I attended a briefing this week about a planned "improvement" to a motorway junction and for me, it's a microcosm of how we simply cannot wean ourselves off predict and provide.It doesn't matter too much where the scheme is proposed, but it essentially adds a single lane wide, grade separated loop road to an existing junction between a motorway and a trunk road to replace a turning movement on the junction's roundabout which is always stuffed at peak times.
The road would be around 750m to 1000m in length (as best I can recall) and would have a budget of about £60m; or £96m to £128m per mile (ball park figures you understand). There are all sorts of costs involved including bridges, acquiring land, moving utilities and so on, but already it has a larger budget than the new CS3 in Central London which is about £2.6m per mile. Yes, I am repeating myself again as I am always going on about investment choices.
The issue here, though, is this; there was a time before this motorway existed (I remember it being built) and presumably the world turned. We built the motorway which took long-distance traffic out of the towns by the motorway which might be a good thing, but we didn't capitalise and change the towns to make them pointless to drive through. People quickly saw the motorway as a way to access to new markets further away and so got rid of their vans and bought lorries to transport more stuff, further away.
Some people saw the motorway and realised they could work further away from home and so they did (although two-thirds of trips are under 5 miles). Fast forward 20 years and the motorway is creaking under the amount of people using it, and the junctions are now approaching capacity. The junctions get extra few lanes bunged into them with wider slip roads which works for a bit, but it's not enough, so an extra lane gets added and things are lovely again.
We then have to sort out a major river crossing and so we spend a bit of time tinkering with that to get traffic flowing and it sort of works, but not as well as the politicians have promised. Oh, and that lane we added, it attracts an 10% growth in traffic in a year. Rinse and repeat.
I asked about what happens then they sort the junction out and it spills the traffic up the back the next queue along the trunk road (which is stop-start for miles; has been for 20 years) and the answer was that another team were working on "improvements" (adding lanes in reality). There was talk about planning for growth, I said perhaps it was more like building to a policy, noting of course that this was a bigger and political picture.
I kept my questioning professional and the presenters answered the questions well. I am sure one of them almost regretted using the phrase "induced demand" in an answer to me; I'm convinced there was a glimmer of realisation there somewhere. The people we met were working to the Government's £15bn road building plans and the scheme is a politician's "quick win" (in road building terms). I did make the point that the project budget was about 25 years of transport funding for my local area which raised a chuckle; although I was being serious.
My involvement here is utterly peripheral and to that extent I am not going to be in a position to influence anything; the scheme is a done deal as far as I am concerned and consultation is the tick box exercise you'd expect. As we can see all over the UK, consultation for modest schemes, even a simple filtering of residential street seems to be a pitched battle every time. Building big roads and adding to big roads seems to be a piece of piss by comparison.
It's been a funny sort of journey for me as an engineer, but never did I think that 21 years after graduating would I end up being an anti-road building highway engineer. Yes, there is still plenty of cognitive dissonance going on as I still have a car. To be honest, motorways and trunk roads are not my bag and I find no interest in them professionally. They are useful for long-distrance travel (for personal travel because trains and buses are variously expensive and crap), but my focus has to be urban areas.
At the end of the day, we are generally not in a position to add motor traffic capacity in our urban places and we must focus on moving people. For me, that's where the future and the excitement for engineers lies. Am I loopy? Possibly, but no more than deciding to spend £60m on a single motorway junction; and certainly no more loopy than the bunch of people running our basket-case country.