It seems that everybody agrees that Cambridge has a serious problem with traffic congestion. Most people also agree that this congestion contributes directly to Cambridge’s high levels of air pollution. There is also widespread recognition that these problems, combined with crippling prices of houses, threaten the continuing prosperity of our city. Where agreement breaks down is over how best to resolve these connected problems.

A public consultation carried out in 2019 by the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP), Better Choices for Journeys, showed that the options most preferred by the public were improved public transport (fast, frequent, reliable and affordable) and measures designed to curb vehicle use.

This poses two questions:

  1. What sort of public transport and traffic management system can deliver these improvements?
  2. Where will the funding come from to pay for (subsidise) the frequent and affordable services?

CambridgePPF has carried out an analysis of European cities that have introduced some form of traffic congestion charge – London, Milan, Stockholm, Gothenberg, and Valetta (click here for the report).  All these cities experienced significant improvements in traffic flows, journey times, and cycle use, and all experienced substantial improvements in air quality.  Also, all benefited from a major new source of sustainable revenue that was re-invested in public transport and cycling. Their congestion and air pollution problems, although not solved, were significantly improved.

To what extent were these improvements the direct result of congestion charging as opposed to other less radical measures to improve traffic flows and air quality, like improved cycling provision and reduced on-street parking?  To assess this, CambridgePPF also analysed what has happened in Copenhagen, a city that has tackled its congestion and air quality problems without charging drivers. Mainly through a major shift by commuters to cycle use through the creation of a 300km network of dedicated cycle tracks, together with the construction a new 43km Metro Ring around the city centre, congestion has dropped by some 25% and Copenhagen now boasts the second best (after Zurich) air quality of any European city. These images are from Copenhagen in the 1970s and in modern times.

So, it can be done without charging, through a mix of passive measures to squeeze drivers, like reducing parking and strategic road closures, and through active improvements to public transport and especially cycling. But for Copenhagen, this has required massive investment which so far has come primarily from central government.  However, the Danish government coffers are not limitless, and recent cuts in transport spending has hit the programme of infrastructure enhancements hard. Copenhagen may not be able to maintain its improvements unless a local sustainable source of funding can be found.

So what does this all mean for Cambridge?  The expectation that central government is going to keep handing out large chunks of funding to support Cambridge is unrealistic. Cambridge is a successful, expanding city, with major inward investment and a rapidly expanding economy – it should be able to cover its infrastructure costs from its own local resources. The boom in building in the City and South Cambridgeshire is not spilling over into the general economy. A few colleges and landowners are making a killing from inflated land values but there is currently no way of returning this surge in development values back into the local community.  And attempts to do so are likely to run aground unless there is a fundamental change in the whole taxation regime associated with development land – and this will require a national approach with a change of political leadership.

So if we are to be locally self-sufficient in terms of public transport investment, then we need now to start planning what sort of system we need. How can drivers be persuaded to leave their cars at home or at some local travel hub? How can a public transport alternative be made to operate at a price to the user that does not make it unattractive?

In autumn 2019 a Citizens Assembly was convened by the GCP to address the question, “What do you think is most important to consider in a future that addresses congestion, air quality and public transport in Greater Cambridge and why?”  The Assembly was created in order to create a space for informed public debate about politically sensitive issues such as road charging and reduced car parking.

The experience from every European city that has introduced road charging has shown that the planning of any charging scheme will initially meet with public hostility but that such negative expectations are quickly revised as commuters adjust to the new situation and the benefits become clearer.  Take the case of Milan, where the announcement of a congestion charge in the city centre lead to rioting in the streets – but then nine months after its introduction, the same public was back on the streets demanding its reinstatement after it had been withdrawn on legal grounds. During that time the people had reclaimed the streets – pedestrian only streets, pavement cafes, street theatre and the like. Could this apply equally to Cambridge?

It would seem that road charging could sufficiently reduce traffic congestion to enable public transport to run faster and more reliably and to enable more cycling AND it could provide a source of funding to subsidise the frequent and affordable public transport that people say they want.

Road charging, or road toll, or congestion charging – call it what you will – is understandably highly contentious.  Charging can be discriminatory in that it hits those who currently have little alternative to commuting by car, whilst being social divisive by hitting hardest those who can least afford to pay. However, with careful planning, most of these consequences ought to be overcome – for example, everybody who drives in the city should pay the same whether they are a resident or commuting from outside the city, and exemptions/discounts can be made for drivers where the use of their vehicle is indispensable to their work.

The one commodity that Cambridge has in abundance is brain-power. So why can’t the best minds in one of the greatest universities in the world be mobilised to address what surely must be a solvable problem?  If we can now identify the Higgs Boson particle and manipulate individual genes to control diseases, why can’t we resolve Cambridge’s congestion?