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The case for the car

Roads - Pollution

Pro-roads lobbyists at the World Road Congress in Paris in June made some radical claims for the future.

Mark Hansford was there.

Supporters of the car have had a rough ride in recent years, as study after study reveals more reasons why governments should put their transport budgets elsewhere. But now they are fighting back.

Their new weapon was handed to them by the International Road Federation at the recent World Road Congress (WRC) in Paris - a manifesto 'The road to development calls for the development of roads'.

The manifesto emphasises the role played by roads worldwide in improving quality of life and contributing to economic development. In particular it centres on the great strides being taken to cut road traffic pollution.

IRF speakers at WRC hit out at the 'myths' fostered by an 'antiauto vanguard' which, they claimed, has overestimated the social costs and underestimated the benefits of roads, swaying political will towards increased spending on public transport.

The IRF took the host country as a clear example of the reality of road transport. 'In France, one finds over 500 vehicles for every 1,000 inhabitants, ' the IRF explained. 'And within the next 15 years this number should increase and stabilise around 700 vehicles.

'Regrettable or desirable as this may be, the fact remains. To this day, no policy has been able to curb these figures. We might as well find better ways of using roads and their vehicles, particularly in the cities.'

Rutgers University professor of political science and public administration James Dunn Jr accused road critics of having an 'Old Testament moral aversion to the materialism and individualism that the highway system represents'.

Dunn described current policies of increased spending on mass transit and rail travel as oversold and ineffective. 'Since 1964, the US government has subsidised ú200bn of public transport, ' he explained, 'yet by the end of the 1990s total passenger trips stood at 9bn, roughly the same level as in 1960.

'Rail and road are not communicating vessels. You cannot relieve one with the other, ' he claimed.

Dunn also set aside recent studies showing that new highway capacity generated more car travel and led to renewed congestion.

'This is, at best, a half-truth, ' he claimed. 'We can not guarantee that any particular addition to highway capacity will permanently eliminate congestion. But we can guarantee that adding no new capacity will make congestion worse.'

IRF's manifesto is also heavily critical of such studies. 'It should be emphasised that the best way to fight congestion and to improve speeds is to build more roads.

Confidence in this unashamedly pro-roads stance has grown with emerging evidence that polluting discharges from road traffic are reducing dramatically. Figures from the French Car Manufacturers Committee show that successive tightening of EU restrictions has resulted in a steady decrease in emissions since 1970. According to the IRF's interpretation, today's vehicles are 20 times less polluting per unit than the vehicles of yesterday.

More dramatically still, the CCFA predicts that over the 20 year period to 2010, European emissions of nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, benzene, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter will fall by between a factor of four and eight.

However, on one vital component - carbon dioxide - there can be no positive interpretation of CCFA's figures. In fact French Ministry of Transport forecasts predict that CO 2emissions in France will rise from 110Mt/year in 1990 to over 150Mt/year by 2020.

'This is a serious issue, ' explained Paris Institute of Town planning lecturer JeanPierre Orfeuil. 'Most experts agree there is a direct link between CO 2emissions and global warming.

Orfeuil cited worldwide figures that show carbon emissions from transport rising dramatically from 1.2 billion tonnes - 20% of the total man-made emissions - in 1990, to 4 billion tonnes, or 40% of the man-made total, by 2050.

There is now no natural incentive to curb emissions, Orfeuil explained. 'The previous feeling was that resources would soon be exhausted, solving the problem. But the cost barrier between commercial and noncommercial extraction has been so reduced that from 30 years in reserve in 1973 we now have 44.'

Economic incentives are the only solution, Orfeuil claimed.

'A 10% increase in price represents a 7% drop in consumption.

Taxation is fully justified.'

However, this is not a policy endorsed by the IRF: 'High taxation compromises the efficiency of the economy and carries negative social connotations in developed countries as bearing most heavily on the lowest income groups.'

The battle is not lost however, Car makers, in Europe anyway, have recognised their responsibility by agreeing to a mean emissions level of 140g CO 2/km for all vehicles sold by 2008, a significant reduction on the current European average of 186g/km.

