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Thursday, 3 August, 2000, 15:54 GMT 16:54 UK
Congestion: Putting the brakes on

Britons don't own any more cars than our European neighbours, we just seem more willing to block up our motorways by driving them all at the same time. BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley looks at efforts to beat our congestion culture.

Traffic lights on a motorway? Well, not quite on the carriageway, but the signals are being used to control the flow of vehicles onto the M27 near Southampton.

Empty motorway
A dream, surely?
The 3.5m pilot project is the latest initiative to ease the traffic congestion which costs this country 19bn every year, according to the CBI.

Surely you don't need to be a rocket scientist to come up with a plan to get British motorists from A to B more efficiently?

Well, next time you're stuck behind a coachful of leering schoolchildren on the M62 take comfort that the Blue Mountain supercomputer at the top secret Los Alamos nuclear laboratory is on the job.

However, some experts warn we are closer to understanding the creation of our universe than what causes traffic hold-ups.

UK motorway junction
Motorways: Very complicated
Just be thankful the Big Bang didn't happened on a Bank Holiday weekend when a lorry had shed its load of chickens across three lanes.

David Eves of the UK's Transport Research Laboratory says variables, such as weather and driver behaviour, make creating useful scientific models difficult.

"The more you think about the problem, the more difficult it becomes to predict what will happen on real roads."

Many "simple" solutions have been offered to reduce snarl-ups on our motorways, but none are without their drawbacks.


Cut congestion, share cars

The idea behind car pooling is straightforward enough. Move more people from A to B, not more vehicles.
High occupancy vehicle lane in the UK
"Damn, my passenger's got a puncture!"

The drawback is equally straightforward, says Mr Eves. "People are loath to share cars."

To sweeten the deal for caring, sharing motorists, high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes have been created around the world, on which they can zoom past solitary drivers.

The temptation of all that empty tarmac has proved too much for some lone commuters. Tales abound of drivers resorting to using inflatable dolls and even corpses to fool the authorities.

Mr Eves says the idea is falling out of favour and at best can only ease traffic flow at certain bottlenecks.


Paying our way out of the jams

We think (almost) nothing of paying to cross a bridge or use a tunnel. Why not stump up to drive on an empty road?

Drivers in the United States are said to accept the fines for abusing HOV lanes as the price of getting to work on time.

Motorway toll booth
"Do you have change for a 50 note?"
Given this, some of the lanes are being thrown open to those willing to part with a toll - which rises at busy times.

Losing money, as well as time, by motoring during the rush hour would - in theory - be a stick to make drivers stagger their journeys.

Thanks to the numerous exits on British motorways toll booths are a non-starter.

Smart technology to harvest tolls has yet to be perfected. Its introduction would no doubt further anger motorists stung by current fuel prices.

Talk of directly charging motorists has now all but disappeared from the government's transport strategy.


More cars? Build more roads.

Steve Hounsham, of pressure group Transport 2000, is adamant we can't just "build our way out of congestion or throw concrete at the problem".

Road cones
Will roadworks end congression?
The government has promised to widen some 360 mile of motorway, but Mr Eves says once the roadworks end the relief will be temporary.

"It will lead to more traffic being sucked onto these roads. There's a suppressed demand, in that people would drive more were it not for current congestion."


Want to go faster? Drive slower

Odd as it may sound, dropping your speed can get you home quicker.

Mr Eves says various schemes, including computer-controlled speed signs and cars with cruise controls to match their speed to the flow of traffic, have all cut journey times.

Veteran car rally
The tortoise or the hare?
Going slow helps to reduce "flow breakdowns", the annoying stop-start of vehicles on a motorway even when no clear reason for a jam is present.

There are, of course, limits to the theory. In fact set a speed limit any lower than 40mph, says Mr Eves, and motorists will be getting nowhere in a hurry.

No change there then.

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