On the road: A queue too far
The most recent survey figures I can unearth suggest that, in 2012, traffic congestion cost our economy more than £4.3bn – equating to some £491 per car-commuting household – with more than £426 million wasted on fuel alone. Perhaps more pertinently to most of us, last year commuters spent an average of nine working days simply stuck in traffic.
I have no idea how these staggering figures are arrived at but, living in one of the few remaining villages in the UK still blessed with a functioning, mercifully non-gastro pub, I have an entirely clear idea of what I’d do with an extra £491 should it come my way. I also have a pretty clear idea of whom to blame for the fact that, thus far, it hasn’t.
Given that urban congestion is probably everyone’s biggest bête noire, first on the list are bus drivers, who have become so lazy and arrogant that they now can’t be bothered to actually pull over at their stops. They prefer to bring everything to a grinding halt whilst – in the absence of a conductor to take fares with the bus already under way again – successive elder passengers perform a painfully inept imitation of shove ha’penny in the lids of their horseshoe purses.
Then, of course, we have roadworks. How many times have you dawdled along miles of average speed camera-monitored motorway thinking: a) ‘What numpty thought that welding that infuriatingly ornate little "M" motif into the elbow of the camera pole might somehow make me feel better about how late I now am for my meeting?’ and, b) ‘I wouldn’t mind being shackled to 50mph to “protect the workforce” if there was any evidence whatsoever of a workforce in need of protection.’
I once spent the night with a motorway maintenance outfit for a story and, even before the arrival of the myriad distractions of the mobile phone, work still took place at a speed to elevate a receding glacier to sprint finish status. Day 1: Cones out. Day 4: Install Portaloo. Day 5: Collect old shoes from central reservation. Snooze in Portaloo. Day 7: Unload digger. Spin through 360 degrees. Knock over Portaloo. And so the weeks wear on…
Closer to home, my Mudfordshire market town has now suffered so many months of relentless road works that the residents have taken to marking days free of the din of pneumatic drills on their wall calendars with the word ‘Hoorah’.
It started early the year before last when a bunch of identically-branded clowns tore up almost every road they could find in the interests of replacing the town’s ageing water main. No one would have minded this half as much if they hadn’t, to a man, spent at least 75% of the ensuing eons merely eating take-away sausage rolls, drinking tea, smoking, chatting, texting, scratching, spitting, littering, leaning on stuff or simply trying to crack level 165 on Candy Crush.
Nor would anyone have minded the other half as much if, when they finally left at the end of the summer with drinking water geysering sufficiently copiously out of one newly resurfaced section of tarmac as to render it decidedly luge-friendly all winter long, successive shoals of alternatively branded clowns representing other utilities hadn’t immediately appeared to excavate the same holes all over again.
Whilst we must obviously accept that such works are invariably carried out by men who tighten grub screws with a lump hammer and still point at aeroplanes, why must we continue to accept a situation wherein the different utilities singularly fail to notify each other of an impending hole, and wherein it all takes so, much, time?
Imagine being treated like this in a car showroom.
‘Yes sir, it’ll be ready in three years' time, but we will have to take it back every few months thereafter to fit some extra bits that didn’t make it to the production line. Oh, and, we can’t really vouch for the build quality once we’ve pulled it apart again, and it’ll almost certainly go wrong in the interim.’
The fleet buyer can vote with his or her feet and a rather large cheque book. The car user is afforded no such luxury; he has to rely on the local authorities to sort road works for him. And, to date I’m afraid, until they adopt the French system of fast, hard-negotiated contracts running 24/7 with draconian penalties for overrunning by so much as an instant, that’s a massive, ongoing fail.