The Problems with our Transport System

Our current transport system has, quite literally, run out of road. More and more people are realising that the current approach causes harm to people, the environment, and it doesn’t even function well. 

One this page we look at the problems of the current transport system, and the evidence, in more depth.

See the Solutions: What are the the Alternatives?

1. Climate Change

The climate crisis is now frequently producing violent storms, floods and wildfires in the UK and worldwide, and still worsening. Transport is the largest sector in the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, and unlike other sectors, has not decarbonised significantly.

Transport is now the largest sector in the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, and unlike energy supply and business, has not decarbonised significantly, only falling significantly during the 2007-2010 recession and the 2020-2021 pandemic (Figure 6).

The Government’s Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions statistical release (Feb 23) notes “Road transport is the most significant source of emissions in this sector, in particular passenger cars”. The high fraction is clear from Figure 8 in that report and was 91% in 2021.

Provisional figures for 2022 indicate that Transport will see the highest GHG emissions growth of any sector, as recovery from Covid continued.

Uk Ghg By Sector To 2021 Beis 2023 Report
Uk Ghg From Transport To 2021 Beis 2023 Report

2. Road Casualties

We all have a right to travel safely. But 5 people killed and 76 seriously injured on UK roads every day is an unacceptable and unnecessary price to pay for our mobility.

In Great Britain in 2022, 1711 people were killed in road collisions.
There were 28,031 Serious Injuries, and 105,738 slight injuries reported by the police, for a total of 135,480 casualties.

Casualty rates, per mile travelled, which have reduced over decades, have been similar for the last five years.

Casualty Rates To 2022

In Oxfordshire, in recent years there have been about 25 to 30 deaths per year, and 240 serious injuries.

In 2022 there were 24 people killed and 283 serious injuries on Oxfordshire roads. 

Analysis of the vehicles involved in fatal and serious injury collisions shows that most casualties are either in a car, or struck by a car.

Oxfordshire Ksi 2022

3. Physical inactivity

Physical inactivity, often caused by dangerous or unpleasant street environments, causes far more deaths and health problems than the direct casualties. 

Perceptions of road danger or ‘stranger danger’ (both actually at historic lows) have removed freedom from our children to walk or cycle to school, and most people think it is too dangerous to cycle on the roads, reducing levels of physical activity and causing a far greater number of deaths.

Physical inactivity is now linked to 1 in 6 deaths in the UK: 100,000 deaths every year, and costs the UK £7.4 billion a year

Travel to school has fallen from two-thirds by walking and cycling in the 1980s to about half today. (Credit: Dr Elsa Devienne)

In Oxfordshire, 27% of adults and 53% of children are not meeting NHS activity guidelines.

Travel To School Data History

4. Air pollution

Air pollution causes 28,000-36,000 early deaths each year in the UK. It reduces lung growth in children and causes asthma and other lung and heart problems. 

In Oxford and other cities, air pollution from roads reduces lung growth in children.

Road transport is the biggest source of NOx pollution in Oxford. Transport also contributes about 20% of particulate emissions (PM2.5 and PM10).

Noise pollution is also being recognised as a significant harm to health. In addition to sleep problems leading to fatigue and cognitive impairment, it keeps the body in a state of stress, damaging the cardiovascular system and leading to heart disease. 

5. Congestion

Traffic congestion – jams – has been a persistent problem in our towns and cities, causing problems for decades. It has been identified as one of the two major threats to the Oxfordshire economy.

Even with all the harms produced, the current road transport system does not function well.

Roads are choked with single occupancy cars (64% in 2022).

Congestion has been a problem in Oxford and Oxfordshire for decades, prompting a TV programme about ‘Cars without chaos’ in 1975, many news articles about jams and ‘nightmare roads’ like these 2013 and 2016 examples.

Congestion was identified as one of the two major threats to the local economy in the 2016 Strategic Economic Plan (the other being housing). With the support of Oxford’s major businesses and the Local Economic Partnership, this led to the development of plans for Traffic Filters, Zero Emissions Zone and Workplace Parking Levy.

Traffic Jam Oxford Ring Road 1986
Traffic jam on the Oxford Ring Road, 1986

6. Public Space

Over a third of space in some cities is used for car  movement and parking limiting space for housing, jobs and people to enjoy.

Three studies in two Scottish cities, probably the closest to Oxford’s situation, found 34% to 41% of space was taken by roads, car-parks and on-street parking.

 A smaller study in Manchester’s centre found 20% of land devoted to roads and parking. 

