A silver lining of the lockdown has been free-flowing traffic and quieter roads, but as we ease restrictions and people return to the office, traffic gridlock is likely to return.
Even if post-pandemic working hours are more flexible, economists tell us that demand always expands beyond supply to cause congestion.
According to a new report published by the Department of Transport, congestion charges should be considered in Dublin and Cork to discourage motorists from driving into cities, reduce emissions and improve air quality.
Traffic congestion is a global economic problem and in Ireland it costs as much as €350m every year. In addition, four people die per day due to traffic-related pollution, so there is a compelling need to manage road congestion effectively.
But would a congestion charge in our cities work? A congestion charge is a blunt instrument — there is no denying that it is regressive as it takes a higher percentage of income in tax from poorer drivers. Plus, charged as a flat fee it fails to capture the time spent in the designated zone.
Implemented in 2003, the London congestion charging system was the first of its kind to be introduced in a major European city. The system covers a 21-square-kilometre zone and the initial daily charge was £5.
Within a year the scheme was generating net revenues of approximately £122m, from which £100m was spent on improving bus services and congestion had fallen by 30pc. Today, coupled with an additional charge for the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), taking a car into the city centre of London can cost as much as £27.50 (€31.64) daily.
From the outset, the scheme had a clear objective to significantly reduce the level of congestion faced by those travelling in and out of central London both by private and by public transport. It was also just one part of an integrated approach to improve public transport.
However, despite its apparent success, there are many who argue it is no longer fit for purpose. The Centre for London think tank has called on Sadiq Khan, the city's mayor, to introduce a London-wide system of road-user pricing that would charge drivers based on distance travelled, type of vehicle, time of day, levels of congestion and availability of different travel options as an alternative.
Traffic congestion continues to increase in all parts of the city and the demands on London's road network are increasingly outstripping capacity as the number of delivery vans and private hire vehicles is on the rise; somehow London has managed to remove private cars but not solve the issue of congestion.
In addition, road space has been considerably reduced to provide cycle lanes and pedestrian infrastructure, but the biggest loser has been the main mode of transport for Londoners — the bus network. Bus speeds have slowed to a crawl, resulting in a fall in passenger numbers and a worsening of air quality.
London's experience highlights the importance of balancing the needs of cyclists and pedestrians with those of mass transit.
Given how important public transport is to the quality of life, sense of freedom and independence of older people and people with disabilities, it is clear there is little to be gained from taking space away from buses.
One of the main obstacles to the implementation of congestion charges is public acceptability and how feasible it is for motorists to substitute travel by private car for travel by public transport. For public buy-in, there has to be viable alternative transport.
The roll-out of the London Congestion scheme coincided with the parallel introduction of other transport improvements, including additional rail and bus capacity. An additional 300 buses were put into service on the day the charge was introduced.
Some transport experts estimate that it will be the end of the decade before we will have the transport options available to justify the introduction of congestion charges.
Projects such as Bus Connects and the Dart expansion typically involve years of planning and setbacks before they go live. The proposed Metrolink, with a rail system linking Dublin Airport with the city centre, dates back to a 2005 Government Transport plan.
By the end of this decade, the Government will be facing a serious shortfall of revenue as electric cars start to outnumber petrol and diesel while the billions of euro in annual fuel tax take slowly disappear. A ‘pay as you drive’ model, a system of road pricing under which the charges for driving would vary according to the time of day and the location, is likely to be implemented instead.
Telematics in a car can collect a host of information including emissions, location and occupancy, while future technologies could potentially provide a range of ways to influence trip-making and mode choice. The same technology could be deployed to tackle congestion in all our cities and on national routes.
Over the next decade, we need bold thinking not only to address how we manage traffic demand in our cities but, crucially, how we allocate road space. London is proof you can price motorists off the road and still not tackle congestion nor provide a functioning bus network — the mode of choice of the elderly, disabled people and those with mobility issues.
The allocation of road space distribution has enormous implications for accessibility and social equity and getting the balance right between all the competing interests is the key to liveable cities.