New Roads: junking the evidence

Here is my column in February’s Countryman.  I wrote it when Danny Alexander was boasting about the biggest road building programme since the 1970s.  The Government now says it is planning the biggest roads programme for 50 years.


Anyone who has ever been stuck in traffic has probably mused on how much faster they would go if only the road had an extra lane.  Now the Government is promising the biggest road-building programme since the 1970s.  In particular, it proposes that all major A Roads should be dual carriageways (though without being quite clear how this will be funded).

Some of the policy, such as the emphasis on maintaining roads as well as building them, is welcome.  Survey after survey shows that motorists (not to mention cyclists) hate potholes even more than congestion.  And there is a commitment to quieter road surfaces and less intrusive lighting. 

But the central proposition – that new roads relieve congestion and are needed because of growing demand – is disastrously wrong.  There is a wealth of evidence that new roads quickly fill up, leaving congestion as bad as before.  This may not accord with the common sense of the fuming motorist in a traffic jam, but it has been accepted by policy makers for twenty years.  Now, without explanation, the evidence is to be disregarded: new roads are back in fashion.

As for the Government’s prediction of a 46% growth in traffic on major roads by 2040, previous estimates have significantly over-estimated traffic growth.  But assuming such a growth in demand, no road-building programme in our small and crowded country could possibly meet it.  The only rational response is not to build new roads, but to manage demand in other ways. 

That is not to say that there is a never a case for new roads.  In particular, rural A Roads have a terrible safety record.  Two-thirds of road fatalities now occur on rural roads, and while roads have become safer overall, rural roads are more dangerous.  Countries such as Sweden and Ireland have improved safety on single carriageways by adding an overtaking lane that alternates sides every few miles. 

But make no mistake, a road building programme on the scale the Government proposes will have a disastrous impact on England’s countryside.  (The proposed extension of the M4 through the Gwent Levels is being driven by the Welsh Government – but is as barbarous and unnecessary as any road proposal anywhere.)  New roads take land, shatter tranquillity, increase pollution, and very often lead to other developments, such as shopping centres and business parks, which compound the problem.  If housing sprawl is the main cause of countryside loss, unnecessary new roads may not be far behind.       


3 Responses to “New Roads: junking the evidence”

  1. 1 Paul M January 30, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    Please, let’s not have those alternating 3-lane roads. We already have one – the A303 beyond Stonehenge – and it is a dangerous and frightening nightmare.

  2. 3 geoff lambert February 7, 2014 at 7:46 am

    new roads do have a role to play in an integrated transport structure and in increasing the capacity between different or growing places. more roads do have a role to play its where and when that is the issue. we have had so little for so long we now have unacceptable congestion and no alternative transport options to use.

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