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Future road building based on outdated trends

As ever, there has been plenty of rumour about what is likely to be announced in the Autumn Statement. Damaging road schemes are set to be a key part.

Chancellor George Osborne and chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander have dropped heavy hints that the first Road Investment Strategy, which forms part of the Statement, will mean projects like dualling the A1 north of Newcastle, a road tunnel at Stonehenge and even schemes in the South Downs and Peak District National Parks will be pushed forward.

One of the main reasons these damaging and unnecessary schemes keep being revived is that the analysis of their value relies on faulty traffic forecasts in the Department for Transport’s modelling.

Over the last two decades, traffic in Great Britain has diverged from previous historical trends. There has been a flattening of growth since the 1990s; a plateau/peak in the mid-2000s followed by a decline; then a flattening off of this decline since around 2010. The most recent National Travel Survey illustrates how driving patterns are changing, with the number of trips per person by car and van having been in steep decline since 1997 – down 12% over this 16 year period. But this is not reflected in the official forecasts, which still assume traffic growth based on long outdated old trends.

Add to this the long-established principle of induced traffic, and you have road building policies that not only fail in their own terms, but will cause large-scale environmental damage, embed reliance on the car, undermine efforts to reach carbon reduction targets and worsen exposure to dangerously dirty air.

None of this is to argue that the road network should receive no investment, and there are potential advantages to the longer-term approach represented by the Road Investment Strategy. As I’ve discussed before, a green retrofit programme could dramatically reduce the impact of existing roads on wildlife, views, noise, air and water pollution, while promoting bus and coach priority and better crossings and facilities for walking and cycling. The Treasury should also divert significant funds from road building to road maintenance, helping to tackle the estimated £12bn backlog of potholes on local roads which are waiting to be filled.

The chancellor can also do much more to help people leave their cars at home altogether. He should make good on his commitment to improve east-west connectivity between cities like Leeds and Manchester, creating a “Northern Powerhouse” by stepping in to ensure the future Northern and TransPennine rail franchises deliver better services and affordable fares for the millions of passengers who use them now, and who might use them in future as part of an economic renaissance in the region. The Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF) could be put on a stronger long term footing, allowing the continuance of its high-value effect on improving connectivity and accessibility through both capital and revenue funding.

Arguably even more effective would be to devolve far more transport decision making away from Whitehall and to the Combined Authorities and Integrated Transport Authorities in England’s main metropolitan areas. Experience in London, Scotland and Wales shows that when you devolve decision making, transport gets more priority and more funding. Devolution in this way can therefore be used to improve accountability, enhance efficiency of transport spending and support the creation of well-connected local networks which are properly integrated with land-use planning policies.

Devolving transport decision making represents the kind of strategic, locally driven and long term thinking that the government says it wants. It is this that the Chancellor should be supporting, not a flawed, centrally driven programme of damaging and unnecessary new roads.

  • Andrew Allen is policy analyst at Campaign for Better Transport

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