Perceptions of congestion: report on qualitative research findings

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1 Executive summary

1.1 The study

The purpose of the research was to explore drivers' experiences and perceptions of traffic congestion, and to help evaluate possible approaches to congestion measurement.

Qualitative research methods were used, based on 13 group discussions with 83 drivers, living in six English areas chosen to represent a range of different driving experiences and contexts. Fieldwork took place between April and June, 2001.

The study covered both private and professional motoring, but excluded HGV and PSV drivers. Only those averaging at least 2,500 miles a year were eligible, and the sample was deliberately weighted towards higher mileage drivers, who would have a wider range of experiences to talk about. Participants for the study were all selected by quota sampling methods.

The results therefore present a driver's-eye picture. Traffic congestion may have various kinds of impact on other groups (like pedestrians, cyclists, or local residents), but it was not part of the research objectives to explore this.

This is a substantial project of its kind, but like all qualitative studies it is designed to generate understanding and insight into the way people think, feel and behave. It cannot provide statistical evidence.

1.2 Summary of main findings
1.2.1 Problems faced by motorists

The whole range of problems drivers feel they face when using their cars was explored at the beginning of the group sessions, to provide a context for discussing congestion.

Stress was one of the most common issues mentioned. This usually arises from the other problems listed below - and congestion often seems a major contributor. Congestion and traffic jams seem a serious and commonly encountered problem for most drivers in the study, although their severity and frequency vary from area to area. The nature and effects of congestion are further considered below.

Other problems include:

  • The rising cost and difficulty of parking in many areas.
  • The school run, said to add considerably to local congestion during term-time.
  • The general standard of driving and the behaviour of other drivers often seen as a serious (and growing) problem. This is often thought to get worse as traffic density increases.
  • Digging up the roads a widespread and worsening problem, and sometimes an important (and infuriating) contributor to congestion. Road works are often seen as poorly managed and unnecessarily prolonged.
  • Road surfaces in poor condition often patched and uneven, and sometimes seriously potholed. This is not a new problem, but is thought to be getting worse. It is blamed on poor maintenance as well as increased wear and tear. Bad surfaces can be damaging as well as aggravating, and can add to congestion.
  • Poor traffic management criticisms of lights, junctions, roundabouts, road markings, signs etc, but also allegations about inappropriate traffic-calming schemes and under-used bus-lanes. These issues are often seen to affect congestion.
  • Speed limits and specifically the growing number of speed cameras, usually perceived as more a revenue source than a practical control mechanism. However there were also clues that cameras can reduce speeding.
  • Perceived anti-motorist stances by government and local authorities high taxation coupled with apparently little beneficial expenditure, as well as a feeling of being hemmed in by traffic calming, bus lanes, speed cameras and the like.
  • Pollution traffic fumes were only occasionally mentioned as a problem for drivers, but they can be unpleasant when you're "stuck in a jam".
  • Finding your way around often a big problem for less experienced or less confident drivers, particularly in unfamiliar areas with high levels of traffic and congestion, and lots of complex one-ways.
  • Weather-related issues problems with gritting or snow clearance, flooding etc.
  • Traffic census points not usually understood, irritating if stopped, and seen as another small source of congestion and delay.

1.2.2 What is congestion?

The term congestion has a core of widely understood and shared meanings, but the specific sense in which it is interpreted is often fuzzy and variable. The word congestion itself is sometimes used, but drivers have a much larger vocabulary of other terms to describe the different levels and types of congestion they encounter.

The most important difference in usage is that some people apply the term congestion fairly narrowly to stationary or near-jam conditions, while others use it more broadly to describe any loss of speed due to weight of traffic. The narrower definition corresponds to what is usually seen as the most important type of congestion there is a widespread feeling that the situation is more bearable if you "keep rolling", but stop-start conditions and outright jams are often found hard to cope with.

Congestion is an important issue for most drivers. It tends to be among the top two or three concerns among the problems seen to face motorists, and in some areas it emerged as the most important.

However, congestion as seen through the windscreen is not an entirely distinct and separate issue. It interweaves with many of the other problems drivers encounter as part of a shifting mosaic of driving experience.

