How to make the traffic flow

A C Graylingthinks his scheme for London's cars is better than Ken Livingstone's

London was once the most comfortable of the "world metropolises" to live in. Now it is the least comfortable. It still has its parks, squares, museums and theatres, its fruit and flower stalls, and its streets dedicated to bookshops, jewellers and tailors. Its localisation into characterful urban villages almost remains, although the absurd price of property is fast homogenising them into single-income ghettos.

But what is ruining London, making it an increasingly difficult, time-consuming place to live in, is the problem of traffic and public transport. The problem is only partly a matter of the increased number of cars in the capital; far more significant is the lunatic traffic-management policies run by London's borough councils. And Mayor Ken Livingstone's plans for traffic and "congestion charging" in the capital are about to make things much worse.

Central to borough traffic policies is the strategy of confining traffic to main routes, by closing minor routes, narrowing carriageways, and increasing the number of one-way streets. Routing traffic on to relatively few main roads causes huge congestion, long delays and high levels of pollution along the chosen routes. It thereby loses the capital's economy millions of pounds annually in wastage of man-hours.

The planners fail to recognise that traffic is not inanimate stuff which obeys simple laws of flow dynamics. Traffic is intelligent. If drivers see problems ahead, they divert. If a route is difficult for several days running, they seek alternatives. Left to itself, traffic usually noses its way into reasonably free-running configurations.

If, besides, carriageways are wide enough to sustain flow, are free of obstructions and constrictions, and do not carry every kind of vehicle from bus to bicycle, the flow will be easier.

London's planners should be seeking imaginative solutions to ease congestion - such as smart traffic lights with simple computerised sensors that can assess volumes of traffic approaching junctions, and alter their own timings. Traffic lights should also give all approaching buses a green light.

The Continental system of traffic, giving way to pedestrians on nearside turns, would remove the need for a junction's lights remaining red to allow pedestrian movement. This would save hours of waiting time at traffic lights every year. And last, traffic wardens should not be bounty-paid tax collectors, as they are at present, but facilitators of traffic movement, as they once were.

It would be good, too, to tempt drivers on to public transport. Imagine if public transport were frequent, clean, cheap and quick. Imagine if buses and Tubes were not miserably crammed at rush hour. Such imaginings could become reality only if public transport were to get the investment it needs. Reprising the railway privatisation debacle is not the smart way about this.

One source of extra funding could be the congestion charging proposed for London - but not, repeat not, Ken Livingstone's inept and unfair proposal, which will divide Londoners, to the advantage of those inside the charmed limit, and the disadvantage of the less well-off who live outside it.

A simple and sensible alternative form of congestion charging is this: everyone who lives within the London postal districts gets a windscreen sticker to say so, and pays an annual charge for having a car in the capital. Anyone who lives outside London and does not have this sticker has to buy a day-permit, or a season permit, to drive within the London postal district area; and the price for this should be considerably higher. A car found within the postal-district limits lacking either a London sticker or a permit gets fined.

The logic of this is obvious. One has only to look at the traffic jams inching along motorways into London every morning to see that the city's congestion is not due to people who live in London. It is not Londoners who should be hit, but the thousands of people who drive in from outside. These drivers, however, deserve consideration in the public transport sphere, too: revenue from congestion charging should be applied also to commuter facilities.

Another thought concerns the excessively punitive nature of clampings and towings-away of cars. Someone should test this point in court, for it is arguably a grossly disproportionate response to someone's overstaying a parking meter to have the delay, loss of earnings, inconvenience, fine and release fee - all of it amounting to a considerable charge - for so minor a matter.

Ask any of London's 20,000 cabbies to tell you about Camden council's lunatic attempt to make Upper St Martin's Lane one-way in the wrong direction, in order to stop traffic moving towards Trafalgar Square from Bloomsbury by any route other than Shaftesbury Avenue. It was a classic example, and a microcosm, of the trend of current policy. It caused such traffic mayhem that drivers had no choice but to break the law in order to get out of hours-long jams. The cabbies' association instituted court proceedings against Camden, and the borough immediately capitulated.

This episode was a portent. As the absurdities of current traffic management mount, so pressure towards civil disobedience by drivers mounts, too. Coercive policies, however savage, will not drive people from their cars while there is no satisfactory public transport alternative; so the more one-way streets and blockages the planners produce, the more likely that drivers will begin to ignore the restrictions and find their own way, come what may. Beware: that day is not far off.