Extract from “The Curse of the Zombie Roads” by Patrick Kinnersly.
Published: World Transport Policy and Practice, Volume 20, May 2014
Old road schemes do not die. They lie buried but undead, waiting for the call to rise again. For example the Westbury bypass in Wiltshire, supposedly killed off for ever after an almost unprecedented rejection by the planning system in 2009. That should have been its last chance to force a way through the tranquil Wellhead Valley between the town and the western escarpment of Salisbury Plain, right under the nose of the White Horse, the chalk hill figure that is the emblem of Westbury itself.
But bypasses cannot exist in isolation. They may be marketed to a town or village as though the whole enterprise is conceived for no other purpose than to rid their community of danger, pollution and noise. But road builders are never that philanthropic. ‘Your’ bypass is just one part of their corridor to somewhere else.
Zombie roads wait for the call to rise again. The government has found that the ancient incantation bequeathed to it by the great leader of the road-building cult, Margaret Thatcher – ‘Roads for Prosperity’ and ‘The great car economy’. The Westbury bypass is now rising from its grave. So, unbelievably, is the A36 Salisbury bypass.
By the middle of the 1990s, senior Conservative cabinet ministers, including the Environment Secretary, had renounced their faith in tarmac as a growth medium. The reports of the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment confirmed that building roads just encouraged traffic growth and further congestion and did not necessarily bring economic growth or regenerate regions with poor connections to the strategic road network. A swathe of road projects was cancelled. In 1997 The incoming New Labour government promised nothing truly radical on the transport front. Crucially there would be no re-nationalisation of the railways system.
But the good news was that Deputy Prime Minister and lifelong transport union member John Prescott wanted integrated transport and integration of environmental and transport planning.
The result was a new super-ministry, the Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) and the Commission for Integrated Transport. The intention was to join up planning of development with planning of transport across the UK regions. Hewanted to shift motorists from cars to more sustainable forms of transport – including trams – and freight from road to rail. But his commitment
to eat his hat if he did not defeat traffic congestion went unfulfilled.
Traffic continued to increase; the hat remained uneaten. It wasn’t really his fault.While he may have bitten off more than he could chew his real mistake was to underestimate the power of the roads lobby and the belief embedded in all government departments that better transport must mean more and better roads. Other modes, including rail, bus, cycling and walking, were ‘alternative transport’.
While John Prescott’s integrated transport policies appeared to be deflecting the road-builders’ juggernaut, if not exactly turning it round, Wiltshire County Council’s first Local Transport Plan (LTP1), published in July 20005, embodied some of the new as well as too much of the old. On the one hand it offered the poisonous fruits of the Salisbury Transport Strategy, a tarmac-laden study commissioned from consultants WS Atkins after the 1997 cancellation of the Salisbury bypass. On the other hand the LTP contained progressive ambitions for reopening railway stations and even toyed with the notion that the council itself might hire rolling stock and run local rail services.
But with hindsight it’s easy to see that the game was already up. The railway improvements
were just a green garnish on the old high-calorie junk-transport menu. The days of modal shift were over; New Labour had done a handbrake turn and was already motoring off in the other direction
as fast as Tony Blair could drive it.
This is the Wellhead Valley, between the town of Westbury and the western escarpment of Salisbury Plain. Wiltshire County Council wanted to build an eastern bypass of the town through here. After a long planning inquiry in 2008 the scheme was axed by the government because the transport case was too weak to justify the damage it would have done to this tranquil landscape.
After appearing to accept that the scheme had been killed off, the county’s new unitary council hopes to revive it by claiming that the safeguarded route survived refusal of planning permission and so can live on as a proposal in its new local plan for the period to 2025. The Westbury bypass is one of hundreds of ‘Zombie roads’ being brought back to life as Britain embarks on a new age of road construction.
In July 1999 John Prescott appointed the former trade union militant Gus Macdonald as Minister for Transport, an appointment he held for just under two years. By the time the first Local Transport Plan (LTP) appeared it was clear to campaigners that the word had gone out to regional government offices that local authorities could dust off their old road schemes without undue embarrassment. Wiltshire County Council was quick to revive sections of the old A36/46 super highway plan and present them as local relief and link roads around Salisbury and ‘improvements’ along the A36 itself.
