How will new developments v’s post-covid homeworking affect road use and congestion?

SWJ Consulting are not transport planners, but we work closely with transport planners on many projects. Most recently the sites in Long Hanborough, Oxfordshire to ensure the three proposed developments would not impact too heavily on the A4095 and the surrounding villages as the route to the train station or into Witney and Oxford. The key was to demonstrate that the additional cars wouldn’t impact traffic flow or journey times.

When the first lockdown hit in March 2020 it was widely reported that private car journeys fell by 50% as people began working from home and cycling increased by 100%. The pandemic interrupted the established pattern of peak-time travel as people either stayed working from home or businesses staggered workers hours because of social distancing and safety concerns. The reduction in traffic especially during the lockdowns removes the pressure on junctions, which is generally the biggest concern for traffic flow despite only being a problem for 2-4 hours a day.

In 1973 a former Nasa engineer named Jack Nilles wrote a book, The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff, arguing that remote working was a way to relieve traffic congestion and the pressure on non-renewable resources. So, this is not a new concept but it was not until the pandemic hit that working from home became globally accepted. If the trend for working from home continues, will this mean fewer cars on the road and so less congestion – or will this reduction be replaced by more cars from new developments?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the reduction in traffic is set to last. It might even be over already. According to the Department for Transport (DfT) statistics, road traffic in the UK returned to pre-pandemic levels during the last week of May 2021, compared to a ‘normal’ baseline and traffic levels in February 2020. What is also more concerning is the data showed an ongoing reduction in bus and train journeys perhaps due to reduced capacity or covid concerns. In London, separate figures for Transport for London showed a 53% reduction in rail journeys and 35% for buses.

There was also an increase in heavy and light commercial goods vehicles because of the increased demand for home delivery.

Understanding and predicting the impact of additional cars and the flow of traffic is not as simple as people might think, which is why we work closely with traffic planners – for example ‘induced traffic’ is a phenomenon that has been recognised since 1925. It is when a new road built to relieve congestion leads to more and longer journeys. Traffic levels on bypassed roads can also rise faster than expected due to induced traffic meaning all of the hoped-for benefits of a new road are lost very quickly.

Regarding the developments in Long Hanborough, it was proven that the new developments would not impact the journey times or traffic flow, which is why planning was granted.

It seems that despite any initial assumptions that any reduction in traffic from homeworkers would be swallowed up by new residents this is not the case. It is the reduced capacity of public transport, concerns over covid and the increase in commercial vehicles that have the biggest part to play in a return to pre-covid traffic levels, despite the government’s continued advice to work from home. It is a transport planners understanding of these socioeconomic factors combined with their civil engineering skills that allow them to make the best recommendations when it comes to planning and assessing if new developments are going to impact congestion, just when we all thought peak-time traffic was a thing of the past.