1.2.3 Congestion and density

People usually talk about congestion in terms of jams or slow progress. There seems little doubt that delays generally constitute its key impact as far as most drivers are concerned. However, underlying this is the notion that congestion is largely caused by the weight and density of traffic. Traffic density also has some other implications, apart from causing blockages and reducing speeds. Heavy traffic imposes various pressures and stresses on drivers, quite apart from its propensity to cause delays. These pressures need to be recognised, but are not so clearly conveyed by the word 'congestion'.

1.2.4 Causes of congestion

The real causes of congestion are complex, and they interact with each other. Congestion basically arises when the volume of traffic exceeds road capacity, but road capacity can be temporarily reduced by a variety of incidents or short-term constraints (like accidents or roadworks) that cause blockages or reduce flows.

In the minds of drivers congestion is mainly seen to be caused by the large and rising volume of traffic, fuelled in turn by the growing number of cars per household, the decline of public transport, and increasing dependence on car use. There are simply felt to be too many cars on the road, a situation that appears to be steadily worsening.

Within this general context more specific contributory causes of congestion are perceived to include (among other things):

  • School-run traffic
  • Roadworks
  • Accidents and breakdowns
  • Poor or ineffective traffic management
  • Inappropriate schemes for traffic-calming, bus lanes and the like
  • Holiday or tourist traffic in some areas.

Sometimes people experience congestion that seems to have no explicable cause at all which can be especially aggravating for those involved.

1.2.5 Effects of congestion

The effects of congestion are also many and complex, and again they interact. On one level there are functional effects the way congestion affects what happens, and its practical consequences. These are (mainly but not exclusively) related to delays and timing factors.

These time-related effects represent the largest and most obvious crop of problems arising from congestion. Traffic delays can sometimes have important consequences they can make people late for work or for appointments, cause them to miss trains or lose business, or inhibit them from completing work schedules. These outcomes often relate to work situations, but can also affect social, domestic or pleasure trips.

Drivers often find delays frustrating or irritating even where there is no important practical outcome they often resent being held up even if they had nothing in particular to do with the time lost.

Because of the likelihood of delays people often feel they have to leave extra time for journeys aggravating in itself, but particularly difficult to handle where hold-ups are unpredictable in incidence or duration.

Other functional problems sometimes ascribed to congestion include the following:

  • Encouraging competitive or aggressive driving
  • Making driving harder and more tiring
  • Limiting drivers freedom of action to travel where and when they want
  • Making accidents or mishaps more likely
  • Intensifying pollution
  • Increasing fuel consumption.

Apart from delays and other functional outcomes congestion also often has important mental and emotional effects. These often arise from delays, but sometimes also from the sheer density of traffic. Congestion makes driving more unpleasant, and can put drivers in a bad mood. It is a major source of driver stress, and makes many people feel frustrated, angry, anxious, confused, and/or exhausted.

Apart from the problems it causes directly, congestion also seems to act as an amplifier of other problems like parking or navigation, which can become even more of a hassle in dense and congested traffic.

Both functional and psychological effects are important and sometimes the emotional reaction can seem more potent than the actual practical outcome.

1.2.6 Congestion trends

Drivers usually expect to see congestion get worse in future, continuing what they see as the accelerating trend of recent years. The factors which have produced past increases in congestion are expected to continue into the future, and people are not usually aware that the authorities are doing anything much to change the trends. Many drivers feel that the increase will quite possibly be bigger than official forecasts assume.

1.2.7 Importance of congestion

The importance of congestion for drivers varies, both between and within areas:

In some cases particular instances are fairly trivial in themselves, but in other cases they have more impact because of their scale, duration or context.

When it comes to the broader impact of congestion on motorists lives there is also a good deal of variation from person to person depending on how much time they spend on the road, the kind of traffic conditions they commonly experience, their confidence as drivers, and their underlying personality.

The upshot is that for some drivers congestion just seems a marginal or occasional irritation, but in many other cases it seems to have a fairly big effect on quality of life.

1.2.8 Coping with congestion

People cope with congestion in various ways. Often they try to modify their behaviour in order to minimise its impact - for example by changing journey times, leaving early, picking alternative routes, avoiding certain destinations, switching to other modes of transport, using broadcast traffic information, etc. These behavioural adaptations sometimes help, but they don't always work, because:

  • Congestion is often unpredictable.
  • There may be no satisfactory alternative ways of behaving.
  • Changing their behaviour can impose burdens, or restrict what people are able to do.

