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Roads to Nowhere

A road to nowhere: the view from Bristol

04.01.2017 | Anonymous | Roads to nowhere
Traffic in Bristol

Guest article by Hannah Turner and Luke Alker 

What fragments communities, damages the environment and is one of the biggest causes of injuries & deaths every year? 

It is also the most prolific commodity advertised, through a diverse range of media, and widely considered a symbol of social status.

Once an aberration that was predicted as a fad, this thing – the automobile – now underpins the structure of every city and town. 

In the UK, the automobile industry accounts for 8% of the economy and there are almost 3 times as many goods transported on our roads than that of shipping and rail combined. In 2015, a staggering 2.6 million new cars were rolled out onto Britain’s streets. With 31 million people driving or owning a car (as of 2015), it is perhaps not surprising to find that reform and criticism of this form of transportation has been kept to the bare minimum or simply ignored. We just can’t stop loving our cars.

Yet, in Bristol, the consequences of car ownership on a limited road network has seen prolific congestion, increasing levels of accidents, and pollution levels that breach legal environmental standards. Higher carbon emissions from transport is also one of the reasons the UK looks set to fall (significantly) short of its target to reduce emissions by 80% before 2050. That is the minimum reduction that climate scientists say is needed to avoid global warming above 2 degrees centigrade (anything above that is thought to lead to ‘significant, irreversible’ changes of the kind you see in disaster movies!).

Looking at it in a different way, a car driven from John O’Groats to Land’s End burns the same amount of oxygen as a human being breathes in an average lifetime. Bear in mind that the journey is approximately 840 miles, around 1/10th of what the average person drives per year.

Some argue that the solution to traffic is in building more and better roads. Not according to the UK charity ‘Campaign for Better Transport’, which cites research showing how road building only leads to more car usage. Such ‘induced traffic’ has been known by transport professionals since 1925, with a series of studies across the country demonstrating how new and enlarged roads provide a temporary solution (at best). Despite this, investment in transport infrastructure continues to be dominated by building and enlarging roads. 

Less apparent is the wider social and environmental impacts of sprawling road networks. Putting aside the noise and pollution, which can often be significant, roads also fragment environmental habitats as well as communities.

A research paper in the journal Transport Reviews (July 2015) has examined how road planners consistently overlook the problems surrounding such divisions, otherwise known as 'severance'. The classic example is where a large road divides a formerly cohesive neighbourhood, hindering people on one side of the road from accessing a library or other community service on the other. The sudden spike in traffic within such areas has been found to negatively impact public health, sense of community and social inclusivity. The researchers go on to observe how “barriers to mobility affect people's wellbeing, due to detours, delays, effort required to use bridges and underpasses, perceived danger, exposure to noise and air pollution, visual intrusion, and loss of sense of place.” 

It is no coincidence that some of the most deprived and excluded areas of Bristol are also where transport infrastructure is poorly implemented, with little regard to severance – just think of the M32 (adjacent to St Pauls and Easton) and St Philip's Causeway (next to Lawrence Hill).

Moreover, the 'crossability' of even some inner city roads is minimal, with pedestrians waiting inordinate lengths of time (at one inner city crossing, we recorded the wait time as 136 seconds, with some people being observed to become noticeably more frustrated and stressed as traffic passed in front of them).

  • There are nearly 2,000 fatalities caused by car accidents per year in the UK.
  • There are over 20,000 serious injuries sustained in road accidents in the UK.
  • On top of that, tens of thousands of UK deaths each year are attributable to air pollution.
  • The average car produces 4.75 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year.
  • 95% of diesel vehicles on the road are currently breaking air pollution limits.
  • Congestion has risen 14% in 5 years and average UK journeys took 29% longer in 2015 than they would in free-flowing conditions.  

Anything else with such a long list of substantial negative impacts would be outlawed or, at the least, mandated to have a hazard label or health warning. A comparison could be drawn with cigarettes and tobacco, which must now carry prominent warnings on each packet. Cars are certainly a lot more damaging than cigarettes, especially when considering the risks posed to others and the environment, but instead of reminding people of these risks they are made to look nice and idolised in the media. Moreover, the independence and convenience that cars give to people is heightened by a transportation network that places car use more as a necessity than just an option.  

A new level of thinking is needed, especially in cities. More than ever, we need to consider alternative and radical transportation options. 

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This article originally appeared in Boundless magazine, published by Arkbound.

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