London likes to proclaim its pre-eminence in many fields but it will be less keen to advertise its latest achievement: dethroning Brussels to become Europe’s most congested city.
The capital has long been known for its snarled-up roads but the gridlock is getting worse, according to data from traffic analytics company Inrix. The average London driver spent 96 hours stuck in traffic last year, a rise of 14 hours on the year before.
“It is not that London is doing anything bad, it is just all these things are happening so quickly,” said Scott Sedlik, head of Europe, Middle East and Africa at Inrix. “You cannot build any more roads in London, so now it is about managing that congestion.”
Traffic is a big concern for businesses in the capital. Research from the Centre for Economics and Business Research and Inrix last year found the cost of congestion to the London economy was $8.5bn in 2013.
And the problem is only expected to get worse as the population continues grow. “London is a very busy place and it is getting busier,” said Garrett Emmerson, chief operating officer for roads at Transport for London. “We should not be surprised that we are seeing congestion.”
London is one of the fastest-growing major centres in Europe. Its population stands at 8.6m, having increased by almost 2m in the past 25 years. It is expected to hit 10m some time about 2030, though levels of migration make this hard to predict.
Part of London’s problem is a lack of road space relative to the city’s rising numbers. “We do not have the grand boulevards of Paris,” said Mr Emmerson. “We are a medieval city in many ways, certainly in central London.”
The Inrix research classified London in terms of the “commute zone”, an area roughly corresponding to the M25 orbital motorway. The other most congested urban areas in Europe, according to Inrix, include Cologne, Antwerp and Stuttgart.
Outside London, Manchester is the next worst British city for congestion, ranking just outside the European top 10. Overall the UK is fifth in Europe, behind Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Luxembourg.
Several European cities have employed “smart city” initiatives to try to combat the problem of congestion. Barcelona has managed to reduce by 60 per cent the time its citizens spend stuck in traffic in the past five years, partly through “smart parking”, which tracks the availability of spaces via a phone app. About 30 per cent of urban traffic in London is caused by drivers looking for parking, according to Inrix.
Milan — seventh-worst for traffic congestion in 2014 — has offered free public transport to people who leave their cars at home.
But London’s underground system and bus network are also under strain, limiting its room for manoeuvre. “Everywhere you look, networks are full,” said Mr Emmerson. “What it needs is continued investment so we can keep up with demand.”
London this year kicked off a £4bn road improvement programme, which TfL says is the biggest investment in a generation. But this is creating the short-term disruption of roadworks at major arteries.
The works-traffic is being compounded by large construction projects, many of them residential, such as those at the Nine Elms area in south-west London and Elephant and Castle, a symbol of the rampant property market in the capital.
More capacity is also being taken up by cycling, the fastest growing form of road use in London. Several “cycle superhighways” are being constructed in the capital to provide segregated lanes for cyclists.
London is increasingly reliant on its own technology initiatives to keep the capital moving. TfL uses a dynamic traffic management system, first trialled during the Olympics, that employs sensors at points such as the city’s 6,000 traffic signals.