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Don't close off road

In the last month the Government has set out its heavy presumption against new road construction. This culminated last Friday with the publication of its New deal for trunk roads in England document.

It sets out a slimmed down, but achievable, programme of 37 road schemes, to address 'the most pressing problems we face on the trunk road network'. This comes on top of the 11 schemes approved last year under the Accelerated Roads Review.

The impression is that the revised programme is a stop-gap measure to ease congestion until the Government's integrated transport policies are up and running in a few years time.

But the question now is whether the Government is clamping down on new road construction too early in its quest for a fully integrated transport policy. Some observers also wonder whether the government is playing for time by deferring a whole raft of projects - 44 in total - for further study.

MVA chairman Martin Richards believes that many more roads still need to be built before congestion can be tackled effectively. Richards says the revised programme is 'not enough in terms of the level of expenditure.'

Others agree. ICE Council member and Transportation Planning (International) director Terry Mulroy says that the Government should have grasped the nettle and committed itself to more bypasses. 'If we can get rid of through traffic in towns there is a better chance of getting in local traffic calming.'

Mulroy believes that once town centres are rid of through traffic, localised measures could bring traffic speeds down - perhaps to match those of bicycles or even pedestrians. This would make such alternative transport modes more attractive.

Mulroy hopes that congestion can be tackled in the long term through a range of methods to chip away at road use. These will include cycling initiatives, efforts to get freight onto the rail network, walk to work campaigns and even attempts to change school opening hours or discourage the tendency of NHS Trusts to merge hospitals onto single sites. 'But at the end of the day some additional network capacity will be required,' he maintains.

Parkman Transportation managing director Graham Kilner also backs the case for road building. He says that even a massive modal shift towards bus or rail will do little to ease traffic congestion as the number of car journeys will still keep rising.

He says that for the Government to reduce congestion by 10% on 1996 levels by 2010, bus use would have to increase by a factor of five, rail travel would have to increase by 250% and cycling would have to quadruple. This is because nothing is being done to stop the growth in demand for travel.

Kilner says that one of the flaws in the Government's thinking is that it lacks decisive efforts to curb road demand. The view is shared by MVA's Richards who believes the Government needs to introduce more draconian charges on motorists making inter-urban trips so that only the most important journeys are made by car.

The feeling among transport consultants is that the new roads programme is a compromise. The Government wants to keep road spending down because it is expensive - it is even considering Lottery funding for some of the environmental mitigation work on the bypass around Stonehenge.

But at the same time Prime Minister Tony Blair has put pressure on the Treasury and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to preserve some of the roads programme so as not to alienate car driving voters.

In reality it will be some time before the short and long term transport policies initiated by Labour start to gel. Only then will voters in congested towns be able to decide whether the decision to axe their bypass was the right one.

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