By 2001 it was obvious that Labour’s brief flirtation with integrated transport was over. In the consensual spirit of ‘New’ Labour, transport and environment campaigners were being consulted to death on LTPs and ‘multi-modal studies’ designed to reassure road-builders that cancelled roads did not mean the end of hope.
It was soon clear that ‘multi-modal’ did not mean what it said on the label. If the study favoured certain road schemes they would be built; if it favoured massive investment in rail corridors along the same routes the shareholders of the privatised infrastructure company, Railtrack, would not cough up the cash. The separate private train operating companies would not hire more rolling stock to support better services; the private companies set up to provide them with rolling stock would not in any case purchase new trains to expand the ageing fleets they had purchased at knock-down prices from the government. The government would not inject the extra cash required to unlock this vicious circle.
With the possible outcomes of multi-modal studies so limited there seemed little point in ‘environmental transport stakeholders’ wasting time proposing strategies that had little chance of being realised. The railway stations that LTP1 earmarked forreopening remained closed.
In 2004 Wiltshire County Council’s plans for road improvements along the A36 corridor came unstuck at Westbury. The government declined to fund its 2005 bid for an A350 eastern bypass of the town. After powerful lobbying of the South West Regional Assembly, in alliance with the other shire counties of the South West, WCC secured funding for a revised scheme and applied to itself for planning permission in 2007. The Planning Inspectorate concluded that the application was a ‘departure’ from the Local Plan. It was called in for determination by the Secretary of State and a planning inquiry ordered.
After a long public inquiry in 2008 the inspector’s report was a damning indictment of the scheme. The government accepted his recommendations and in July 2009 rejected the planning application.
The council had wasted the best part of £5m on a demonstrably dud transport scheme that would have wrecked one of Wiltshire’s finest landscapes. The £40m budget allocated to the road was transferred to the dualling of the railway line between Swindon and Kemble. It cost campaigners tens of thousands of pounds to achieve this almost unprecedented victory.
A rare modal shift was affected of the kind foreseen but not achieved by John Prescott in the heady days of 1997. Money for a destructive road scheme had been switched to a rail improvement that had been awaiting financing for years but had not received the necessary prioritisation in a regional funding process dominated by shire counties.
It was learned that old roads never die. They just lurk in the plan chests in Whitehall and county halls across the land, waiting for the next business-friendly government to flash a war chest of blacktop gold with which to win the hearts and votes of long-suffering and overtaxed motorists.
In 2014, in uncanny echo of the earlier Tory splurge on road-building, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced spending of £18bn on what spin doctors call ‘the biggest roads programme since the Romans’. He seems to have built a history bypass around the £23bn programme launched in 1989 – consisting of 470 schemes including 150 bypasses – which ministers described as ‘the biggestsince the Romans.’ That programme was based on the prediction that traffic would rise by 142 per cent over the next 30 years. The current one is based on the DfT predicted rise of 40 per cent over the next 40 years, another forecast of everlasting traffic growth.
So here we go again, another massive national programme of road construction, another round of consultation over the same old road schemes.
By refusing to acknowledge the role of Big Transport as the enabler of global unsustainability, governments and corporations can continue to work on the assumption that eternal growth in world trade will always be feasible. Even the most stupid government should be able to see that this model is destructive and unsustainable.
The 2014 UK coalition government (‘the greenest ever’) did not just ignore this constraint at the end of the game, it went out of its way in a time of supposed austerity to lavish money on making the mechanism of destruction go faster. It also seemed bent on removing any obstacles that might obstruct new highways and other transport infrastructure: the assessment of risks to biodiversity, fast tracked; the freedom of planners and objectors to argue that a road scheme would increase carbon emissions, removed; compliance with European biodiversity law, fudged by a wilful misinterpretation of the Habitats Directive.
