The Royal Academy of Engineering has published its first ‘challenge paper’, a discussion document authored by expert Fellows with the aim of stimulating debate on an issue of national concern. 

The working group behind the paper, including industry experts and academic researchers, looked at technology and policy measures that could reduce congestion in the most critical transport sectors by 2030, evaluating which measures would be effective and value for money.

The UK’s road and rail networks suffer from some of the worst congestion in Europe. The Department for Transport predicts road congestion will increase by 55% by 2040, with the greatest increases on vital sections of the Strategic Road Network.

The paper considers over 20 possible measures but concludes that efficient road pricing offers the single best way to tackle road congestion. By influencing the time of travel and routes taken by drivers, it can achieve a substantial reduction in congestion levels without a significant decrease to the total volume of traffic.

Road pricing schemes are technically viable today and, if properly designed, can be implemented in a cost effective and equitable way, says the paper. However, the authors acknowledge that political and public concerns around such schemes remain a serious barrier, and recognise that any schemes would need to be carefully designed in order to attract popular support. The paper points out that any surplus revenue from such schemes could replace vehicle ownership and fuel taxes, and be used to fund wider improvements in the transport network.

The paper also observes that ‘smart motorways’, incorporating variable speed limits and use of the hard shoulders, have the potential to reduce congestion outside of cities, but are expensive to implement. Within urban environments, a number of measuring including parking controls, car clubs, reformed bus services and light rail systems also offer value for money in reducing road congestion, but to a lesser extent than road pricing.

Professor Andrew McNaughton FREng, who led the group which produced the challenge paper, says: “Our country and economy are growing. Our transport systems are struggling to cope. Building new capacity is vital but not the universal answer. This challenge paper sets out how we can get on top of congestion, but only if we integrate technology advances and policy initiatives, and only if we act now. Working together, government, engineers and regulators can make a difference.”

Professor Tony May OBE FREng, lead author of the paper, says: “Transport congestion really matters – it’s frustrating, it wastes time for people going about their lives, and it costs money for businesses transporting goods around the country. The technology to deliver an efficient road pricing scheme is available today and has the potential to be very effective. It makes road users aware of the full cost of their travel and encourages drivers to consider other types of journey – be that a different route, a different time or a different mode of transport. There is ample evidence from where it has been applied around the world that it works and attracts public support.”

The paper also considers ways to reduce congestion for freight traffic, noting the inefficiencies of using many partially-loaded vehicles on city streets at peak times. It recommends re-timing deliveries to off-peak periods where possible, and replacing private car shopping trips with increased home delivery by retailers, updating aspects of competition law that may hinder a more integrated home delivery network.

On the railway network, capacity could be enhanced immediately by increasing the supply of rolling stock. Investment in new control, command and communication technologies to enable closer spacing of trains could offer further increases in capacity, but the significant investment in stations and other infrastructure mean that network-wide deployment of these technologies could take up to 30 years.

Download the challenge paper

The transport congestion challenge (5.25 MB)

Notes for Editors

Royal Academy of Engineering. As the UK’s national academy for engineering, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers for a shared purpose: to advance and promote excellence in engineering. We provide analysis and policy support to promote the UK’s role as a great place to do business. We take a lead on engineering education and we invest in the UK’s world-class research base to underpin innovation. We work to improve public awareness and understanding of engineering. We are a national academy with a global outlook.

We have four strategic challenges:
- Make the UK the leading nation for engineering innovation
- Address the engineering skills crisis
- Position engineering at the heart of society
- Lead the profession

For more information please contact:

Aaron Boardley at the Royal Academy of Engineering
T: 020 7766 0655
E: Aaron Boardley