Another kind of behavioural adaptation is to equip the car with better facilities for entertainment or communication, thereby making congestion-based delays less uncomfortable or even more productive.

Drivers also sometimes try to adapt mentally (with varying degrees of success) they just try to ignore congestion as a fact of life, or learn to stay calm. People who experience congestion regularly often say they just get used to it, and mould that part of their lives round it. However adapting mentally doesn't change the facts, and getting used to something doesn't necessarily mean it no longer matters.

Some people find traffic information useful, but most people see its value as limited at best. Better in-car information might help if it gave effective warnings about impending congestion and suggested practical ways of avoiding it. However, this kind of solution is not usually contemplated with much enthusiasm.

1.2.9 Responses to congestion

People's responses to encountering congestion depend partly on the circumstances. It is generally thought to be particularly aggravating if:

  • The journey has time-critical elements that affect deadlines, or attach important consequences to delays.
  • The delays are unforeseen or unpredictably lengthy unexpected hold-ups make it harder to plan journeys or decide how much extra time to allow.
  • The congestion has no clear cause, or (worse still) seems unnecessary, or appears to arise from something the driver disapproves of such as careless parking or badly-managed roadworks.

1.2.10 Tackling congestion

Participants often seemed pessimistic about the likelihood of anything effective happening to tackle or reduce congestion. It seems somehow an intractable problem. As we have seen, it is thought to be fuelled mainly by growth in ownership and use of cars, and there is usually a somewhat fatalistic assumption that this growth will continue inexorably. The desire for mobility is not expected to diminish, nor do people imagine that travellers are likely to switch away from motor vehicles into other transport modes. Public transport is not generally thought at all attractive either functionally or economically, and although many would like to see it improved there is not much belief that this will happen (or possibly even could happen) to the extent that many people would be persuaded to get out of their cars. If anything public transport seems to be getting worse at present.

There is little impression in most participant's minds that the government (or anyone else) is actually doing much to change the expected trends in motoring or transport. Most people don't even know the 10 Year Plan exists, and there is at best only fragmentary and piecemeal awareness of any of its provisions.

Moreover, when motorists were asked what they think should be done about congestion, most did not have many suggestions to offer. The prescriptions some participants offered in discussion rarely convinced others round the table that they would really be effective.

One of the main types of suggestion was better traffic management sometimes different ways of handling junctions, for example, but also arguing for fewer traffic-calming schemes, bus lanes and so on. Some felt that better traffic management would help in certain situations, but this was not usually seen as a radical solution to the problem of congestion. Variable speed limits (as on the M25) were sometimes thought to help keep traffic flowing.

As noted above, many drivers would like to see public transport improved, but don't really believe that it will happen or in some cases that it would do a lot to solve the congestion problem if it did. To make much impact it was widely believed that public transport services would not only have to become a lot better in various ways, but also a lot cheaper relative to car travel. Public transport has a very poor image for most drivers, and there is also a range of objections to using it based on convenience, functional limitations and/or personal freedom.

The only aspect of public transport which people seemed to feel at all positive about is the idea of expanding the scope for rail travel through building more tram or light railway schemes, or reopening former rail links. Rail seems to have had a better image than buses as a serious transport option, although poor reliability and high prices have combined with the recent accidents and subsequent service restrictions to damage its reputation.

Many motorists would like something done to minimise the impact of the school run more school buses, parent education, cycling facilities, or restrictions of various kinds.

Some people thought more roads should be built to relieve the pressure, but this approach to solving congestion was surprisingly uncommon considering that the group sessions were entirely made up of drivers. Apart from environmental concerns there is again often a fatalistic feeling that new roads will quickly fill with traffic, and that congestion will find its level again.

Shifting more freight to rail was an appealing suggestion for some groups, but no-one had a clear idea how this is to be done. Approaches like car sharing or park and ride have some proponents, but are often thought to be hedged about with practical difficulties and limitations.

It was occasionally suggested that there are other European countries (like Holland) which have been more imaginative than Britain in providing an attractive, cost-effective and flexible mix of multi-modal and interchange options (including cycling) but although some would like to move in this direction there is not much expectation that it will actually happen.

For most participants the only really convincing solution to congestion is to limit the number of cars on the road, but many are not at all sure that this is in itself either practical or desirable. Voluntary reduction of use does not seem credible because of the perceived absence of viable and economic alternatives, and in those circumstances it also seems unfair to force people out of their cars by restrictions or pricing. Drivers are also often reluctant to endorse curbs that might limit their own cherished freedom to use their cars.