Dr. Christopher Gillham has dissected with forensic precision all the reasons for not believing in a causal link between road investment and economic growth. As he pointed out to the House of Commons Select Committeeon transport no official body has ever produced any evidence of a causal link between the two.
The Sustainability Appraisal of Wiltshire’s ‘core strategy’ warned that the scale of residential and business development proposed in West Wiltshire would generate so much traffic that the A350 route would eventually have to be dualled. This has not caused the council to modify but press ahead with its plan. Indeed the prediction must have sounded like sweet music to councillors and transportofficers fixated for years on the vision of a fast highway between the M4 and the A36 route via Salisbury to the port of Southampton, labelled as a ‘European gateway’ in the LEP report Transport vision 2025.
The A36/A46 trunk road goes from the M27 near Southampton to the M4 north of Bath. The A46 section of the route is indeed unsuited to the role of trunk road. Severe environmental obstacles prevent a direct link between the A36 and 46 across the flood plain of the Avon east of Bath. Plans for a fast highway from Bath to the M4 were withdrawn for environmental reasons in the 1990s. Substituting the A350 for this part of the A36/46 corridor would not help Wiltshire Council achieve a fast route to Southampton. The whole route is stacked with environmental obstacles. Those at Salisbury were declared insuperable when the government scrapped the Salisbury bypass in 1997.
No one has asked us which we would prefer. Instead we have been asked which Zombie roads we would like to see brought back to life. It is a very dumb question.
Patrick Kinnersly is a founder member of the A36/A350 Corridor Alliance (ACA), formed in Salisbury, Wiltshire, in October 1993. He is Secretary of the White Horse Alliance which was established in the summer of 2007 to oppose the proposed Westbury eastern bypass, a coalition of 13 organisations ranging from national NGOs, including Campaign for Better Transport, to regional and local bodies including ACA, CBT and four parish councils.
Extract from “Disappearing Traffic?” by Dr. Rachel Aldred, 19 December 2015
Rachel Aldred is Senior Lecturer in Transport, University of Westminster
For some time now there has been plenty of evidence, and an associated academic consensus, about the negative impacts of motor traffic on urban areas.
In 2002 28 Transport Professors wrote to the Secretary of State “We… share society’s widespread dissatisfaction with [transport’s] present quality, efficiency, equity and environmental impacts.”, confirming senior transport academics supported both investment and, most importantly, “priority allocation of road space” for public transport, walking and cycling. Without “active policy intervention to manage the demand for road space” they warned, government hopes for changes towards more sustainable travel behaviour would be dashed.
And they were right, as was Colin Buchanan when he warned in Traffic in Towns that historic town centres are not compatible with mass motorised urban mobility. But policy muddled along, failing to change inherited priorities, structures and funding that continued to favour motorised transport.
Official government committees have also provided evidence for a change in approach. The 1994 SACTRA report Trunk Roads and the Generation of Traffic established that the ‘induced traffic’ phenomenon (that building new road capacity generates more motor vehicle trips) was real and important.As David Metz has argued, improving capacity on ‘strategic’ roads like the M25 has often just encouraged short car trips within the local area, which in turn leads to the new capacity filling up, and longer distance traffic being delayed again. Congestion continues – with many other, arguably more important, problems (air pollution, noise pollution, severance, road danger) worsened.Yet despite academics, and many practitioners, agreeing that building or widening roads is an expensive and often ineffective solution to congestion, ‘predict and provide’ (predict demand for roads, provide the capacity) continues, even if lip service is paid to sustainable transport. Against all evidence to the contrary politicians still want to promise that building new roads, or widening existing ones, will ‘clear bottlenecks’ and ‘reduce congestion’ and unfortunately many of the tools still used in transport policy-making still support this position, forecasting incredible benefit-cost ratios for road schemes that in theory save thousands of motorists seconds on their journeys.
This is not just a UK problem. Petter Naess and colleagues (2014) wrote about how: “Despite the fact that induced traffic has been understood theoretically for at least one-and-a-half centuries and demonstrated empirically in several studies over the latest eight decades, disregard or severe underestimation of induced traffic in the forecasting models used in infrastructure project evaluation is a quite widespread phenomenon internationally.’
