The city of Plymouth is mostly situated between the rivers Tamar and Plym, and as anybody with just a moderate degree of intelligence would gladly tell you, rivers tend to be disruptive to roads.
To cross the Tamar, drivers can choose between the Torpoint Ferry, the Tamar Bridge, or a very long detour via Tavistock.
To cross the Plym, driver can choose between Laira Bridge, Marsh Mills, or another long detour (via some at times iffy rural lanes).
Here's a rather crudely annotated map:
The blue bits are obviously water, and as you can see, there's a fair bit of that around. The two yellow shapes represent the new town of Sherford (building of which is to start during Spring 2014) and Saltram Meadow, a new housing estate already being built as I'm writing this.
Sherford will have 5 500 houses, while Saltram Meadow I believe will have up to 1 700 new houses. That is a potential 7 200 new houses, which is good for Plymouth. Except if the people moving into those houses want to travel across the river Plym into Plymouth.
Plymouth's arterial roads are, during rush hour, at capacity right now, before adding all those extra cars to it. Travelling into Plymouth from the South Eastern Area roughly drawn on the map would in almost all cases mean crossing Laira Bridge. Laira Bridge offers 2 lanes of traffic in either direction and during rush hour is struggling to cope.
A minor collision, or simply a broken-down vehicle usually results in delays of half an hour or more at the moment. Increasing the volume of traffic over Laira Bridge means the congestion will start earlier and last longer, while the risk of a collision or broken-down vehicle is greatly increased. Subsequent delays will also be far worse, due to the added traffic.
Travelling into Plymouth from the North Eatern Area would mostly pass through Marsh Mills roundabout, then following Embankment Road in. This route is also at capacity during rush hour, and minor disruption often causes very long tailbacks.
To make matters worse. most traffic from Embankment Road or Laira Bridge then merges onto Gdynia Way. Almost any disruption to Gdynia Way causes havoc with Plymouth traffic and when it's closed for whatever reason, the city gridlocks. When gridlocked, a journey of 3 miles from the city centre to Plymstock can take two hours, or even far longer.
There are very few alternative routes to choose from, and what alternatives there are rapidly gridlocks as drivers try and avoid the jams.
Plymouth simply was never designed to cope with such levels of traffic. Sure, it is theoretically possible to widen certain roads, and either widen Laira Bridge, or build another bridge alongside it, but the costs of doing so would be so vast it would certainly outweigh the benefits such schemes may bring.
Add to that the old saying of "Building more roads to easy congestion is like loosening your belt when overeating". Put plainly, that really is no solution at all, and as various new roads schemes around the world has shown, traffic simply grows to absorb any spare capacity.
Clearly we need a new plan, a better plan, a plan that will reduce traffic.
There are only a few ways of reducing traffic. We can force people to have staggered times of work, so everybody won't hit the road roughly at the same time, but that will create huge problems in itself.
We can improve public transport, to get as many people out of cars and onto buses, boats and trains as possible. While doing so will undoubtedly reduce traffic, it isn't an ideal solution. Ever tried taking a bus from Plymstock to say Derriford? First, you take a bus into town, then wait to catch another bus out of town. Not exactly an elegant solution, to be taken around two sides of a tri-angle, now is it?
More importantly, simply by ensuring public transport is available won't coax most drivers out of their cars. After all, we have public transport right now, yet most cars travelling into Plymouth have a single occupant.
A far better solution is to change the road hierarchy, favouring public transport and alternative modes of transport, such as cycling, over cars. To take road space away from cars.
Plymouth is standing at a crossroads and needs to decide where it's going.
Will it choose to continue tinkering with roads, trying to maximise motorised traffic flow, or will it make a bold decision?
Will the city decide that cities are all about people and not about cars? Will it accept that roads are corridors to move people, and that roads shouldn't be the domain of cars? Will Plymouth have the vision and the courage to free itself from its current bondage to cars?
The Plymouth 2020 Partnership has as strapline the aim of becoming one of Europes finest, most vibrant waterfront cities. That's a noble aim, which I support completely.
Except, let's go and take a look at Europe's actual finest, most vibrant waterside cities:
Paris banned HGVs from entering the city, and have turned roads into parks for people. Seville installed hundreds of kilometers of properly segregated cycle paths, igniting an instant boom in cycling (with an associated reduction in motorised traffic).
Copenhagen has exceptionally good cycling infrastructure, resulting in over a third of all journeys there being made by bicycle.
And that;s before we even mention Amsterdam.
It is time for Plymouth to be brave!
The only realistic way to significantly reduce traffic over a route such as Laira Bridge is to put in place safe, segregated cycle expressways that don't force cyclists to yield priority for no apparent reason. Cycle expressways that are as direct as we can make them, and that are safe due to being physically segegated from motorised traffic.
Research effort after research effort all confirm the same thing: there is a huge latent demand for cycling, but most current non-cyclists won't cycle due to the fear of mixing with motorised traffic. Build the safe infrastructure and watch cycling levels boom, with a corresponding reduction in motorised traffic. Everybody's better off, even those that can't or won't cycle.
Come on, Plymouth, we can do this!