As economists like to point out, congestion is a sign of success. The roads of Zimbabwe are ominously jam-free.
But you can have too much of a good thing. London is set to grow by around a million people in the next 20 years. There is a real prospect that, without effective intervention, the capital’s aged arteries, already desperately clogged, will simply seize up. And congestion is not just inconvenient. It comes at a heavy price, exacted in decreased productivity, wasted leisure time, carbon emissions, localised air pollution and road accidents.
In the long run the solution may be “pay as you go” road pricing – the extension of the congestion charge. But the London public are a long way off seeing things this way.
In the meantime, one obvious solution is staring us in the face. If our roads are packed from dawn until dusk, they are relatively little used from dusk to dawn. Instead of restricting night-time deliveries to shops and other businesses, as at present, the Mayor and local councils should be encouraging goods vehicles to deliver at night and during what the road lobby calls, with unexpected poetry, the “shoulders of the day” (late evening and early morning).
The arguments in favour of letting lorries out after dark are overwhelming. Lifting the current curfew would significantly reduce congestion and lower carbon emissions. The number of goods vehicles entering London has more than doubled since the 1970s. It would also lessen the price of freight transport. Current restrictions on night-time deliveries mean lorries spend much of their working lives sitting in lay-bys and lorry parks on the edge of the city. It could even reduce bike accidents and deaths – more than half of bike deaths in London involve goods vehicles.
The major objection to night-time deliveries has always been noise. But banning freight from our roads at night is a very blunt way of reducing noise pollution. For a start, the freight fleet is much quieter than it was. Existing lorries can be retro-fitted and new ones made quieter – and the saving freight companies would make on night-time deliveries would quickly cover the costs of vehicle-quietening.
Remember too that the noise cars and lorries make can now be recorded as they move around. It wouldn’t be too hard to penalise noisy offenders.
You don’t have to believe me or the freight lobby. Ask the Noise Abatement Society. Even it is broadly supportive of night-time deliveries, partly on grounds that they will lessen congestion and the pollution associated with it, partly because they see it as an opportunity further to improve the fleet.
That’s why many European cities, including Paris, don’t just allow night-time deliveries: where larger lorries are concerned, they insist on them. HGV drivers are now allowed out only at night.
Of course, the effects of moving to out-of-hours deliveries will need to be monitored. We’d need to know its impact on the city’s most vulnerable. Once upon a time London’s poorest found shelter in back alleys and inner courtyards. They are now housed, as often as not, along our noisiest, most polluted roads.
But these days blanket restrictions on night-time deliveries belong, like starvation diets, to another time.