Jayne Dowle: Going nowhere fast as gridlock grinds us down

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I’ve been to China and sat for hours in taxis in the smog. Can the UK really be worse? Well, yes. According to new research, we live in the world’s 10th most traffic-congested country.

China doesn’t even feature in the list of leading offenders compiled by Inrix, a global agency specialising in road traffic and driver services. That dubious honour goes to the US, most specifically the West Coast city of Los Angeles, where last year drivers spent 102 hours, or 12.2 per cent of their driving time, going nowhere.

In this country, we waste an average 31 hours in traffic annually. And it costs us £37.7 billion – or £1,168 per driver – in wasted productivity at work. Drivers suffer. Our vehicles suffer. The environment chokes. And the national economy takes a hit. We all know that traffic does no one any good, but the question is, how to solve the problem clogging up our lives?

The obvious answer is to drive less. I don’t know about you, but these days I avoid leaving the house by car unless strictly necessary. I’m finding that my tolerance for sitting in a line of beeping, swearing, cross people going nowhere is very thin.

If I can conduct my business by telephone or electronic means, I’ll do so. The thought of attempting the Woodhead Pass to venture to Greater Manchester, for instance, fills me with dread. The other week, I was invited to a daytime work event in Blackburn. To drive would have taken me at least two hours, but the public transport option by train was worse. Three and a half hours with two changes? A seven-hour round trip to stand and talk to people for maybe an hour or so? When time is money, it just doesn’t make financial sense. No wonder the Northern Powerhouse needs more power in its tank.

It also makes for quite a dull working life, but at least I’m not wasting hours staring at dog-eared signs by the side of the road in Mottram Moor demanding a bypass “now”.

I’m self-employed and I can work from home. Not everyone is as fortunate. I can see the M1 from my house every morning, and it’s busy from half past five.

This is the hidden face of modern commuting. Those who must travel for work are obliged to rise from their beds in the middle of the night to have any hope of arriving at their destination on time. Imagine the toll on health and wellbeing, not to mention family life.

Although London and Birmingham dominate the top 10 list of traffic congestion blackspots, our own region isn’t exactly covered in glory. Two of the most-congested places in the UK, coming in at number eight and nine respectively, are the A658 Harrogate Road to Victoria Street in Leeds, where drivers lose an average 40 hours each year, and the B6117 to A644 Huddersfield Road, near Dewsbury, where the personal toll is 36 hours.

What’s needed is a recognition by government that congestion costs money. More investment in road improvements and smart technology which predicts delays and diverts drivers should be a priority.

Evidence from Scotland suggests that a sustained programme of improvement does work: this Inrix research found that three big cities have seen major improvements following heavy investment in road infrastructure.

The completion of road projects on the M8, M73 and M74 in central Scotland has helped to ease congestion by 20 per cent in Aberdeen, 15 per cent in Glasgow and 10 per cent in Edinburgh.

In England, the Department for Transport says that alongside its national road investment, councils are to receive more than £7bn in funding by 2021.

A spokeswoman says that this “record amount” of funding would “help to upgrade and maintain local roads up and down the country”. Let’s hope it’s enough to keep pace with the rate of road traffic.

On this aspect, there is some more good news, of a sort. The next time you’re stuck on the M62 wondering if you will ever see your loved ones again, take heart from the fact that driving is actually falling out of favour amongst the young.

In the past decade, there’s been a record drop in the number of teenagers learning to drive. According to a survey undertaken by the motoring website Honest John, the total of youngsters taking driving tests each year has fallen by 28 per cent since 2007/8. This means that around 100,000 fewer motorists joined our ranks in the past year than a decade previously.

The rising cost of insurance, fewer part-time jobs for teenagers and university fees are all cited as factors in this historic decline. In addition a typical learner faces a total cost of £1,529 to achieve their licence; the Department for Transport claims that an average of 47 hours of professional tuition are required to pass. It doesn’t say anything about the prospect of sitting in a jam at Armley Gyratory for an hour and a half on a regular basis, but it should.