Forgive me in advance if this sounds like a personal rant. To some degree it is, but the issue is one with real implications and enormous costs to individuals and society as a whole.
It came as some surprise immediately after Easter to find Mrs Theresa May had decided to call a snap election – fixing it for 8th June - just over one month after this issue of Car Dealer reaches your door mat.
The first thought I had when I heard the news is: ‘Will we be hearing anything other than Brexit-related topics from Mrs May and her peers or will the Manifestos deliver a broader set of topics to discuss and vote on”
My fear is that this election is more about her strengthening her power-base in the Conservative Party than really addressing the problems that face this country. However, in the unlikely event that any other national topics makes it onto the Tory’s election manifesto, I would like to add: ‘increased investment in transport infrastructure to get the country moving better’. Here’s why.
One of the most significant problems in this country is the prolonged lack of investment in road and rail infrastructure as demands on it have continued to rise exponentially with population growth and changes in the labour market.
This problem is particularly acute where I live and work in the Southeast, where we are seeing the lengths of commutes to and from work, whether by road or rail, rising at an alarming rate.
The number of UK workers who commute daily for two hours or more has increased by a third in just five years, according to research carried out by the Trades Union Congress (TUC). That’s 3.7m, or one in seven, UK workers spending at least two hours per day travelling to and from work in late 2016, up 900,000 from 2015.
The TUC believes that the reason a rapidly increasing number of workers are putting themselves through lengthier commutes is that they are being priced out of housing in close proximity to their place of work. That is true the closer you get into the middle of London. But for others like me, commuting routinely some 70 miles - 25 miles of which is on the M25, the problem is more about investment in road infrastructure or the lack thereof, married with sheer volumes of traffic which routinely reduce average commuter-time speeds of my journey to a snail’s pace.
Another recent survey I read from online investment manager, Nutmeg, put a ‘lifetime value’ on the cost of the daily commute in hours and cash terms. For those commuting in and around London it’s a staggering 13,097 hours wasted or 18-months of a London commuter’s life, costing each of them an estimated £66,407.
The wasted hours and cash spent (either in terms of rail tickets, fuel burnt or wear and tear incurred) is at epidemic proportions now. There is lots of talk about the need for Brits to increase our individual productivity levels. Surely you could do worse than helping us commuters to reduce the wasted time spent getting to and from work by investing more heavily in our transport infrastructure?
The largest ‘bugbears', for commuters that drive to work are, not unsurprisingly, traffic jams. A third (32%) of respondents to online investment manager Nutmeg poll said that this was the biggest problem; closely followed by miscellaneous delays (30%), dangerous or bad drivers (27%), journey lengths (17%) and overcrowding (17%).
That poll coincides with research from used car website Motors.co.uk which says more than two thirds of drivers would happily take a pay-cut to work locally in a bid to cut the cost of their commute.
We are always being told if you add another lane on a motorway like the M25 it takes only a few years to fill it with new traffic. Certainly, many proposals have been put forward for addressing motorway congestion issues over the last 15 years or so – all of which have been shelved. Most recently, the M25 has been considered for becoming a double or even triple-decker motorway with tunnels and flyovers relieving the worst-congested areas of the busiest roads in the UK.
Highways England is also considering upgrading the rail network to try to keep people off the M25 by constructing a 35-mile high-speed railway line between Heathrow and Gatwick airports, and a direct rail link between the west coast mainline and west London.
But none of the ideas are being taken to the next level in any hurry. So, it seems that we are doomed to longer and longer commutes for a growing number of us forced to travel long distances to work each day as no politician considers this a ‘vote-winning’ issue.
My view is that it could be solved if we got some of the UK’s brightest transport minds on it and fast-tracked investment into the best ideas. Or should we just embrace the idea of the motorway autonomous vehicle lane and accelerate investment in autonomous vehicle technology so driverless cars can be adopted more quickly?
Right now, we can anticipate fully driverless vehicles to be on the road in numbers as early as 2021. It’s a reality today that a large quantity of congestion incidents on our busiest roads, are caused by driver error or vehicle mechanical failure. Once autonomous vehicles are fool-proof and they have dedicated lanes assigned to them, we can but hope that their presence will reduce both driver error and mechanical failure-driven incidents and therefore commute times – all provided they can get the tech right. At the very least we will have the option in as little as five years to let the autonomous car ‘take the strain’ rather than that over-crowded commuter train.