'The case for the car is so overwhelming it is inconceivable that it should disappear or face serious restrictions, ' concluded International Automobile Federation chairman Max Mosley. 'Technology now exists to make the car safe and pollution free, and to eradicate traffic jams. Our job is to activate this.'

Strands of Silk A project to construct a transcontinental superhighway across north central Asia, from the East China Sea to the Bosporus would sound to many like a flight of fancy.

Recreating the legendary Great Silk Road linking Europe and Asia would be civil engineering on a truly grand scale. Even as the crow flies, a trip from Istanbul to Shanghai exceeds 8,000km, includes a tortuous 2,300km stretch through six former soviet states and across the lower reaches of the Himalayas.

Impossible, surely? Not according to International Roads Federation director general Maurits Westerhuis.

At the western end, Turkey is well into a massive road building programme of its own, with 1,700km of new motorway now in operation and a further 1,200km under construction. Similarly China - through tri-lateral and bi-lateral inter-governmental agreements - is committed to connecting the road with the East China seaports. This just leaves the central core.

'Since independence, ' Westerhuis explained, 'the inability of these landlocked countries to trade freely with their neighbours has reduced inter-republic trade by as much as 79% and left little funding for infrastructure maintenance in each country.'

'Revitalising the ancient Silk Road routes is vitally important to the economy of the region, ' explained Westerhuis. 'But no single organisation has focused on the basic, connected road infrastructure to make the routes viable for tourism and trade.

In 1999 finally sold the approach of a regional rather than national approach to senior roads ministers of the countries involved - along with representatives from development banks, the EU and other funding bodies - at a conference in the Uzbekistani capital of Tashkent.

'This was a big push ahead, ' said Westerhuis. Now the project needs funding.

Of the 2,293km core route, just 48km currently exists. The IRF estimates that construction will take nine years and will require the 1,001 bridges and 182M. m 3ofearthworks.

'Successful implementation will be difficult without foreign investments, ' explained Uzbek National Highway Administration deputy chairman T Azimbaev. 'We need them for the procurement of the latest road construction machinery, and we also need modern construction technologies.'

However, in Uzbekistan work is already under way, with a 100km stretch through the ChatkalÝskiy mountain range east from the capital city Tashkent under construction. The road already carries 17,000 vehicles/ day.

'The new motorway will contribute to the economic and social development of our state, and ensure the sustainable improvement of our population's living standards, ' says Azimbaev.

'Some 85% of the population will be serviced by the road.'

Unfortunately, not all countries are as forward thinking, and a lot of problems lie ahead, explained Westerhuis. Despite this, he remains upbeat. 'Five years ago the concept of the Great Silk Road as an economic transport link was just a dream, ' he said. 'Now, the opportunity is there. Most of these countries have an abundance of natural resources, but they don't have a market. With this road, in 20-30 years they will be rich.'

Active service Air pollution at the roadside could be reduced by as much as 10% by a revolutionary form of asphalt.

This month, Shell will lay a 300m section of road in the Norwegian city of Trondheim with its Active Asphalt system, developed with Applied Plasma Physics of Norway. The material works by electrostatically trapping suspended particulate matter such as dust and vehicle exhaust fumes on to the road surface, which is then removed by rain or routine cleaning.

Normally an asphalt road surface is electrostatically charged positive due to the friction of rubber tyres. So SPM remains suspended in the air rather than settling by the natural force of gravity.

Active Asphalt is a conductive wearing course that avoids static charge generation and minimises friction-induced charges throughout its mass.

The system has already proved successful in a small scale trial last year, explained Shell's bitumen marketing manager Carl Robertus. 'We are now ready for the bigger trial on a normal road.' Mixing trials are already under way.

The road will be monitored for at least one year by Trondheim University and the Norwegian Road Authority, before any commercial production can begin.

The biggest drawback will be the cost. 'There is no doubt that the modified asphalt mix will be more expensive, ' says Robertus. 'But the value in terms of air quality will be enormous.'

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