Key concepts have failed to make their way into policy and practice, into the tools and models that are used to justify investment. In the UK, this is despite the example of the capital city in which our Parliament is based. London’s transport system has many problems, not least from a cycling perspective, but the capital’s major and continuing shift away from the car towards more sustainable modes is a fantastic achievement and shows that change is possible (Fig. 11).
On to ‘Disappearing Traffic’. I have recently got hold of a copy of Sally Cairns, Carmen Hass-Klau, and Phil Goodwin’s 1998 report:
This evidence review is the companion to the SACTRA report, in that it examines cases where road capacity was taken away. While the SACTRA report showed that building new roads often does generate new traffic, the Cairns et al report – using a series of detailed case studies of road capacity reductions from across the world – showed the converse to be true.Case-by-case outcomes vary substantially, but in many cases, when you reduce road capacity, existing motor traffic doesn’t all just find another route. Some of it ‘disappears’, or ‘evaporates’.This is anathema to many people, despite all the evidence. Traffic ‘disappears’ or ‘evaporates’? How can that happen? It sounds odd because it doesn’t fit with the concepts we’ve inherited (including the concept of traffic itself ), which as Naess et al write, still dominate the way that people think about motor traffic.
The roots of transport as a discipline and policy area lie in engineering and economics. From the engineering side, we got the model of traffic as basically like water flowing down through a series of interlinked pipes. If one pipe is blocked, the water will follow a different route. Flow continues, it just diverts.
That concept shaped the development of transport modelling – which has assumed that basically, use of cars was externally determined: in the National Transport Model, by oil prices, incomes, and population. More people, with higher incomes, will lead to more car trips – better sort out some roads to deal with them now! (Incidentally, the extreme difficulty of doing that in London has pushed TfL to seek to improve provision for other modes; although also leading to some very odd tunnelling fantasies).
Of course, we should know, thanks to SACTRA and others, that building those new roads will most likely lead to more car use, and thanks to Cairns et al that alternatives are possible. However, the old paradigm persists and makes it hard for many people (including politicians and officers) to think differently.
This is compounded by the dominance in the UK of trip-based modelling, rather than activity-based modelling. Also in the longer-term, changes to transport systems can affect demand for services, which can change service provision, with feedback impacts on travel and on demand for transport. In much of the UK, the built environment has become designed around the assumption that everyone drives. So why do we assume that trips are fixed, that whatever happens these vehicles will all carry on piling onto the streets every day, searching out their destinations with the ruthlessness of a Terminator? I think it’s part of the way in which we see ‘Traffic’ as something aside from people, something external that just happens and will carry on happening. Like the way in which ‘cars’ do things, rather than people in cars. But traffic is a result of people’s behaviour in constrained systems. It’s not external to us. Where road capacity declines, some people will need to, or choose to, continue making the same journeys even if they take longer, at least initially. But many motorised trips could change. When things change, sometimes, it can prompt our long-established routines to change as well.
Disappearing traffic isn’t magic. It’s people, deciding to try cycling or walking, or public transport, because those options have become relatively more attractive than driving. Or people thinking maybe they could try going to different shops, or order something to be delivered. That possibly they should combine two destinations at the weekend rather than make separate trips. And a whole host of longer-term decisions, influenced by what kinds of things we might want to do, where and when.
Many trips don’t change when a car journey becomes a little more difficult – but some will. All these decisions then affect other people’s journeys, and the choices that those other people make, which all then affect the policy and infrastructure changes that will be possible down the line (or not), and the choices business owners and developers make, and then what individuals choose to do in response to what policy does and where services are.
Transport is a dynamic system where an apparent stability hides a constant state of flux. This is why, as Cairns et al point out, it’s very difficult to predict the impact a specific scheme will have on ‘traffic’; the extent to which people will shift modes, and/or change trips, timings, activities and destinations. However, the case studies collated in their report do strongly suggest that reducing road capacity will lead to some level of traffic evaporation (for want of a better name). It’s a hopeful message:
and one that needs to be heard.