A US Urbanist looked at several US cities and found numbers from 44% to 65%. In an earlier blog, he looked at a wider range of cities, included parking in ‘Buildable space’ and concluded that 25% would be a reasonable maximum. 

Spaces for road transport have surfaces that that lead to urban heat islands and flooding – worsening with climate change.

7. Inequalities

The benefits and harms are not evenly spread. The wealthy get most of the benefits of running private cars, but the poor suffer more of the pollution and casualties. People may not run a car for many reasons: medical, financial or choice, but they can be excluded from jobs or activities that require a car or pushed into debt by the costs of running a car.

The benefits and harms are not evenly spread. At a simple level, the cost of running a car is now over £2,000 a year (plus the cost of the car) and most people in the lowest income level don’t have one. Across England & Wales, 5.8m households (23%) don’t have a car, mostly in low income families. For
Oxfordshire this is 47,000 (16%), Oxford 18,000 (32%) households. They gain none of the car’s benefits, but suffer all of its harms.

Children living in the most deprived areas are three times as likely to be killed or seriously injured in road collisions than children in the least deprived areas. Similar ratios apply to children killed and injured while cycling or in cars.

 

The pollution from cars is unfairly distributed as well. A study of car use and car emissions found that people living in wealthier areas generated the most emissions, but people living in poorer areas suffered most of the air pollution.

People without a car can be excluded from employment or social activities because many organisations and authorities take a ‘motornormative’ mindset, assuming that a car is available, where for a sizeable fraction of people (including many disadvantaged by income or disability) it is not. About 5 million people are driven into ‘transport poverty’ where they are driven below the poverty line, or ‘car-related economic stress‘ because of the costs of running a car, due to the poor availability of low cost alternatives.

A chart showing Car Ownership by income in decile 2018. The lowest decile ownership is under 40%. The highest decile shows ownership of average 1.8 cars.

It’s going to get worse

If we do nothing, things will get worse. Current plans are for 100,000 new homes in Oxfordshire between 2018 and 2031 and a 15% increase in population, to 831,000.

With current car ownership rates averaging 1.2 cars per household, this would mean another 120,000 cars on the county’s roads.

Chart of Oxfordshire Population Forecast To 2031. Shows growth from 725,000 to 831,000
Electric Car E Car Charging Royalty Free

Will electric cars solve the problem?

No. Electric cars will reduce emissions, but will encourage more driving and make other problems worse. 

Let’s think through our 7 problems. The main thing to remember is that electric vehicles have a high initial cost, but then reduce the cost of driving, so the DfT and other forecasters expect them to increase the amount of traffic

1. Climate change. Electric cars perform better here than fossil fuel powered cars, although still not as well as public transport, cycling or walking. PLUS

2. Road Casualties. With more driving, casualties will increase. What’s more, electric vehicles accelerate faster and are heavier, so are likely to cause more and worse casualties. MINUS

3. Physical inactivity. With more driving, physical inactivity will get worse, and health problems and pressure on the NHS will increase. MINUS

4. Air pollution. Electric vehicles will eliminate tailpipe emissions of Nitrous Oxides and Particulates, which is good news. They will still emit particulates from brake and tyre wear. PLUS

5. Congestion. With more driving, congestion will increase. MINUS

6. Public Space. With more driving, demands for public space will increase. Electric vehicles also need charging – needs that are different to fuelling of fossil powered cars. This may take more or less space in the long-term, but we should avoid poorly designed charging facilities that block pavements. UNSURE

7. Inequalities. Currently electric cars are expensive to buy, but cheap to run, and may have special privileges in Low Emission Zones etc. so they tend to increase inequalities. MINUS

So currently two pluses, and four minuses – electric vehicles an improvement, butnot the solution to every transport problem.

Can we build roads to solve the traffic problem?

No. Building more roads encourages more driving, creating more traffic. Every previous attempt to build our way out of the problem  has just added more traffic, all the way up to the Katy Freeway in Houston, Texas – underwent a $2.8 billion programme to widen it to 23 lanes in places. Three years later it had fallen to ‘The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion’ – induced demand.

Closer to home, a £78 million project to expand a junction on the M6 in the Midlands means that “We’ve got four lanes of chaos now, rather than two lanes of chaos.”

Katy Freeway Houston picture of a wide multi lane American freeway full of traffic.

Solutions: What are the alternatives?

Despite the problems, a positive and less harmful transport system can be built, step-by-step. Here’s how.