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Tony's blog: New road capacity does not simply 'fill up with traffic'

I can only describe our current course as a 'head in the sand' transport policy

Tony Ridley is an ICE past president and trustee of the RAC Foundation for Motoring

As a former President of the Institution of Civil Engineers it has been a joy in 2007 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Thomas Telford, Brunel's illustrious predecessor and ICE's first President, with no less than 1,900km of new or improved roads to his name and more than 1100 bridges, as well as many other projects.

In 2008 we shall celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of Britain's first stretch of motorway and it is fitting that we should recognise the work of Telford's successors and the motorway network they have bequeathed to posterity, much less applauded than the railways but of equal value to the wealth of the nation and the well-being of its citizens.

The RAC Foundation has recently published 'Roads and Reality', a report on research carried out on our behalf by Banks, Bayliss and Glaister.

It carries a number of recommendations. Different readers will have different views on these recommendations - which is their prerogative.

What no one seriously interested in transport policy, or the problems of the country's infrastructure, is entitled to do however, is ignore the analysis. By all means let us argue about solutions, but first we must, I repeat must, debate and then agree what the questions and issues are.

The report addresses a number of myths which have bedevilled the transport debate. Namely:
- New road capacity does not simply 'fill up with traffic'
- Roads do not occupy large areas of land
- Railways are not more efficient users of space than main roads
- Expanding the road network will not have a material effect on climate change
- Traffic pollution is not getting worse
- Public transport is not a general alternative to the private car.

The authors base their analyses on relatively modest forecasts of population and economic growth by 2041, which will lead to an increase in car ownership from 26 to 38 million, and an increase in demand for road space of some 40%.

Moreover these increases will take place disproportionately highly in those areas of the country where roads are already most over-crowded.

What shall we do? Let congestion and wasted time grow unchecked; or, build or widen roads without reforming pricing; or, reform pricing and heavily restrain demand (which I am virtually certain is politically unfeasible); or, rely on combining reformed pricing with additional capacity - to improve efficient use of road space, and to preserve mobility.

Of course there are many other things that we can do – that I, as someone who has devoted a substantial part of my life to railways, am bound to advocate.

But I am not so foolish as to ignore the fact that by far the largest proportion of motorised movement of people and goods takes place by road. No amount of, albeit welcome, investment in rail will 'solve the roads problem'.

What we must not do is allow the 'single solution merchants' to dominate the debate. They say 'just spend enough on railways', or 'price the excess cars off the roads', or 'build enough roads and forget about pricing', or even 'get people out of their cars on motorways and put them in coaches', and all will be well.

Life is about balance between supply and demand. Moreover the complex transport challenges of today require not single solutions but packages of measures.

I have recently spent a week in Singapore as one of a team of six so-called International Experts advising the Minister of Transport on their plans for the future.

They have an excellent transport system, but they know that, with increasing affluence and a population that is increasing from four to six million, they will have to look again at the future.

They don't argue about this measure v that measure v the other measure. They build railways and they develop their buses and they use demand management and they build roads (including urban roads in tunnels) and they plan their development together with their transport, and, of course, they have no oil.

The analysis by the authors of Roads and Reality shows that there is a strong economic case for more strategic road building at an annual rate of some 600 lane kilometres per year. This matches the average rate of road building in the late 80s and early 90s, a rate which has fallen away to some 100 lane kilometres per year, while car ownership and traffic has continued to increase inexorably.

Much has been said about the problems of 'predict and provide'. But just look at the result of 'predict and don't provide'. I can only describe our current course as a 'head in the sand' transport policy.

Road building, combined with efficient road pricing, would result in high economic returns since mobility would be enhanced while congestion is reduced. It would also be fairer, because the extra capacity would reduce the price necessary to contain congestion, and travel by car would be affordable for more people on lower incomes.

The authors' analysis abolishes fuel duty, replacing it with a carbon charge less than 30 percent as high. This charge amply covers environmental costs, which are in any case rapidly falling as a result of improved technology. Efficient road pricing more than covers the cost of the removal of fuel duty, and provides more than enough funds to pay for the cost a national road pricing system as well as covering the cost of the new road capacity, including measures to make roads more environmentally friendly, such as tunnelling and quieter road surfaces.

The authors say that the introduction of national road pricing would require changes in organisation. They propose the possibility of a National Roads Corporation in the long term. More immediately, however, they suggest that the DfT should set up a transport planning capability which will make an assessment of the country's road needs for the next 30-50 years.

It should not be restricted to the network of strategic roads which the Highways Agency manages at present, but should cover other major national and regional routes. This capability should, in principle, also cover the national railway network.

In their view there is a strong case for an extensive network managed and developed for a primarily national role - perhaps about the 10 percent of busiest roads forming a coherent network outside the largest towns and cities – related principally to the needs of inter-regional and international traffic. This should connect directly to all major economic and population centres and to transport interchanges – airports, ports etc.

A fundamental review should be undertaken to establish the appropriate national strategic network. Regard should be had to the Primary Route Network distinguished by green-backed signs. This network is widely used for longer journeys. It links most major transport destinations but it is not kept up to date by regular review.

But, say the authors, the most important ingredient is the recognition by Government of the urgency and scale of the tasks.

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