Current traffic management policy is seriously flawed, adding to congestion, encouraging dangerous driving, increasing fuel consumption and emissions, and costing vehicle operators and tax payers a fortune, a new report from the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) has suggested.

The ‘command and control’ approach adopted throughout much of the UK has brought about a massive rise in the number of traffic lights, 20mph speed limits, speed cameras, traffic calming measures, parking controls, and lanes reserved for buses and cyclists in the last 20 years, the report pointed out.

Such measures have not only slowed traffic down and reduced road capacity but imposed high costs on road users and the wider economy, while failing to produce any clear reduction in accidents or emissions, said the IEA report.

Traffic lights, for example, require frequent braking and acceleration and force a motorist’s eyes off the road ahead; while speed bumps can increase wear on tyres and suspensions, it stressed.

TfL’s approach in the capital was singled out for particular criticism, the report suggesting that by TfL’s own admission, schemes such as the flagship East-West cycle superhighway and London LEZ were poor-value schemes offering little or no real economic benefit.

“The fact that TfL implements such poor-value schemes suggests that politics and ideology override economic logic,” the IEA report stated.

Shared space

Recent ‘shared space’ trials, by contrast  – in which enforced controls are replaced with a system based on self-control – restore individual responsibility and do more to achieve safe speeds, mutual tolerance, cooperation, and compliance without resentment.

Calling for institutional reform, the report noted that “an economically rational transport policy would prioritise the removal of standard traffic controls where it is clear the costs outweigh the benefits”.

It conceded, however, that there was considerable resistance to change, including from firms supplying some of the equipment and systems used to manage traffic; and from local, regional, national and even EU authorities with a “vested interest” in maintaining the status quo for the sake of jobs, salaries, status and even, in the case of parking restrictions, the revenues produced.

Garrett Emmerson, TfL’s chief operating officer for surface transport, rejected the report’s findings, stressing that traffic lights “help to balance the need of all road users, enhance safety and keep traffic moving”; pointing out that the increase in bus lanes in recent years simply reflected growing demand for this mode of transport in the capital.

He also suggested that tools like cameras and speed humps were “essential to prevent motorists from dangerously speeding, particularly in areas where vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists would otherwise be at risk”.

Joint author Martin Cassini told he hadn’t been expecting a warm reception for the IEA report “because turkeys don’t vote for Christmas”. But, he predicted: “The tide of reform will win in the end.”