon would be important for forecasting road traffic growth by means of the National Transport Model and models at regional level and below.

A further possible cause of the changed distribution of traffic on minor roads arises from intentional interventions aimed at reducing such traffic. It has long been the practice to discourage ‘rat running’ on urban minor roads by means of suitable physical control measures, as are used in low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTN). Such measures would reduce traffic in certain locations while possibly increasing it in others through diversion. Some locations in the minor roads sample may be so affected. If LTNs and similar measures increase over time, the sample may become increasingly unrepresentative, a factor that should be taken into account in setting up the new sample. However, the net effect of intentional interventions would be to reduce traffic overall, so this cannot account for the reported growth of traffic on minor roads.

The growth of minor road use by through traffic apparently facilitated by digital navigation would strengthen the case for implementing LTN measures. Alternatively, or additionally, the providers of digital navigation might be encouraged to omit routes that direct through traffic along minor roads.

More generally, the impact of digital navigation on the functioning of the whole road network seems likely to be significant and therefore worthy of investigation.

The above considerations prompt a number of questions:

  1. How reliable are the statistics for motor vehicle use of minor roads, given the apparent sensitivity to the sampling of locations?
  2. How reliable are the NTS findings for car use?
  3. What information is available on the likely causes of the increase of traffic on minor roads?
  4. What is known of the impact of digital navigation on the road network?
  5. What are the implications of digital navigation for transport and traffic modelling?

Summary

The reported increase in motor vehicle traffic on minor roads over the past ten years is substantial and locationally heterogenous, for reasons that are unclear. This lack of understanding raises methodological questions about the sampling of minor roads. The reported increase in traffic is not consistent with the findings of the National Travel Survey, as well as being of concern to Transport for London. While interventions to reduce traffic on urban minor roads may increase the heterogeneity of the sample, they would not increase the volume of traffic. Hence this increase is most likely due to the growing use of digital navigation devices that allow minor roads to be used by those without local knowledge. This has implication for transport modelling as well as for policies to decarbonise the transport system and encourage active travel.

This blog post is the text of an article published in Local Transport Today 19 March 2021

I have a new paper on how time constraints affect our travel behaviour. The link to the journal is here. Some copies are free to download here. The manuscript is here. The abstract is below.

Considerable observational evidence indicates that travel time, averaged across a population, is stable at about an hour a day. This implies both an upper and a lower bound to time that can be expended on travel. The upper bound explains the self-limiting nature of road traffic congestion, as well as the difficulty experienced in attempting mitigation: the prospect of delays deters some road users, who are attracted back following interventions aimed at relieving congestion. The lower bound implies that time savings cannot be the main economic benefit of transport investment, which means that conventional transport economic appraisal is misleading. In reality, the main benefit for users is increased access to desired destinations, made possible by faster travel, which is the origin of induced traffic. Access is subject to saturation, consistent with evidence of travel demand saturation. However, access is difficult to monetise for inclusion in cost-benefit analysis. Consequential uplift in real estate values may be a more practical way of estimating access benefits, which is relevant to the possibility of capturing part of such uplift to help fund transport investment that enhances such access.

The Climate Change Committee has published a comprehensive and impressive analysis of how to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. This includes a detailed treatment of surface transport, currently responsible for 22% of UK Greenhouse gas emissions, the absolute amount having changed little since 1990, stable in the range 110-120 MtCO2e annually. Cars account for 61% of surface transport emissions. Three options are proposed to secure emissions reduction:

Reducing demand for car travel by a variety of social and technological changes, including increased home working, online shopping, increased car occupancy though shared mobility, a shift to active travel and public transport, and more fuel-efficient driving.

Improving conventional vehicle fuel efficiency through regulation of road vehicle performance, use of biofuels, and more rail electrification.

Widespread deployment of electric vehicles (EVs) with the uptake of new battery EVs to reach 90-100% by 2030, in line with the government’s intention to phase out sales of new conventional cars and vans by that date. Driving range is expected to improve as battery technology advances. Sufficient charging infrastructure would be needed for the 30% of car users without access to off-street parking, as well as rapid charging for longer trips. The electricity supply system will need reinforcement.

The CCC has modelled the quantitative requirements associated with these options to show that it is possible to reduce surface transport emissions to 32 MtCO2e in 2035 and to 0.9 MtCO2e in 2050. The largest contribution comes from EVs. There are of course multiple uncertainties, many of which have been modelled.

The question is to what extent it will be possible to follow this emissions reduction pathway without measures beyond those already planned. Will it be necessary to create stronger incentives, for instance through more subsidy for EV charging facilities, or by making conventional vehicles more costly to operate through increased taxation? Changing relative prices can be a powerful incentive to change behaviour. It has not been helpful that public transport fares have risen much faster in recent years than the cost of motoring, in part due to a freeze on the rate of road fuel duty since 2010, reflecting perceived political sensitivities.

I am not optimistic about the practical possibilities that would increase the cost of car use, even for the virtuous cause of tackling climate change. We will have to make the most of regulation, the costs of which are more opaque, to effect the necessary changes.

