Monday 10 November 2014

The Road To Where?

I know it must come across as slightly perverse, that as a highway engineer and (sometime) driver I often speak out against road building. But, like many people my views have been shaped by experience.

A am a civil engineer by training and a highway engineer by specialism and so I could understand any confusion. I am not anti-car or anti-driver, I just want our highway networks to be arranged so that people have genuine choice and I am afraid that yet again, the Conservative/ Liberal Democrat Coalition leave me utterly cold with the Prime Minister's promised £15bn splurge on road building.

Of course, he was speaking at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference today which is a pro-roads audience. I cannot quite work out if this is £15bn of new money, or a reannouncement, but Cameron and his mate Osborne have form. Labour has had a pop, but reading between the lines, it seems that they are unhappy with road schemes cancelled by the ConDems - frankly, I cannot tell the difference any more.

The road-building is within England's Strategic Road Network which is comprises motorways and Highways Agency operated trunk roads (Wales and Scotland have their own arrangements). Highlights include;
  • Legislating to secure long-term funding certainty. 
  • Delivering a huge programme of investment in our road infrastructure.  
  • Transforming the Highways Agency into a legally separate company. 
  • Introducing a roads investment strategy – backed by legislation. 
Making the Highways Agency (HA) a company is interesting. It will be government owned and be subject to a regulator and watchdog (Office of the Rail Regulatory and Passenger Focus). The cynic in me wonders if this is a set up for future privatisation or to keep stuff off the government's accounts. I have yet to read anything which convinces me that it is a good idea. Linked with the changes to the HA is apparent certainty of funding backed by legislation. Of course, legislation and funding can be changed.

Many of the road-building schemes are to deal with "pinch points" as well as increasing capacity. I think most people with a passing interest in this blog understand that predict and provide for roads has been discredited and that those forecasting traffic have got it totally wrong on the national scale. It is about a policy which assumes road building stimulates economic growth and that is why the CBI was interested.

I remember the M25 being built out in the east as when I went on a school trip to Hobbs Cross Farm (which is close to the junction with the M11) the road was still under construction (must have been at the start of the 1980s). Since it being fully opened in 1986, it has had capacity added to it and in 2012, the eastern section went from 3 lanes to 4 (with lane gain/ drop in places). I used the Dartford Crossing daily from 1998 to 2004 and my memories and experience bear out that every time capacity is added, it fills up. 

My 6-year stint was at a job (which was great by the way) which was pretty much impossible to by public transport - which is the often given as the reason for driving. Of course, had the M25 not been there, then it would be highly unlikely that I would have applied for the job in the first place - access to labour markets/ work is often cited as a reason for the Strategic Road Network (and freight as well). Of course, look at how public transport in London has and continues to provide access to labour and work!

I don't envy anyone who uses a congested motorway or trunk road, but you have to wonder where it will all stop. It is all very well adding capacity to these roads, but there are further knock-on effects in the areas around motorway and trunk road junctions which bear the brunt of traffic when there is a problem. There is also the issue of what to do when these big roads fizzle out as they hit towns and cities - the traffic has to go somewhere.

We get rumblings about road pricing from time to time as a way of managing demand, but I am not convinced. While it will encourage some people to change their journey times (if their jobs allow it), many people will be stuck with the choice of paying more of their income on travel or getting another job. Like the railways, peak times on the roads (when most people go to work) will be for those who can pay. Everyone else will be priced off and if still driving, the areas which the trunk roads and motorways bypass will become the new bypasses for those who can't, or won't pay. The problems associated with traffic on local and residential streets will also get worse.

The 2013-14 spend for the UK Government was forecast to be £720bn. £15bn is 2% of that sum, earmarked for 100 roads projects. Imagine what could be done for active travel if that was spent in the UK's top 15 towns and cities?


  1. "Imagine what could be done for active travel if that was spent in the UK's top 15 towns and cities?"

    Why only 15 cities? £15bn is over £200 per person of the UK population so it is 20 years worth of APPCG rec' cycling funding for the entire country.

    And with the benefit cost ratio running at £5.50 per £1 invested that's like putting a grand in every man, woman and child's pocket.

    Out of interest was is the BCR of widening an A road?

    1. It was a headline-grabbing sum - £1bn per city for 15 cities!

    2. The Govt are proposing to "help" drivers in 100 locations nationwide (by, as you say, dispersing the problem to other locations) but your plan would only actually help the people in 15 cities most of which would return Labour MP's anyway.

      I'm sure it would grab headlines for the Conservatives but not for the reasons they hoped for.


  2. yep, there's at least a 15 billion pound short fall on money spent on rail infrastructure, it would be so much better to upgrade the entire rail network.
    I'm sure many of the people forced to use their cars because there just isn't a bus or a train going to where they work would rather sit on a train reading their kindle to a 2 hour stressful drive every morning.
    The road network should be properly maintained but just encouraging yet more car ownership is negligence, there is nowhere to park all the cars we have now. Cars litter and clutter our towns, parked on pavements and on roads not designed for parking.
    The think I hate most about cars is that they are left everywhere making urban walking or cycling really hard and sometimes dangerous. More roads just means more bloody lumps of steel cluttering the place up.

    1. Well yes, the existing road network had a maintenance backlog of £11.5bn last year (just carriageways in England and Wales) which has risen to £12bn this year.

      Trains are overcrowded and expensive and outside London, most bus services are a shambles.

  3. The CBI audience contains people whose business it is to build roads and the cars/lorries to out on them.

    Also, why just talk about taking back the £15 billion from this grotesque programme? Why not get more money back from motorists who have been subsidised in the first place? (See this for example:

    Where will it all stop? It won't unless we stop the road building and reduce capacity for motor traffic, along with law enforcement and proper pricing of motor vehicular travel.

    Robert Davis, Chair RDRF

    1. One point about the business of building roads (my industry!) is that we can easily apply our skills for building networks for non-car modes, so at least construction would not miss out!