The end of the road?

CPRE Kent  has long argued that increased road building in fact leads to increased traffic, does not reduce journey times and does not bring the promised economic growth to areas. Plus it can destroy beautiful areas of countryside.

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Traffic by Jon Coller

New research published by CPRE today (March 20th) reveals that road-building is failing to provide the congestion relief and economic boost promised, while devastating the environment [1].

No wonder we are so concerned at the wisdom of potentially spending £3billion on a new Lower Thames Crossing east of Gravesend which would have a terrible economic impact and not solve the problem of congestion at the Dartford crossings.

The research, the largest ever independent review of completed road schemes in England, arrives as Highways England starts consulting on which road schemes will receive funding, set to triple to £3 billion a year by 2020 [2].

Drawing on the research, CPRE’s report The end of the road? directly challenges government claims that ‘the economic gains from road investment are beyond doubt’ [3]; that road-building will lead to ‘mile a minute’ journeys; and that the impact on the environment will be limited ‘as far as possible’ [4]. The report shows how road building over the past two decades has repeatedly failed to live up to similar aims.

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Traffic was found to increase much more in road corridors with new schemes than background traffic in the surrounding area. Schemes completed eight to 20 years ago demonstrated a traffic increase of 47%, while traffic more than doubled in one scheme [5]. All new schemes put pressure on adjoining roads, while there were negligible reductions in journey times [6]. We repeatedly see the cycle of more roads generating more traffic and congestion which leads to demands for more roads; in other words, building roads leads to building more roads.

Road schemes failed to deliver the boost to jobs and local economies so often promised. Of roads promoted for their benefits to the local economy, just one in five demonstrated any evidence at all of economic benefit, and that was weak.

More than half of the road schemes analysed harmed protected landscapes and designated environmental sites, including National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, ancient woodland and historic places. Overall, there was evidence that 80% of schemes built damaged the surrounding environment. The case studies also revealed specific examples where attempts to protect rare animals and plants failed.

Ralph Smyth, head of infrastructure and legal at the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), said:

“The Government is keen to sell the biggest road-building programme since the 1970s, but this is a programme that will forever fail on its own terms, producing a depressing, self-perpetuating cycle of more and more roads that do little for the economy and harm the countryside.

“This landmark research shows that any benefits from road building are far smaller than thought but the harm much worse. The Road Investment Strategy needs to be reset – not receive three times more funding.

“Rather than looking to the past, the Government must invest in a forward looking mobility strategy that puts quality of life ahead of the car. The Government should reopen old rail lines, offer people travel options in town and countryside, and harness new technology to make more efficient use of road space. It should promote new housing on brownfield sites closer to jobs and services, rather than unleash car-dependent sprawl on green fields.

“We are seemingly stuck in an ideological traffic jam from which we cannot escape. Building ever bigger roads should be the last resort – not the default choice.”

Notes 

[1] CPRE commissioned consultants Transport for Quality of Life Community Interest Company (TfLQ) to examine 86 official studies of completed road schemes. The TfQL study examined 13 road schemes for changes in traffic levels; all 86 schemes for landscape impact; 25 road schemes where economic benefits had been used to justify development; and 30 – 40 road schemes for possible reductions in median journey time (see fn. 6).

TfQL’s report, The Impact of Road Projects in England, is available here.

[2] The Government has committed to increase annual spending on the Strategic Road Network from £1 billion in 2016 to £3 billion by 2020/1. Highways England is expected in March 2017 to publish route strategies for consultation, which set out potential road schemes. More information is here: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/road-investment-strategy-post-2020

Highways England is a government company that seeks to operate, maintain and improve England’s motorways and major A roads: http://roads.highways.gov.uk/.

[3] CPRE’s The end of the road? Challenging the road-building consensus, March 2017. This report is based on a research report by leading consultants TfQL (see [1]). The new research uses an improved data set and timeframe to analyse the longer-term impact of new roads more comprehensively, including economic impact.

The release of the report is supported by an animation available here.

[4] Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport Andrew Jones MP, Productivity means building more roads, Gov.uk, 9 July 2015. Andrew Jones added: ‘Our economy is growing, so some might say more spending on roads isn’t needed. But that is not the position of this government.’

For ‘mile a minute’ journeys, see Department for Transport, Road Investment Strategy: for the 2015/16 – 2019/20 Road Period, March 2015, p. 8, 45.

[5] See the M65 Blackburn Southern Bypass, in The end of the road?, p. 10.

[6] Analysing 40 road schemes, the research showed median savings of 90 seconds’ journey time during peak periods. Analysing 30 schemes at non-peak times, researchers found a decrease of one minute.

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