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More roads mean more traffic – an inconvenient truth the government has ignored

Andrew Allen

The Autumn Statement was a missed opportunity. Despite some positive announcements on devolution, the government’s fetish for ever more roads comes at the expense of both the environment and more effective and better value public transport alternatives.

Both road and rail featured prominently in the mini-budget and its associated announcements, reflecting how important transport is for rebalancing the economy – and as a policy issue ahead of the General Election.

The publication of the Roads Investment Strategy (RIS), a four-year plan for the strategic road network, was presented as a £15bn road building exercise, bringing the running total committed to road spending to £30bn.

Badly flawed feasibility studies have been used to justify damaging road building schemes right across the country.

Some proposals are likely to be flashpoints, including the Stonehenge tunnel, A27 Arundel bypass in the South Downs, a number of road building plans in the Peak District and the A417 in the Cotswolds.

The government claims the investment will be transformational, creating jobs and reducing journey times. But this is wishful thinking, ignoring the inconvenient truth that new roads create new traffic.

Worse, the Government has given notice that its fixation with new tarmac will continue indefinitely. The RIS announced there will be new studies into dualing the A66 and A69, an expressway between Oxford and Cambridge, and the beginnings of a new London orbital outside the M25 and even a £6bn road tunnel under the Peak District.

This is all happening while better, more sustainable, transport options like cycling and walking are not getting the investment they need, and buses are even seeing their funding being cut.

Other transport announcements were generally more positive, if lacking the detail that had been hoped for. The Chancellor was not able to announce any other cities had joined Manchester in taking more control of transport affairs from Whitehall.

There were encouraging signs about the transport element of the Northern Powerhouse. Transport for the North (covering Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Hull and Newcastle) is in its early days, but could evolve into a regional transport authority, copying similar approaches in Germany, for example.

The government must back up the progress being made here with a comprehensive transport strategy for the north, an interim version of which is due from the Department for Transport in the spring. Plans for significant investment need also to be clear in the Invitations to Tender for the Northern Rail and TransPennine Express franchises due imminently. 

These initiatives show government has a vital role in facilitating transport policy that fits with modern needs. They also draw into sharp focus the problems with its approach to roads, much of which are simply about building more and bigger, regardless of need, desirability or effectiveness.  

Andrew Allen is policy analyst at the Campaign for Better Transport

Readers' comments (6)

  • I think that the way in which the Government spends money would indicate that it does not have a "fetish" - which is an entirely unnecessary word which completely undermines some of the sensible comments made in the rest of this article.

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  • Another inconvenient truth is that without some investment in roads, our economy is increasingly being constrained and the misery of many travellers exacerbated and the opportunity for improving safety is lost.

    Yes we need investments in other transport forms and we need to look at alternatives to travelling period, but the simplistic message to Andrew's commentary isn't too helpful.

    The reality is no government has invested enough in ANY form of transport in the past 30 years, so investment is to be welcomed in the all.

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  • I much prefer Mark Hansford's take on this - a view far more realistic and sensible. You have only got to look at the images of the miles and miles of traffic stuck at Stonehenge (and elsewhere) to realise that this is not about driving roads through for the sake of it, rather it is to sort out the last of the pinch points which result in traffic rat-running off the Strategic Road Network through towns and villages on roads wholly unsuitable for the purpose. That transforms quality of life for those communities no longer dogged by such traffic, reduces accidents and improves all manner of metrics.

    Yes of course new roads attract traffic but that's only a problem when those roads are not adequate for the job. The RIS seems to recognise this and will make the SRN, by and large, fit for purpose, which at present it is not.

    It's about time that the the Campaign for Better Transport woke up and smelled the coffee. They seem to be unable to differentiate between strategic long distance traffic (such as in the RIS) and local, urban traffic which, by all means, lobby to divert drivers towards walking and cycling - typically 50% of urban journeys are of a distance that could be walked or cycled. But Stonehenge has no local traffic, it's in the middle of no-where.

    CfRT will gain no favours if they stand in the way of this welcome and long overdue transformation.

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  • A classic article by an urbanite.
    My nearest bus (once each way per day) is almost 2km away, the next nearest is over 3km and the nearest train station is 12km. It is ludicrous to think that any economic argument can be made for increasing public transport to 'usable' levels such that I do not need a car.

    The rural areas at least need independent transport which, currently, means cars. Similarly rural industries which can provide the life blood to allow the 'green and pleasant land' to be maintained for urbanite recreation, need transport links for getting their goods to the markets.

    Not only do we need improved (rather than new generally) roads we need to look at the balance between police investigations of accidents and the community need to keep moving and make the best use of what roads we do have.

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  • My first job 36 years ago as an undergraduate sandwich student on my year out from university was working on the design of a dualling scheme for part of the A303. It has not yet been built. Perhaps this time!

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  • Arthur Allen should take care not to stand sideways on to a bright light. Yes, better roads (or trains, or any transport system) makes it possible, and affordable to visit, commute from, areas which were inaccessible previously. London commuters from Milton Keynes etc?
    Never took more than 30 minutes on public transport to get home; indeed went home for lunch unless I was out in the Hebrides.

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