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EPIGRAMS associated with the name of Parkinson have an insidious attraction. One which has been attributed, probably incorrectly, to Professor Parkinson himself, is that traffic expands to fill the road space available. The conclusion from this alarming premise is that the construction of new roads is a vain pursuit, and aggravates the problem it is supposed to solve.
Further strength for the assumption comes from the genuine copybook maxim that nature abhors a vacuum. There is also an element of truth. Motorways have encouraged more frequent journeys, for example, by Londoners in the family car to such places as the Lake District. A broad 16-lane highway stretching into the heart of London would be choked with the cars of commuters the morning after the official opening.
There is no evidence that this is a universal reaction. Road traffic cannot usefully be compared to an insidious liquid which drips or flows continuously day and night in order to reach its own level. On the most congested roads there are times when not a vehicle is in sight.
Economic as well as topographical limits play their part. Obviously, the extent of the use of the commercial vehicle depends upon the demand for it. The empty lorry is a moving reproach to the operator. He is more zealous than the conservationist to reduce the frequency of its appearance.
Public passenger transport is rarely used solely for pleasure except perhaps by children on school holidays armed with a cheapday ticket and determined to get the maximum mileage out of their investment. Only motoring is enjoyed on any considerable scale entirely or mainly for its own sake. If it were possible to isolate and then to forbid this merely idle use of the roads, there would be widespread approval; but it probably represents only a modest proportion of total road traffic, certainly in the areas where the main problems arise.
The attempt to correlate road capacity and road use can go little further than a general statement that some goods and passenger transport will be stimulated, largely because it is made feasible, by road construction or improvement. To deplore this development is to deplore the natural expansion of trade and commerce and the widening of the horizons of the ordinary motorist and passenger.
Logically, the motorist provides the main target. He has come under attack in the annual report of the London Transport Executive. It complains that there was a substantial curtailment of bus services last year because of worsening traffic congestion.
"It does seem inevitable," says the report, "that eventually some fairly drastic measures will have to be taken to reduce the amount of traffic on roads in London, and not only in central London." The main suggestion is that the number of private cars in London should be cut by two-fifths.
The leader of the GLC, Sir Reginald Goodwin, has gone one step further and marked down the lorry as well as the car for persecution. "The GLC is convinced," he is reported to have said, "that the only way to make London's roads safer and quieter is by devoting more resources to public transport, restricting commuter cars and excluding the very large commercial vehicles. We shall dispense with major roadbuilding and instead devote the GLC's efforts and resources to expanding public transport."
Perhaps this is not the sort of thing Londoners are expecting from the GLC they have just elected. "Considerable resources" were in any case devoted to public transport in London last year. There were Government grants of £22m, to which the GLC added £9.7m. Few objections were heard, and they will be no more numerous when future grants are made.
But the motorist had expected that there would also be "resources" available for his convenience, although he is resigned to some increase in restriction. The commercial operator has an even stronger case. It seems odd to couple his exclusion with the cessation of road building. He must have an alternative route which only some new construction can provide.
Bus lanes He might also be given permission to use at least some of the special bus lanes. This would reduce what otherwise seems a waste of scarce road space, and leave more room for whatever number of cars the GLC allows to remain in London.
The London Transport report gives the hope — which Sir Reginald has apparently made a certainty — of no increase in fares this year. There will be no net savings to the public if new restrictions on lorries force up transport costs and therefore the price of most commodities. Savings on passenger and on goods transport costs are of equal importance to everybody except the GLC.
It was only 10 years ago that the preface by the Crowther Steering Group to the Buchanan report on Traffic in Towns declared that "a car-owning electorate will not stand for a severe restriction, and even if a severe restriction could be got onto the Statute Book it would be almost impossible to enforce". At the time it seemed merely another copybook maxim. The GLC apparently is now prepared to put it to the test.