This originally appeared in the Morning Star of Tuesday December 6 2016.
WHEN Theresa May became prime minister, she signalled an intention to back away from austerity. In that spirit, new Chancellor Philip Hammond announced extra cash for infrastructure in his Autumn Statement, the centrepiece being £1.3 billion for new and “improved” roads.
Naturally with the Conservatives, all is not as it seems. The government isn’t really ditching austerity and the extra roads cash comes on top of huge amounts set aside by George Osborne. While there was supposedly “no money left” — to the point that it had to be taken from the pockets (and often the mouths) of disabled people, civil servants, firefighters, health workers, children… just about everyone — Osborne somehow found enough underneath the sofa cushions for a £15bn roads programme (announced first in June 2013 and reannounced, er, twice in late 2014).
How much exactly has been budgeted for capital spending on roads isn’t clear, but Transport Secretary Chris Grayling recently said that Hammond’s extra roads cash “is over and above the £23bn” already being spent on roads — I’d be amazed if anyone knows the true total.
It’s a huge wodge of cash when the Con-Dem coalition cut £25bn from the welfare budget between 2010 and 2015. This is major support for roadbuilding — Hammond said he would “end the war on motorists” when he was made transport secretary in 2010.
Osborne promised “the biggest investment in our roads since the 1970s,” to build “all available Highways Agency road projects to tackle the most congested parts of the network” including by “adding extra lanes to the busiest motorways” and “upgrading the national non-motorway network … with a large proportion moved to dual-lane and grade-separated road standard to ensure free-flowing traffic nationwide.” And Grayling recently reiterated that the road schemes are “focused on congestion.”
There’s a problem with all this: new roads and road “improvements” — code for wider and faster — tend to make congestion worse. It’s counterintuitive but proven: more roads mean more cars in the extra space, not extra space for the existing cars.
It’s been established since at least the 1930s, when the roads engineer Charles Bressey noted “the remarkable manner in which new roads generate new traffic.” In New York, Robert Moses was opening the Triborough Bridge, which quickly smashed traffic forecasts — congestion which Moses used to justify other bridges and urban motorways, which were soon jammed, needing more roads, and on and on.
The reasons are straightforward. People see the new road, think it’ll be faster and easier, and switch from other routes (which suffer a similar fate). Or switch to the car from public transport. Or make journeys they wouldn’t have made. Or make longer journeys. Or make journeys at the busiest times. Or move further away, dependent on the new road.
This is called induced traffic — traffic that wouldn’t have otherwise existed were it not for the new or wider road. Transport expert Phil Goodwin remarked 10 years ago that “for 80 years, every eight years on average, there has been the same experience, the same conclusions — even, for goodness sake, more or less the same figures” showing that when a road is built or widened it fills up with traffic.
Over 20 years ago the then Department of Transport accepted this principle after a major report (“Trunk roads and the generation of traffic”). This was important because for decades planners had put out inflated traffic forecasts and insisted vast tracts of new Tarmac be laid down to cope (known as “predict and provide”).
It appears we’re back to that, building for more cars when we must slash car use for the sake of our health and environment. Meanwhile everyday maintenance suffers as council budgets are cut; an industry survey predicts that £12bn is needed to get local roads up to scratch.
It’s no use moaning at people for driving when government policy has for decades been to provide for cars. For many people there are no other options — public transport is patchy and expensive when it’s there at all, and walking and cycling is frequently indirect, unpleasant and hazardous.
This isn’t inevitable and final. Reversing decades of decline and privatisation of our buses, trams and trains would take up many journeys made by car.
Look at London to see how much decent public transport can handle (though the Tube is increasingly overcrowded).
This obviously greatly benefits the quarter of households with no car — often the poorest who also most suffer from others’ car use.
But we absolutely must make best use of our road space and it’s here that the quickest, cheapest and often most beneficial changes can be made.
Two thirds of trips are shorter than five miles — under 30 minutes slow cycling, yet 77 per cent of trips of two to five miles are done by car. It’s easy to see why: 64 per cent of people think cycling on the road is too dangerous.
When good, safe cycleways are built people flock to them. In London, cycling on roads with new high-quality tracks has increased by half — when Blackfriars Bridge is busiest people on cycles make up 70 per cent of all traffic but in the space of just a single motor vehicle lane, next to a four-lane road.
It’s an incredibly efficient use of road space for moving people and great value, with a mile of protected cycleway costing £2-3 million. For comparison, turning the A9 from Perth to Inverness into a dual carriageway costs £37m per mile.
That’s also a narrow view of the value. Reducing car use reduces pollution, which each year causes 40,000 deaths and costs the NHS and businesses £20bn. Meanwhile walking and cycling improve people’s health and help to tackle obesity, which costs the economy £47bn a year with direct costs to the NHS of about £16bn from obesity and diabetes.
And of course, road transport accounts for a quarter of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, which we must cut drastically to avoid roasting the planet.
Cycling offers greater independence for disabled people too, as the wonderful Wheels for Wellbeing has shown. Dedicated safe cycle infrastructure makes it possible for people of all ages and abilities to get around under their own steam.
A nationwide road modernisation programme that provides space for walking and cycling would pay for itself many times over and is an ideal candidate for a chunk of Labour’s proposed £500bn of public investment. It would greatly improve our transport where the Tories’ Mr Toad roadbuilding fantasy would leave us stranded on JG Ballard’s Concrete Island.