Abstaining personally from car use in the interests of the general good can strike people as pointless and quixotic, because few believe that others would follow suit one car less on the road seems neither here nor there in the face of the growing tide of traffic. Congestion results from the cumulative weight of individual decisions to use the car, but these decisions tend to be taken in the light of immediate personal advantage and not in a collective spirit. Individuals would only benefit personally from abstention if a large number of other people also left their cars at home, in which case congestion would reduce but the sense of collective decision in this context is typically weak. Some people feel that they ought to use their cars less, but practical action in this direction often seems to be inhibited both by lack of social consensus and by the seductive attractions of getting in the car.

Some motorists feel quite aggrieved at the sense of being lectured by politicians to stop using their cars when they do not think they have been offered viable alternatives.

1.2.11 Congestion charging

There was only patchy awareness of past suggestions about introducing road-pricing schemes, but fieldwork took place before media announcements were made in August 2001 about proposals for congestion charging in London and various other areas. These news stories may or may not have increased awareness and understanding.

This study found considerable hostility to road pricing. In a context where many drivers are already extraordinarily sensitive about feeling overtaxed suggestions about congestion charging tend immediately to be seen (and disparaged) as just another tax to bleed the motorist. They are not therefore usually seen as a tool for reducing congestion people often don't understand that this is the purpose, and aren't disposed to believe it when this is explained to them. The upshot is that road pricing is often dismissed with little consideration as just an excuse for extracting more money.

When they do consider it most people don't usually think the idea would be effective in cutting congestion, because the general assumption is that most people will pay up rather than get out of their cars. This view reinforces the belief that it is a way of collecting money rather than reducing congestion.

Finally people are often concerned that congestion charging would have undesirable side-effects:

  • In city centres they suspect it might drive shopkeepers and facilities out of business, and fuel the growth of out-of-town facilities.
  • On motorways they suggest that tolls might push people off motorways and on to smaller roads.
  • Because they are generally unsure how such schemes would work some people are inclined to visualise physical toll-barriers, with concomitant queues and delays.

Hypothecation of road-pricing revenues might make some people feel better about them, but only if they were visibly directed into improving public transport or conditions for motorists about which many drivers are very sceptical.

1.2.12 Measuring congestion

The idea of making regular measurements of congestion levels and publishing the results does not seem to be intrinsically interesting to many motorists. There was little appeal in the prospect of congestion measures of this kind, for five main reasons:

  • There is a good deal of cynicism about the purpose of statistics like these some suspect that they would be more to do with political point-scoring than with operational effectiveness.
  • Their purpose and value was often not understood or readily believed in when explained.
  • The figures dont seem to have much value from the drivers personal perspective they dont help you to plan for or cope with congestion. It often seems to the untutored eye that they just tell you what you know already.
  • People are inclined to see them as a poor substitute for taking action. Why spend money on measuring the level rather than directing it towards trying to get the level down? Some have an exaggerated picture of the likely cost of monitoring.
  • The potential value of trend data usually has to be pointed out. Moreover in the examples shown to study participants (see below) the indicated changes over 10 years are usually felt to be so small as to be trivial. Even a slight improvement would be better than expectation, but people tended to feel they would not even notice changes of the magnitude implied.

A set of six examples of possible different types of congestion measure was devised to explore the value and acceptability of different types of approach. There were essentially three different sets, based respectively on:

  • Time lost per unit travelled. There were three examples of this approach:

- Seconds lost per mile
- Minutes lost per 100 mile journey
- Hours lost per year.

  • Time spent in jams (at a standstill, or at speeds under 5mph). Two examples:

- Percentage of time spent in jams
- Minutes spent in jams per hour of driving.

  • Risk of serious delays.

Each of the examples shown gave hypothetical but reasonably realistic data for the years 2000 and 2010, to illustrate how the different types of measure would handle changes over time as well as data about a particular year.

Showing these examples did not usually transform peoples somewhat low expectations of their likely value and interest. Even having seen them many still thought the measurement exercise rather dull and pointless.

