Monday 17 August 2015

Policy & Prediction: It's The Same Thing

So, kerbs are tarmac are my favourite subject, but I do keep an eye on the bigger picture and the thing which caught my eye was the continuing growth of motorised traffic in the UK.

The former "greenest government ever" must be pleased to see that motor traffic growth has now (provisionally) increased for the ninth quarter in a row meaning that George Osborne's need to spend on the road network is being vindicated.

The Department for Transport helpfully distills the full set of information into a handy infographic which I reproduce here. 

So, what juicy snippets do we have? Well, motor traffic is now 0.1% above the previous (and pre-recession) peak of 2007 and is the highest rolling annual figure ever; 314.6 billion vehicle miles, so a big well done there for beating the previous Labour government into second place as the most pro-driving-government-ever-until-the-next-one.

Q4 of 2012 was a lowish spot on the traffic growth curve, but it is noticeable how the growth of light goods vehicles (LGVs) has significantly outstripped other types, although it had been doing so since 1993. Perhaps "white van man" has almost single-handedly kept the economy going?

Looking at long-term trends (over 20 years), traffic (based on mileage) has grown 19% overall. Car mileage is up by 14.1%, LGV mileage is up by 69.6% and HGV mileage by 3.3%. Where the traffic has been growing is interesting, 44.6% on motorways, 22.5% on rural 'A' roads, 25.2% on minor rural roads, 0.7% on urban 'A' roads and 7.1% on minor urban roads. 

The motorway figure is interesting as much of of the network was in place before 1993 (have a look at CBRD's excellent maps for the development of the motorway network) and so it shows that the original capacity has slowly been used up. Of course, we have had additional lanes added in places and hard-shoulder running/ smart motorways in places as a fudge for new road space. 

Rural 'A' roads have also had growth, but there have been lots of 'A' road schemes compared to motorways. Urban 'A' roads are an interesting point because even after more than 20 years of pro-car leadership in the UK, growth on these routes is only 0.7%. My guess is that these roads are well-established and in order to expand capacity in a major way, we are talking about knocking down many of our high streets and other urban areas which hasn't been in vogue for a long time (and not very popular with the people living and working there!) We also have city and urban governance which might be more geared to public transport than road building.

The data does show growth on minor rural and urban routes and these are the ones not suited to high volumes of traffic simply from a geometric or a geographical point of view. Minor rural routes will include villages which have been bypassed (but traffic remains) and in urban areas, we are talking about residential areas on the whole.

For a publication which I think should probably stick to the facts (and leave the armchair punditry to amateurs like me), the killer claim is that traffic growth is likely a reflection of growth in GDP (although it also suggests that lower fuel costs might had helped too).

For my mind, this is a political perspective best left to a minister's speech, but we ignore this at our peril because it shows that this thinking is truly embedded in our politics and there are no plans to try something different. It is far worse for local communities as the Chancellor wants to invest heavily in the motorway and strategic road which will pipe out traffic into our villages, towns and cities which are struggling now. Answers on a postcard please.


  1. Well done in pointing this out. Worst part of it as (apart from a few squeaks from the Green Party) there is no apparent opposition to this.

    The main reason - hardly remarked on except is supporting it - has been the cut of the fuel duty escalator, leading to the extraordinary spectacle of austerity, declining living standards but CHEAPER motoring.

    Now there IS a link between more traffic and upping GDP, but that raises more questions than it answers. Firstly, do we want the success of a society to be measured by GDP? Secondly, if you do, then just promote more and more driving around and burning of as much petrol as possible and yup, you'll get a GDP increase. Of course, you could tax petrol and/or driving through road pricing, get loads of revenue back into the exchequer and spend it on something sustainable. Or have carbon-rationing. Whatever.

    Now, has Mr Corbyn been pointing out that fuel duty freezing has lost the exchequer about £8 - 10 billion a year? Anybody out there who can add this up?

    Dr Robert Davis, Chair Road Danger Reduction Forum

  2. I believe that London (central London anyway) is bucking the national trend with car ownership and mileage per person in decline. London demonstrates that it is possible to grow the economy without an attendant rise in motor traffic but the policies and conditions need to be in place for this, and it may be difficult or impossible to replicate these outside London.

  3. Interesting point about London. It does apparently buck the trend, BUT:
    1. Not really in Outer London.
    2. It was pretty high to start off with.
    3. I think the statistics on car ownership (particularly based on the Census) may be dodgy because of the high proportion of unregistered vehicles (maybe up to 10%, it's lower nationally).

    Finally, don't forget my point about the kind of economy and society we want, which is no necessarily the same as higher GDP. Take a look at John Whitelegg's "Mobility", just out and reviewed here

    Dr R. Davis

    1. I agree there is a link with GDP, but cause and effect might be a little strong I guess. Cars are success symbols and the cost of motoring plays a part. I also thing growth is a myth in the long term, but I will be branded a Commie for saying so ;)

      Looks like another book for me to read!

  4. Jeremy Corbyn (someone is going to mention him sooner or later) is focused on sustainable transport: He is a London MP though, so that's to be expected I suppose.

    In a Labour Leadership interview about he talked about Britain's need to invest in infrastructure - and highlighted the railways, internet/broadband and housing - not roads. Other than this I can't find much else of his transport policies.

    1. Labour has always been big on words abut transport, but delivered poorly; to the point where New Labour embraced the car as much as anyone. The current shadow transport secretary is just as bad

      My interest in the party at the moment is Wolmar who is offering a great deal for active travel for London which hopefully other cities would want to copy. Other candidates and parties are available!

  5. The 'In Context' section should also show the KSI statistics and estimated early deaths due to air pollution from motor vehicles.

    1. I can't disagree with you, but of course, the infographic has pro-car use spin to it. Showing deaths (all causes) and injuries going up hardly makes for a good news story!