We don’t have traffic jams in Canterbury. So why does everyone keep insisting that we do?
Of course it’s frustrating to be sitting in a queue on a stretch of road that you can usually whizz along without stopping. But be honest: how long are those queues really?
The worst spots, which only lock up at peak school run times and the odd occasion when someone has a shunt, are Pin Hill down to Wincheap roundabout, Wincheap itself, St Dunstan’s when the level crossing barriers are down, and Lower and Upper Bridge Street.
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At worst, it can take 10 minutes to negotiate these roads. That’s not catastrophic.
Of course, I have a perspective based on living in London for 20 years, where it took me an hour to go a mile and a half.
But I’ve seen real traffic jams around the world, too: it once took me four hours to get from Dulles airport in Washington to Alexandria VA, a distance of just 35 miles.
And the wall to wall stationary traffic in New Delhi or Cairo or a dozen other developing cities puts our minor inconvenience into the shade.
So why do we think that Canterbury’s traffic problems are, well, problematic? Obviously the hold ups are inconvenient, which is one reason.
And to the extent that they hamper emergency vehicles trying to get around the city the traffic is clearly a risk to life as well. But more fundamentally they strike at our perception of the city we live in.
After all, this isn’t London or Delhi or New York or LA. Whether we moved here by choice or have always been here, we have expectations of Canterbury which don’t involve the polluting presence of queues of traffic.
It’s a small city, and a green one on the whole, and as residents we value the benefits that should bring.
The parts of town which suffer the most are those where traffic and homes are brought closely together – Wincheap and St Dunstan’s.
Those areas are blighted by the negative impact of vehicle fumes, not to mention the attendant risk to pedestrians of crossing the road when the traffic is actually moving.
We know by now that the traffic problems are the result of previous road design decisions which failed to look to the future.
Massively expanded vehicle number, and years of under-investment also play their part. Not to mention the constraints imposed by the geography of the city.
This last point is crucial, since almost no amount of money thrown at the problem areas of the city is going to solve traffic now: there is simply nowhere to put more roads.
Some minor tinkering would help, naturally: the roundabouts on the ring road don’t work and need proper traffic light control. And whatever the merits of the proposed design, building a slip road off the A2 at Wincheap might take some pressure off the Rheims Way/Pin Hill/ Wincheap route for traffic going towards Ashford.
But to make a real change requires getting at the root cause of the problem, which is simply too much traffic trying to go to the same places at the same time.
Incidentally, the proposed Station Road West car park will clearly encourage exactly this sort of travel pattern and thus exacerbate the problem. Far from making things better, as our council argues, it will have a negative impact.
Anyway, there are some obvious solutions to cutting the amount of car journeys. Drastically reducing the amount of city centre car parking would discourage car trips, although it would obviously create a problem for the many people who travel into the city from our villages.
That risks also delivering the coup de grâce to the High Street shops, which could be offset by expanded and improved park and ride schemes – which are probably required anyway. And it is arguable that the High Street as a retail centre is doomed anyway.
We also need much better bus services in and around the city – not just the long trips that Stagecoach likes, but services from the housing estates and villages inwards all week round, arriving not only at the already overcrowded bus station, but to points around the centre including the rail stations.
We must, too, do much more to encourage cycling. In fact, so little is done for cyclists at the moment that anything would look like a radical improvement.
Nonetheless, a radical change is what is needed, including things which will inconvenience car drivers, like creating one way schemes to allow real cycle lanes to be set up along some of the narrower roads into the centre.
Those sorts of things are, relative to building new roads, both much cheaper and much quicker to implement.
So long as we all – and I include myself in this – are wedded to car ownership and the convenience that offers us then we will struggle to fully resolve the tension between that and the traffic free unpolluted Canterbury we say we would like to have.
But until we change our habits, actions which discourage car usage and encourage bike and public transport travel are essential.
Who knows, maybe we’ll get where we are going faster, too.