The end of the road: challenging the consensus on road-building

I hope CPRE’s new report on roads, The End of the road? Challenging the road-building consensus will have a big impact. It shows conclusively that new roads neither relieve congestion nor aid economic growth, but that they do harm landscapes.

The full report is available here. A short film summarising it is here. With some 60 major schemes due to start in 2019-20, by far the biggest road building programme for decades, the report is timely. Roads are popular in the abstract, but many of the proposed schemes will seriously damage the places we care about, and to no good end.

My foreword to the report is below.

In 2006, in his article “Induced traffic again. And again. And again”, Professor Phil Goodwin pointed out that for 80 years, empirical studies and official reports have agreed that more road capacity leads to more traffic. The article was prompted by CPRE’s report, Beyond Transport Infrastructure, which concluded that new roads fill up quickly and that you cannot build your way out of congestion.

But this is not what a driver fuming in a traffic jam wants to hear (I speak personally). In 2014, the Government junked the evidence and announced the biggest road-building programme since the 1970s. Saloon bar policy-making won the day. The commitment is popular with MPs and many of their constituents suffering from congested roads. But will it work?

To answer this question, CPRE commissioned an even more comprehensive independent study of the impact of new roads on traffic, the landscape and economic growth.

Evidence from the 13 road schemes analysed concluded that road schemes generate more traffic. On average, traffic was 47% greater than the long-term forecast, with traffic more than doubling within 20 years in one case. None of the schemes assessed in the longer-term showed the promised reduction in congestion; all put pressure on adjoining roads.

As for economic impact, of 25 road schemes justified on the basis that they would benefit the local economy, only five had any evidence of any economic effects. Journey times hardly changed, with savings of 90 seconds during peak periods and even less at other times.

What was sacrificed for these marginal gains? Sixty-nine out of 86 road schemes examined had an adverse impact on the landscape – not just obliterating views, but destroying ancient woodland and mature hedgerows. More than half damaged an area with national or local landscape designations for landscape, biodiversity or heritage.

Overall, this powerful study demonstrates that we need a major overhaul of national roads policy. Predict and provide – building more roads to meet demand, in turn generating demand – will fail. We need truly sustainable transport policies, founded on the principles of smarter travel – reducing the need to travel; increasing travel choices; and maximising efficiency through new technology.

We are calling on government to make road-building the last resort. Directing house building to suitable brownfield sites would reduce the need to travel, providing at least a million new homes close to jobs and services; reopening closed rail lines and stations would encourage a shift from road to rail; and investing in public transport and safer cycling routes would reduce car journeys.

In a small, crowded, affluent country like ours, we cannot possibly build our way to free-flowing roads. We need cleverer solutions – solutions that will improve people’s quality of life, benefit the economy and safeguard the countryside. I hope that government, both locally and nationally, will heed the evidence set out in this report and be brave enough to set a new direction of travel.

6 Responses to “The end of the road: challenging the consensus on road-building”

  1. 1 Phillip Ellis March 21, 2017 at 9:56 am

    I cannot agree that more roads will create more traffic.
    In the south we have a huge problem of more and more house building that is contributing to more traffic on our already busy roads.

    The Brighton bypass A27 constructed 20 years ago, have never seen it with huge amounts of traffic. The beneficial impact it had on the old A27 through Brighton was enormous.

    Now the A27 at Worthing, Arundel and Chichester has huge bottlenecks that impact those towns. These towns definitely need a proper bypass and I am writing with 40 years experience of using those roads. The current impact is that drivers use minor roads to avoid jams that impacts on communities. The railways in the south are at bursting point despite the huge investments. Whether more trains will help I am not sure.

    Certainly a lot of freight could be put onto the railway, say from Southampton up to midlands and beyond. Build new towns with a proper infrastructure and employment to save driving huge distance, only using a bicycle or bus.

    Please let us have a proper efficient road system and look at ways of making shorter journeys to workplaces. I have to say CPRE comments make me consider not renewing my membership.

    • 2 sspiers March 21, 2017 at 10:08 am

      Phillip, thank you for your comments. I hope you will read the report, which is based on very firm evidence, most of it produced by those with an interest in building more roads. CPRE isn’t saying ‘never’ to new roads, but we are saying they should be a last resort because of the impact they have on the countryside we exist to protect (we also exist ‘for the benefit and protection’ of the English countryside’s towns and villages, which is why, from time to time, CPRE branches have supported particular road schemes, including bypasses).

      I hope you will renew your membership! We are a broad church – we have to be, covering such a broad range of issues – and there will inevitably be some positions with which members disagree. But we need all the members and supporters we can get!

  2. 3 geoff lambert March 23, 2017 at 8:32 am

    oh dear. another negative report from CPRE. More roads create more usage,, yes that is the sign of success. Roads work and we all use them every day. Does CPRE offer a real alternative we can all latch on to… build near railway stations!!! Trains are mindblowingly expensive and we are chronically short of line capacity but the idea of HS3, HS4 and HS5 might have real appeal, especially if they are away from London. However the cost might be an issue (and CPRE will object to that).

    There is some important evidence in the paper but the conclusions are naive, As usual non members will look at this and conclude ‘CPRE objecting to success again’ and won’t join us. Lets put the report on the shelf now, gathering dust can have its uses.

    • 4 Phillip Ellis March 23, 2017 at 2:27 pm

      I totally agree and if you lived on the south coast and travelled daily you would want better roads. I just cannot agree that new roads create more usage. There is a DOT web page that gives historic traffic flows that makes interesting reading.

    • 5 sspiers March 23, 2017 at 2:44 pm

      Geoff, thanks, as ever, for your comment. CPRE produced a very ‘positive’ report a week or two ago, Landlines, calling for land use strategy for England. And as you know, we’ve produced a stream of recent reports proposing solutions on housing, including for more affordable rural housing (two reports), support for SME builders and better use of brownfield land.

      But part of being positive about the countryside is opposing its destruction, and a major road-building programme, followed as it will be by development alongside the new roads, will have harmful effects for tranquillity, air quality, landscape, nature etc. etc. And if you read the long version of the report, the evidence is clear that it won’t make journey times significantly quicker.

      The report does propose solutions, and it doesn’t oppose all road improvements. It just says that new roads should be the option of last resort. Would you really expect the Campaign to Protect Rural England to say anything else?

      • 6 Phillip Ellis March 23, 2017 at 10:36 pm

        Go along motorways and dual carriageways built 20 years ago and you will see lots of trees more than before. I even saw a buzzard drop on a rabbit that’s enough proof of environmental benefits of new roads apart from making life a lot better in villages.

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