Tony Whitbread, Chief Executive of Sussex Wildlife Trust, writes about the failure of roadbuilding as a solution to traffic congestion.
One of the most worrying features of the current rush for road building is the severe lack of strategic thinking in the proponents.
The solutions put forward are surrounded by the appropriate jargon – “route-based strategies”, “transport infrastructure”, “strategic road network” and so on – but they are all basically knee-jerk reactions. Traffic jams are predicted and a new road is pushed as the answer. Predict and provide in its simplest form.
A bypass here, a dual carriageway there, then it all needs expanding again. Some wish to see the whole south coast with dual carriageways of motorway proportions along its length. Bigger, then bigger again until we have something like the M25 running through Sussex – and after all, as well all know, there has never been a traffic jam on the M25!
Simplistic road building strategies fall apart when you start to consider what then happens. Build a road in one place and the jam just moves to somewhere else – and demands increase for a new road there as well. Traffic then increases elsewhere and again road developments are demanded. Environmental damage is bad in one place, but magnified up by all the increasing demands for new roads and it becomes much worse.
This would be bad enough with a constant level of traffic, but new roads generate new traffic. Even if one location is eased, people will then perceive the slight ease in congestion so will travel more often, so increasing traffic. Those who believe that new roads will reduce congestion are fooling themselves. A few favoured locations may be relieved, but overall the level of traffic throughout Sussex will increase.
Bear in mind also that many are proposing these roads specifically to drive an increase in traffic. Road building is wanted in order to “unlock areas for development” – to enable more of the countryside to be built on. Tarmac over part of Sussex so you can concrete over other parts. Development may be needed, but this has to be carefully designed sustainable development, not just a rush to build roads and houses.
So what are the answers?
First we have to question a few “truths” we are told. Road traffic is not shooting upwards, indeed some think that road traffic has peaked across the developed world. People are finding other ways of gaining access to their needs and a focus back on roads risks bucking an otherwise good trend.
Also I’m old enough to remember nearly 20 years ago we were told that if we didn’t get bypasses round Arundel and Worthing then the economy would collapse. 20 years later we have been through a period of strong economic growth. Sussex did not become destitute. We were told cycling would never increase – it did. People wouldn’t use buses – they do. There would never be more people working from home – there are. Teleconferencing is impractical – it isn’t. And so on.
The truth is, as we’ve learned many times before, you can’t build your way out of the problem. Answers have to be sophisticated not simplistic. They may include some minor on-line improvements to roads, but to ease flow not to add capacity. Improvements to public transport will be part of the mix and, as most journeys are short, cycling and walking are perhaps where some large gains could be made. But the key long term solution is to reduce the need to travel – modern technology, developments in communication, management systems improvements and integrated planning to reduce travel.
We live in a small over crowded part of the country. Imagining that there is always unlimited space to expand roads into is a dream world. Building roads to add to the congestion is no solution.