Road-building mantras: the undead | JOHN DALES
They’re back! Discredited thinking that you hoped was no more is on the rise again. Be very afraid.
MONDAY 14TH JANUARY
If you’d bumped into the transport planning profession at any time over the past decade or more, say in the street or at a party, and asked it whether ‘Predict and Provide’ as a driver of road-building policy had been consigned to history, it would have confidently replied ‘Yes – and a good thing too!’.
Emboldened, you might then perhaps have asked if it thought that the policy of future Governments would ever again echo that of the Thatcher administration’s 1989 ‘Roads for Prosperity’ White Paper. At this, the profession might have hummed and hah-ed a bit, but concluded that the simplistic idea that road building creates wealth had been essentially discredited.
On getting home, however, I suspect the profession might well have made itself a drink, sat down in a quiet corner, begun to ruminate, and started to admit to itself that, while ‘predict and provide’ had seemingly been killed off, its malevolent spirit was still at work, biding its time, and awaiting the chance to burst forth again. A bit like a zombie. Or Sauron.
Which is to say that, despite the veneer of contemporary ‘sustainable transport’ rhetoric, those with power – be they politicians, ‘wealth creators’, ‘media moguls’ or (let’s face it) large sections of the general public – have never really moved away from an instinctive belief that, when the traffic starts queuing up, the obvious solution is to widen roads or build more of them. (Unless it’s right by where they live, of course.)
Evidence for this is contained in a number of reports and statements issued in the last few months. The most recent of these statements – the Chancellor’s Autumn one, made the day I write this – committed the Government to spending “an extra billion pounds on roads” at the same time as denying itself more than that sum each year in income from a planned fuel duty rise.
To many, the current administration’s faith in the healing power of increasing road capacity is more than an echo of the ‘Roads for Prosperity’ proposals for around 500 roads projects costing in excess of £20bn (1989 prices) and justified by predictions of traffic growth of around 150% over the period to 2025. There seem to be two principal articles of this road-building faith: the first being that predictions of traffic growth are accurate, immutable and must be met by physical provision of new capacity; and the second being that there is a direct, positive, and equally immutable link between the amount of new roads capacity and the rate of economic growth.
This second article was elucidated very clearly by another recent statement: a September opinion piece in The Times written by that wealth-creator, friend-of-the-Chancellor, and boss-of-Next – Lord Wolfson of Aspley Guise. I only encountered the full text of this statement a fortnight ago and, quite frankly, it flabbergasted me. The following verbatim quotes should explain why: “Many are blind to the wealth that could be created by better roads”; “Until the country comes to truly accept that building faster roads creates wealth, it will always be an uphill battle for governments to develop them”; and “We could build a series of flyovers into central London, allowing the wealth of the capital to spread outwards”.
In short, Lord W believes you can both generate and distribute cash through the simple expedient of building more and faster roads. This naïve night-follows-day scenario was unfurled beneath an opening clause which ran as follows: “Imagine the loss if the M25 was closed. Now imagine the gain if we built new motorways”. Justifying the construction of new roads by saying there would be chaos if we shut the ones we already have is the kind of logic we might expect from an infant.
Wolfson’s article was entitled ‘Think about it. Growth starts in your head’, and my inescapable conclusion is that he needs his examined. Yet he is not only a ‘business leader’, but a very influential one (“Osborne’s pal”), whose closeness to Government thinking is evidenced further by his reference to Garden Cities which, according to utterances from both David Cameron and his minister Nick Boles (“A home with a garden is a moral right”), seem to be the chief goal of Government planning policy.
As to the first article of the road building faith – ‘we should predict and, having done so, should provide’ – I refer you to two reports wholly or partly published by the RAC Foundation in the last few weeks. November’s Keeping the Nation Moving, “presents the corporate view of the Foundation” and is subtitled ‘Time to face the facts’. Frankly, I’m more than a little surprised that the Foundation should be willing to rest its corporate reputation on ‘facts’ that, it turns out, are actually just official DfT traffic forecasts. With regard to the reliability of these figures, I simply point you in the direction of the excellent piece on DfT forecasts written by my fellow LTT columnist Phil Goodwin a few months back.
December’s On the Move report, sponsored by the RACF and others, is far less gullible than Keeping the Nation Moving. It seeks thoughtfully to learn from what has happened in the past, rather than swallow whole some sweeping assumptions about what might happen in the future. In particular, it explores the notion of ‘Peak Car’ – the idea that car use is (and will remain) in decline. The report’s findings on this are interesting and well worth your reading.
I want to close, however, by urging caution as to how ‘Peak Car’ evidence is used. Simply asserting that there will be less car travel in future and that we should therefore make less provision for it, is still playing the ‘Predict and Provide’ game. And so long as transport policy remains driven by ‘chasing the numbers’, in whichever direction they lead, foolish thinking about road-building will remain undead.
I dunno: you wait ages for a roads-centric RAC report on traffic trends and then two come at once…
If you built it, they will come. Will more roads solve the problem, or perpetuate it?
Would you invest a tenner, let alone billions, on the basis of DfT forecasts? I didn’t think so.