It will come as no surprise to most car drivers that the number of road signs and traffic lights has increased hugely in recent years. In fact, since 2000 the number of traffic lights has risen by over a quarter. Across our nation’s roads, and motorways, and the number of signs has doubled. While clearly the road network hasn’t increased significantly in these intervening years the excuse often given is traffic volume. However, Department for Transport statistics shows that the reality is even the busiest roads have only seen a 5% increase in vehicle movements. The truth is successive administrations have sought to improve traffic problems by increased regulation. Modern traffic management theory suggests that more signs and controls improve traffic flow, yet that sits poorly with our experiences here in Grantham with roads getting busier and driving becoming increasingly frustrating.
Across most areas of government, the flaws in top-down, centrally planned economic policy are now widely understood. Failure to harness the skills and knowledge of individual economic components produces an endemic misallocation of resources. Largely due to the well-developed theories of thinkers like Hayek and defining implementations by Thatcher and Reagan, the government is trying to push decisions down to more local communities and reduce crippling red tape whenever possible. At the same time, we see more legislation and regulation applied to our critical road infrastructure. The failure of the modern traffic management approach is a primary example of the failure of central planning, yet the well understand the virtue of dispersed co-operation and the intelligence of crowds is too often ignored.
Here in Lincolnshire congestion is at best irritating and at worst economically damaging. The lack of a strategic dual carriageway network means our A, B, C and unclassified roads are the arteries of daily life. While it is challenging to estimate the cost of traffic congestion to our local economy, it’s estimated nationally to be more than £20 billion per year (nearly twice what we spend on much maligned overseas aid).
So what is the solution? Better use of the space we have has to be a priority. The capacity to build miles of new roads is limited, and if we can move vehicles around the space we have why wouldn’t we want to? In places like Grantham town centre, we need to explore a different relationship between cars, pedestrians and cyclists.
The evidence is building that reducing controls and less regulation can make our roads more efficient. Not only that, many of the objectives we strive for such as better safety and improved air quality can be delivered without being cost-prohibitive. So rather than Whitehall mandarins imposing restrictions from afar, moving to self-regulation works. By stripping out traffic lights, road humps and speed cameras and by letting people take personal responsibility, we can do the unthinkable: make our streets safer and journeys shorter.