Can we reinvigorate the case against roads as the DfT downplays peak car theory and supports additional road building

Why does policy change? RUDI's partner community, Local Transport Today (LTT), has pioneered the exploration of transport policy in relation to the renewed interest in road-building, not only as part of inter-urban transport policy but, thanks to London’s mayor, as a component of urban transport policy too.

Go back a decade or so, says LTT editor Andrew Forster, and it was hard to find people advocating an enlarged inter-urban road programme. And if anyone had suggested that tunnels and flyunders could play an important part in solving urban transport problems, they’d have been regarded as distinctly loopy. So what’s happened? A number of factors seem pertinent in understanding the shift, including:

• The ‘consensus’ view against road-building in the late-1990s was never as solid as it seemed. Although some people argued against roadbuilding with great passion, others uttered the same views publicly but without any great conviction

• At the local level, support for better road links never went away but was drowned out by the consensus view that shaped national policy

• The opposition to controversial road schemes undermined the case for road building as a whole, even for schemes that were relatively uncontroversial

• The alternative solutions to road-building haven’t worked or haven’t been delivered and the problems, such as congestion, remain

• The wider policy environment has changed, and fears about matters such as global warming have been eclipsed by the drive for economic growth. There is a widely-held belief that new transport infrastructure can deliver growth

• Without roads to oppose, many of the opponents of road-building have moved on to do different things

There are now new players on the scene who weren’t party to the battles over road-building in the 1980s/1990s and don’t see the discussion in the same emotive terms of that period.

What happens next will be fascinating to observe. Some schemes to increase capacity, such as managed motorways, seem relatively uncontroversial, and there appear to be few obstacles to obstruct their delivery. But the DfT’s plans to study road-based solutions for long-standing problems (South Coast, Stonehenge, Trans-Pennine), and Boris Johnson’s plans for tunnels, could be just what’s needed to reinvigorate the case against new roads.

As John Dales, LTT columnist and Director of consultancy Urban Movement, says, although, during the 1990s, the transport planning profession and the national policy environment in which it works had finally recognised the futility of continuing to build ever more highway capacity, it is not as though the stake has been definitively driven through the heart of predict-and-provide.

Read John's article here

'Build more roads’ remains a mantra that simply will not die,' he says. 'Just today, for example, I found myself having to be rather terse at the expense of a goon from a libertarian, market-forces-are-all ‘think-tank’ who genuinely believes, in simple terms, that the money should follow the majority. This is much the same view as that regularly expressed by Simon Wolfson, that fashion-chain-bossing life-peer-cum-pal-of-the-Chancellor.'

'There remain many who, like these two, think that since the data show that we currently drive further than we go by foot, bicycle or space-hopper, then we should spend accordingly. Whether or not it’s in our nation’s, our cities’, our towns’, our health’s or our sanity’s best interests to do so seems beside the point. Whether our existing travel choices have been distorted by past expenditure or whether we’d like to travel differently if we could are questions that aren’t considered. And it’s not just a small cabal of right-wing ideologues who appear to have learned nothing of value from how we’ve planned and provided for traffic in the past five decades. It is still, I think, a substantial part of the electorate.

'Very many of us find it hard to see beyond the personal convenience of our next journey; we treat minor delays on the railway as national scandals yet major congestion on the motorway as ‘one of those things’; the Government seems to think the country can road-build itself out of recession; bonkers new 60s-style schemes – like the replacement of decaying flyovers with ‘flyunders’, a system of elevated freeways radiating from central London to its suburbs, or ‘cycleways in the sky’ – are hailed in the media as ‘futuristic’ when history has already proved them failures; decision-makers place absolute faith in each new DfT traffic growth forecast, similarly oblivious to the lessons of the past; and our inability to drive and park without let is commonly cited as the root cause of ‘the decline of the high street’.'

Other RUDI and LTT contributors have been developing the Peak Car theory for many years. In the context of these developments, the DfT has been defending its national transport model, which supports more road building, even after admitting: "we got it wrong", and continues to downplay the 'peak car theory' as it makes case for road building.

LTT's Lee Baker says that The DfT has defended its national transport model as “robust” despite failing to predict an eight per cent fall in traffic in London in the seven years to 2010.

The Department says that the reason for this "short-term model error and discrepancy with other forecasts" is due to high public transport investment and reduction in road capacity in the capital.

In a note on its updated Road Transport Forecasts 2013, produced for its command paper on roads investment, the DfT says it will re-visit the influence of future additional public transport capacity such as Crossrail.

However, it emphasises that putting different assumptions into its model – of flat car ownership in London continuing, and a 10% road capacity constraint due to bus lanes and other road works – would “not significantly effect” its overall forecasts.

The result would be that, even with car ownership in London 16% less than its central prediction, overall, car traffic on the strategic road network in England in 2020 would only be one per cent less than the national model forecasts.

The DfT today downplays the peak car theory and claims that even in the worst-case economic scenario for the economy, traffic will grow by a quarter by 2040. It says more motorway capacity is needed to stop extra congestion.

The DfT’s new command paper setting out the detail of £15.1bn investment in the strategic road network until 2021, including “adding 221 lane miles” of motorway contains its latest estimates of traffic growth.

The Department notes the peak car theory, and how traffic amongst young men, London road users, and company car users, has fallen over the last 15 years. But it says that these three groups “make up less than 30% of the total population”.

So whilst these trends have led to a lowering of the DfT forecasts, it nonetheless expects in the most likely scenario that traffic will increase by 46% by 2040, leading to 15% of the strategic road network regularly experiencing peak-time congestion.

The DfT points to figures showing traffic has declined far less since the start of the financial downturn in 2007 and has risen since 2010 at a time it has fallen on local roads.

The paper contains a commitment to building 52 national road projects, subject to value for money and deliverability considerations” including improving the A14 between Cambridge and Huntingdon and introducing four-lane capacity on the M4 from London to Reading.

The document also pledges that 80% of the surfaces of the Highways Agency’s network will be replaced by 2021 in a fixed, £6bn maintenance programme made possible by a Roads Investment Programme guaranteed by law.