Highways England has published its initial report on the Strategic Road Network. Does it offer an early Christmas present or an unhappy New Year?
From 2020, the Second Road Investment Strategy (RIS2) will be rolled out across England. Highways England’s initial report on the Strategic Road Network sets out their proposals to Government on how they want to spend the national Roads Fund from 2020 to 2025 and beyond.
We called for a fix it first approach, repairing the roads we have before building new ones; better integration with local transport, walking and cycling; and showing environmental leadership on biodiversity, air quality and climate change.
So how does Highways England's plan shape up?
It’s good to see a focus on operations, maintenance and renewals, in line with our Fix it First approach, and for some funding earmarked for local priorities and smaller schemes. We’d like to see more emphasis on these being multi-modal, given the excellent value for money demonstrated by the Local Sustainable Transport Fund.
The report proposes strengthening the role of the Design Panel, in line with our recommendations, including reviews of some sensitive schemes.
The report has warm words on the environment: "Our aspiration is not just to minimise harm, but to run a network which works harmoniously with its surroundings to deliver an overall positive impact on the environment." There are proposals committing to support a net gain in biodiversity by 2040 and to achieve a zero emission network, and there’s reference to simple yet sensible measures such as dimming the lights when there are fewer vehicles on the network:
We’re glad to see our evidence acknowledged, backed up with plans to continue designated funds for wellbeing and the environment, and for connecting communities. But our environmental agenda applies to the whole RIS, not just some green trimmings.
Cutting traffic levels is essential if we are to achieve our CO2 reduction targets and accommodate a growing population without gridlock, and that’s simply not reflected in this report.
Motorways by stealth
Smart motorways and expressways will be the backbone of the network. Expressway schemes aim to offer “a motorway-like experience” on upgraded A roads. Among the routes identified for this treatment are the A14 in Cambridgeshire and the A303/ A358 in the South West (including the Stonehenge tunnel) as well as the Oxford –Cambridge expressway which we are told will be “ready to open by 2030”.
We’ve highlighted the potential benefits and risks from expressways: it's crucial they are designed to serve their neighbours as well as cross-country traffic. We’re worried that the SRN report talks about phased development, ending up with full motorway designation: building motorways by stealth across the countryside is the wrong solution for our transport challenges.
The report does list RIS1 schemes that will now be delivered in the second Road Investment period, but while some schemes, including the Lower Thames Crossing, are controversial, they are not new.
There’s no detailed list of proposed road schemes for RIS2, but there is talk of “key route upgrades”, including potentially
- upgrading the entire A1 in England to be a motorway
- further upgrading the M60 South East quadrant around Manchester
- “building greater resilience” on the M6 corridor Manchester to Birmingham, which could mean motorway widening or developing parallel routes.
The report also refers to investigating the development of “strategic orbital routes”, with the aim of relieving urban congestion, supporting increased urbanisation and providing improved integration with public transport. Urbanisation and integration are concepts we support, but using them to try and justify building new ring roads is a backwards step.
We’d prefer to see the integration come first, rather than concreting over more of the countryside, only to see more induced traffic recreating problems in years to come. There’s much more that could be done, such as better signposting to Park & Ride or improving bus priority at key junctions. Bus and coach operators and passenger groups have lots of good ideas that could and should be picked up for RIS2.
A greener future?
A lot of the media coverage has focused on the potential for a fibre optic network to transmit road information directly to connected vehicles: we welcome the potential for making the clutter of motorway signs obsolete, although that seems to be at odds with smart motorways and expressways rolling out gantries and grade-separated junctions nationwide.
There is still an over reliance on new technology as the answer to all our problems. Yes, electric cars are great for cutting tailpipe emissions and form a vital part of a low carbon future: but we need fewer cars as well as newer cars. That means Highways England championing better multi-modal travel information, demand management and moves towards road pricing. On that, the report is silent. But we are not! With your support, we’ll continue to speak up for greener roads.
Consultation on the report runs until 8 February: have your say.
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