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Roads to Nowhere

Major road building is failing to deliver

Bridget Fox's picture

Two major reports in as many days have confirmed that major road building is failing to deliver, and causing damage to our environment and the public purse in the process.  It’s time for a fresh approach.

New roads create new traffic. It’s a simple truth we’ve been asserting for years, with evidence going back to at least the 1994 SACTRA report and with many older examples.

Induced traffic – “if you build it they will come” – arises not only from existing travellers using the new route, but also additional journeys being made, encouraged by the promise of new or expanded road space.

A major new report from CPRE using detailed research from TfQL has examined 86 road schemes from the last 20 years. The data comes from the official POPE reports – the Government’s own record of scheme evaluation and performance.This is an unprecedented level of analysis and its results are clear.  

  • Traffic is up.  The schemes generated significantly more traffic than roads in general, and that has increased over time, with increases of up to 47% over 20 years.
  • Environmental  damage.   New roads have caused permanent damage to our landscape and natural environment, and not solved safety and pollution problems
  • Little or no economic benefit.   Despite all the claims made in advance, the new roads have failed to deliver the promised growth, with at best one in four showing economic uplift.

It’s not just past road plans that have been shown to fail: the current Road Investment Strategy is under pressure.

The National Audit Office, who scrutinise value for money for the taxpayer, has just issued a critical report on how the current £15bn Road Investment Strategy is faring in practice. It found that the RIS was put together in a hurry, bringing  risks for "deliverability, affordability and value for money".

Highways England has ‘over programmed’ the RIS1 delivery plan – that is, it’s committed to deliver more road schemes than it has the time and money to do – and will need to cut the programme to get back on track.

To quote the Head of the NAO, “Decisive action needs to be taken before the updated delivery plan is published in the summer if shortcomings in the current strategy are not to be carried over into future road investment periods.”

What does this mean in practice?

New road plans will certainly be facing tough scrutiny, particularly claims on economic benefit and environmental impacts, based on the evidence from these reports.

Already this year, we've seen the controversial A27 Chichester plans have been dropped, and plans to widen the M25 South West Quadrant ruled out.    

There’s fresh speculation as to which other road plans could be scrapped, although it’s more likely schemes will be delayed into RIS2 (which starts in 2020) than dropped altogether.

We have some practical suggestions for Highways England to balance the books while giving us a road network fit for the future.

  • Place a halt on major new road schemes until the programme as a whole has been brought back into line, making safety and maintenance projects the priority
  • Focus on making the current network work better rather than expanding it, with better maintenance and better quality design for all road users.
  • Instead of building more 20th century solutions – new roads – let’s have a road network fit for the 21st century,  designed for low carbon, less polluting modes and better use of new technology for smarter journey planning.
  • Use the designated funds to reduce the environmental impact of major roads, and make the best practice from this part of ‘business as usual’ for future programmes.
  • Create truly integrated transport corridors with high quality provision for public transport, cycling and walking, particularly where major roads meet town and city centres.
  • Manage capacity on the road network better,  with concerted action to shift freight to rail, prioritise buses, and prepare the way for potential peak use charging.

This is a real opportunity for all involved in transport planning, including the new sub-national transport bodies, to deliver a truly sustainable and integrated network, that serves the interests of communities, travellers and the tax payer.  The forthcoming Clean Air Zones guidance and Cycling & Walking Investment strategy could help signpost this fresh approach. 

The next Road Investment Strategy (from 2020) is taking shape now. It’s in everyone’s interest to get this right.

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