All the measures shown have their own strengths and weaknesses. The following points emerged from the evidence of this study:

  • The most promising measure seems to be time spent in jams. This is the form of congestion that most drivers find really aggravating. Some more numerate people liked the percentage form of this variant, but many find percentages difficult and off-putting.
  • After this two of the time lost variants have some merit. Either minutes lost per journey, or hours wasted per year would be preferable to seconds lost per mile the latter just sounds too trivial, and is hard to relate to day-to-day experience. Hours per year is the most dramatic of all the variants, and the one that makes congestion sound the most severe. On the other hand minutes per journey is closest to the way motorists normally think, and hence easier to identify with.
  • The risk of serious delay is a highly relevant concept, and the suggested changes by 2010 sounded more substantial. However this material is more complex, and most people simply find it too hard to handle. It is probably not a serious contender unless much simpler ways of expressing the data can be found.

Few participants could suggest any alternative types of measurement, although average speed is an obvious possibility whose limitations are not usually apparent.

All the congestion measures presented above are essentially based on time and delays. This does indeed seem to be the most important feature of congestion for most drivers, but none of the examples covers the traffic density aspect, which (as noted above) has various implications other than simply time-loss.

Because of the negative expectations described above, congestion measures will need to be eye-catchingly presented if they are to attract drivers to attend to information which they do not expect to have much intrinsic interest. The figures will also need to be clearly explained if they are to seem credible. Explanations need to cover the purpose as well as content of the information. It would also help if the data presented is linked to (or at least set in the context of) actions taken to reduce congestion otherwise the measures could well be dismissed as pointless substitutes for proper remedial action, rather than welcomed as worthwhile monitoring tools.

One of the problems in presenting general information of this kind is that people are often not sure how far national averages would apply to their own locality or the type of driving they do themselves. There is a good case for presenting locally disaggregated information as well as national data, because this might help to enhance identification and perceived relevance.

1.3 In conclusion

Although congestion is one of the dominant problems for motorists, it interweaves in most drivers minds with the many other difficulties they feel they face. The term congestion is generally understood, but its meaning is not precise a whole range of colloquial expressions is used to express different types of situation. The word tends to be associated with delays rather than simply with traffic density. It is typically applied to jammed or crawling conditions (which is what most people find really aggravating), although some use the term more broadly to cover any density-related loss of speed.

Most people think congestion has got a lot worse in recent years, and expect the trend to continue in future. They do not expect the causal pressures to abate, are largely unaware that anything is being done to change the situation, and are not inclined to believe that any official action is likely to be effective. At root it is assumed to be the sheer number of cars on the roads which generates congestion, although a number of other factors (from school-run traffic to roadworks and traffic-calming) are often seen as immediate causes.

The main effect people complain of is that congestion causes delays and wastes time. Sometimes the hold-ups are important and pose real problems either for working or social lives but they tend to be irritating and frustrating even when this is not the case. Congestion is also blamed for exacerbating a range of other problems which are not time-related like aggressiveness or exhaustion. It also adds to stress (a major problem for many motorists), and makes less-confident drivers nervous or confused.

The importance of congestion varies according to context and temperament sometimes a minor irritation, sometimes affecting quality of life. People often adapt their behaviour and/or states of mind in various ways to cope with congestion but these adaptations are often either unsatisfactory or inconvenient. Congestion is particularly aggravating where it is unpredictable or seems unnecessary.

People would like to see congestion reduced, but tend to doubt that this will happen and often admit that it is a difficult issue. Various solutions were suggested, from better traffic management to improved public transport but it was often felt that the suggestions either would not work, or would have only marginal impact if they did. The mood is usually somewhat fatalistic.

There is a lot of resistance to the idea of congestion charging in a context where many motorists think of themselves as a persecuted minority. The idea is not well understood, seen as more of a tax than a tool, and suspected of bringing undesirable side-effects.

Drivers in the study were not much interested in the idea of measuring congestion. If such measures are to be published their purpose and meaning need to be very carefully explained, and ways found to make them seem interesting and useful. The most promising of the measures considered relate to time spent in jams, but time lost per journey or per year also have some possibilities. Seconds lost per mile generally sounds too trivial. The probability of serious delays is potentially interesting, but complicated to get across. The projected changes by the year 2010 usually strike people as too small to notice in most of these measures although even slight improvements might seem welcome when continued deterioration is expected.

Alan Hedges
Consultant, social and business planning/research
11th November, 2001

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