Saturday, December 30, 2017

The obsession with the car and road building

In the tradition of DanthePlan attention is being drawn to a Government consultation: Proposals for the Creation of a Major Road Network (MRN) Consultation;  Moving Britain Ahead
to which replies should be submitted by 19 March 2018.
Responses are requested on the online form of pre-set questions.  However, these do not deal with the assumptions behind the funding of major roads. 

The Consultation says that, “Road schemes can create new links between communities and workplaces to deepen local labour markets, connect housing developments to the network, provide new routes on city and commuter networks or contribute to creating places that promote wellbeing through the management of congestion or provision for public transport.”  However, the MRN proposals are clearly very partial, and alterations to the road system can only be properly assessed on a systems-wide basis, including all other modes.  While public transport competes for both funds and for passengers/users, funding for bus/coach services is ruled out by the eligibility criteria. The MRN proposals are also very uncertain in the context of imminent changes to the road transport system relating to electrification and automation.  Other than the fact that these technological changes are likely to be very disruptive there is no consensus as to what they will mean for the transport system as a whole. Part of this uncertainty is created by the Government not being pro-active in seeking to ensure that the changes to be implemented will be positive (in terms of accessibility, fairness, and carbon reduction/elimination) and, instead, is pursuing a private transport/road-building agenda which is likely to frustrate positive changes or reduce their effectiveness.
The MRN is all about road transport without any mention of carbon reduction targets where the transport sector is a laggard due mainly to car traffic (although road freight is also very significant). There is no analysis of how road building will help to make the transport system carbon neutral by 2040?   Given the close correlation between deadly levels of air quality and road traffic it is hard to support major road schemes which would exacerbate the medical, moral and legal issues being faced. Reducing congestion could reduce emissions until, as the NIC points out (see below), the extra traffic being encouraged by the road building recreates the same congestion but with more vehicles involved.
In ‘Congestion, capacity and carbon 2017’ the NIC stated, “It is possible, though expensive, to build more capacity on longer distance roads on the outskirts of cities, unlike in the city centre. But any such new capacity is still unlikely to solve the congestion challenge. Instead, it enables people to make different choices about where to live and work, and when and how to travel, which generate benefits for those individuals, but quickly fill up the new road space."  The MRN is being specifically promoted as building capacity in a way that the NIC has explained would be self-defeating.
A systemic approach is necessary to know whether any MRN scheme would meet the overriding objectives to, ‘reduce congestion, support economic growth and regional rebalancing, support housing delivery, support all road users, support the SRN’.  Increasing capacity on a major road will often increase traffic on the SRN that in many areas is also at capacity, and would actually increase congestion. Similarly a major road scheme could attract passengers away from public transport.
            Local authorities are experiencing real problems in maintaining their existing roads (a very significant issue for cyclists as road margins erode).  Most if not all subsidised bus services have been lost (leaving pensioners with freedom passes with no services).  But filling potholes and public transport enhancements are specifically excluded from this scheme.  In fact bus lanes and gates could be the only road ‘improvements’ that should be funded.
The technical as opposed to political response to congestion is a lower national speed limit. As the VIBAT study demonstrated this would be a necessary if not sufficient measure to reduce carbon emissions from transport. The reference to variable speed message signs shows an awareness that part of the carbon saving from lower speeds would be due to reduced congestion, but the modal and power shifts necessary to a low carbon transport system would not occur.


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