The RAC Foundation has published a report on how information can be conveyed to drivers via connected vehicles. This assessed representative possibilities including In-Vehicles Signage (IVS) to display road signs and warnings to the driver inside the vehicle, and Green Light Optimal Speed Advisory (GLOSA) which tells drivers what speed to adopt to pass through the next set of traffic signals on green. The report discussed the obstacles to implementing these technologies, which it suggested arise mostly from organisational, institutional and human issues.

What was not adequately considered was the elephant in the room – the existing digital navigation (satnav) services, whether available free of charge as smartphone apps (Google Maps, Waze and others) or embedded as an integral part of the vehicle equipment. While the report mentions satnav devices as already providing some signage information, it envisages that a key element of the IVS concept is the ability for highway authorities to communicate directly with drivers, so that they can give them information they want them to receive (for example hazard warnings), as opposed to a satnav provider generating messages themselves.

Yet given the widespread use of digital navigation, it seems likely that the prime deciders of what information is conveyed to drivers will continue to be the satnav providers, not the highway authorities. The latter would need to make timely information available to the former if drivers are to benefit. But while highway authorities are subject to statutory regulation, providers of digital navigation are unregulated and are free to choose what information to provide to road users.

More generally, digital navigation has transformed how very many motorists use the road network, particularly for occasional, as opposed to regular, journeys. A choice of routes is offered at the outset of the trip, with estimated journey times, which mitigates the main perceived problem with traffic congestion – the uncertainty of time of arrival. Alternatives may be offered en route in response to the build-up of congestion. However, because the service providers of digital navigation are very secretive about their methodologies, we have little idea of the impact of their guidance on the overall functioning of the road network. For instance, we do not know if the rerouting in response to a crash on a motorway is optimal for users of the whole road network, or for drivers responding to the advice, or for neither.

There have been many anecdotal reports of digital navigation resulting in problematic use of minor roads (‘rat running’). While traffic on A and B class roads in London has been broadly stable since the mid-1990s, traffic on C roads, which had also previously been stable, increased from 5.4 billion miles in 2009 to 9.3 billion in 2019, suggestive of substantial impact of digital navigation devices.

There is clearly a case for better coordination between satnav providers and highway authorities to optimise the impact of digital navigation for all road users and to minimise environmental harms. There is in fact a legal basis for achieving this, although it has not been put into practice. The Road Traffic (Driver Licencing and Information Systems) Act 1989 requires dynamic route guidance systems that take account of traffic conditions to be licenced by the Secretary of State. This was enacted to facilitate the introduction of a pilot route guidance system that had been developed by the Transport Research Laboratory (then part of the Department for Transport), which in the event was not taken forward. A licence could include conditions concerning roads that should not be used and information to be supplied about traffic conditions.

There is a need for a review of the impact of digital navigation on the functioning of the highway system with a view to identifying ways of benefiting road users. It is very likely that exploiting digital technologies would be far more cost effective than employing costly civil engineering technologies to increase capacity.

The main focus of recent interest in the area of ‘Connected and Autonomous Vehicles’ has been autonomy – driverless cars – where both tech companies and auto manufacturers are attempting to get the technology to the point where it could be used on real roads. In contrast, while the idea of connected vehicles has been around for some years, progress has been slow. There are two kinds of connectedness: vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I); collectively V2X. A recent US webinar and report provided some illumination.

The main motivation of V2X is to improve safety, a real issue in the US where more than 6000 pedestrians a year are killed in traffic-related incidents. The aim is to enhance visual line of sight communication by using other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.

There are two means of connectivity: WiFi based on a dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) standard approved in 2010 but with little implementation by manufacturers; and a cellular connection (C-V2X), based on smartphone technology, which could connect vehicles directly, independent of the base stations used for normal voice calls. Initially, 4G technology is being used, with the intention to move to the much faster 5G as that is rolled out. The hope is that vehicles will also be able to sense the presence of pedestrians by detecting their smartphones. The V2I capability depends on road authorities being willing to install connectivity in traffic signals and other roadside signs, which they may be reluctant to afford.

Deployment of V2X depends on whether this is mandated by national authorities. The Chinse government is supporting C-V2X. On the other hand, EU states voted against a proposal of the European Commission to adopt a WiFi standard, and the US government has also not supported a similar approach. In the absence of a policy mandate, deployment depends on consumer demand. The VW Golf launched in 2019 has WiFi V2X connectivity. Ford is planning to introduce C-V2X in 2022.

However, consumer interest and willingness to pay for a range of driver assistance and connectivity technologies has remained lukewarm for several years, with substantial levels of ambivalence and even scepticism towards these offerings. Enhanced safety, while desirable, may be insufficient a selling point. And having two technologies in use will not help.

Apart from safety, the other potential use of V2X connectedness would be to increase effective road capacity by permitting shorter headways between autonomous vehicles. This benefit depends on the implementation of robot-driven vehicles with faster reaction times than human drivers. Shorter headways would increase the risk of crashes. Crashes involving autonomous vehicles require allocating responsibilities for fault, more difficult where V2V communication is involved between vehicles of different make under different ownership. Moreover, the benefit from increased road capacity accrues to road authorities more than to road users, so the commercial incentive to develop V2V for this purpose seems quite limited.

Altogether, the case for developing vehicles connectedness does not seem strong.