Cambridgeshire is seeing unprecedented pressure for jobs and housing growth. But will plans to dual a busy road help or hinder the creation a modern, efficient transport system for the county?
The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority and the Greater Cambridge Partnership have published the outcome of a major study examining future travel patterns between Ely and Cambridge. The research was carried out by Mott MacDonald and Cambridgeshire County Council and was commissioned to be wide-ranging and multi modal, looking at transport requirements in the coming decades with specific attention to planned population growth at Waterbeach and Ely, and new employment sites on the northern edge of Cambridge.
An overall criticism of the report is that it really doesn't satisfy the initial brief. Rather than a multi-modal corridor study, it actually appears a narrowly-drawn road study.
The primary objective is squarely to maintain car journey times on the A10. This is to be achieved through additional public transport infrastructure and by increasing the capacity of the road. Almost every detail of the proposals is drawn from the County Council's Long Term Transport Strategy, last consulted on in 2014:
If you are one of the poor souls stuck on the A10 every day, you are likely to be most interested in the road elements of the plan. These consist of proposals to tackle pinch points such as the Ely and Stretham roundabouts, and to dual all or part of the road. Despite a whopping £500m price tag, these proposals are deemed by consultants to offer 'good value for money' using the Government's favoured Benefit - Cost Ratio (BCR) methodology.
It is worth reflecting on what we are actually talking about here. BCRs rely on monetising aggregated time savings. Compared with a 'do minimum' alternative, a 30 second time saving (for example) accrued to a large number of people traveling at peak time can justify significant spending on new road infrastructure. To be clear, this wouldn't mean the road is much more efficient than it is at the moment - just bigger and with more cars on it.
There are other factors to take into account before we assume dualling will make the congestion go away, too. Like digging a trench in a swamp, the principle of induced traffic shows the more you expand roads, the more cars appear to fill up the space. And just because capacity on the A10 has been increased doesn't mean the rest of the road network can cope with more traffic. If your destination is within Cambridge, for example, the roads there will not be any bigger - there is a very real risk of spending huge sums simply to move the traffic jams around.
To be fair, the study acknowledges this in a roundabout way through a proposal to limit car parking associated with new business development - the idea being that if you can't park at work you might not try and drive in the first place. This is welcome, but to work properly it would require joined up land-use and transport planning of the type we seldom see in this country. For example, at Ely the majority of recent and planned housing growth is over 1.5 miles from the station. That is further than most people are willing to walk and when you add in poor bus services and housing designed around cars rather than walking, cycling or public transport you leave people with little alternative but to get in the car.
The proposal for a large new park and ride facility at Waterbeach is presumably partly in recognition of the car dependence weak land-use planning is trapping people into. But if access to Cambridge needs to be by public transport, wouldn't it make more sense to encourage more people to leave the car at home altogether rather than driving to Waterbeach first? If you want to reduce the numbers driving on the A10, why aren't car, bus and train interchanges at Ely or between Stetham and Wicken being considered, too?
Frustratingly, the research does not seem to have considered a package of measures based on high capacity public transport. Instead, the study relies on historic trends dominated by driving to continue - no game changing technology or infrastructure will come along to get people out of their cars. This is despite the recognition that exactly this kind of infrastructure is necessary for Cambridge to continue to grow and is being actively pursed in the form of light rail or a similar technology. If that is good enough for the Huntingdon - Cambridge - Haverhill corridor, why isn't it being considered for the Ely - Cambridge - Royston one, too?
Far from being multi-modal, public transport often seems peripheral to the study. The future role of the rail network is largely ignored despite huge sums going into capacity improvements and new stations in the area. Buses, too, are notable mainly by their absence. Although some information is included concerning journey times, there is nothing about declining services in recent years. Nor is there any reference to the franchising powers the Mayor has at his disposal which could be used to overhaul the network and, for example, to create feeder services to the rail network.
Significantly, the study contains no reference to the wider policy environment, either. Some very pressing policy objectives - for example, air pollution, carbon emissions, ecology and even public health - are not mentioned or discussed at all in nearly 600 pages of documents produced by the study. These should be essential factors in planning the future of our region, but they seem to not be worthy of any consideration at all in this strategic assessment.
Finally, there is the small matter of cost. Even with new sources such as the Government's Major Road Network Fund, the £500m price tag makes the proposal an expensive way of treading water in transport terms.
Although formal consideration of the report has yet to be undertaken, James Palmer, the elected mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Mayor has already announced that he regards anything short of full dualling of the A10 as unacceptable. This hints at the direction political discussions will take, but the real issue here is surely more fundamental - why is planning for the future of a key transport corridor being undertaken in a way which is so unimaginative, so divorced from other decision making, and so indifferent to the impacts of its proposals?
What is needed instead is an approach that acknowledges adding more road capacity rarely solves congestion and that transport, economy, health, environment and well-being are interlinked and need to be considered together.
To bring this to life, Cambridgeshire needs a package of measures that give more people a decent quality, affordable alternative to using the car for every journey. That needs to include more widespread investment in more reliable, faster, high capacity public transport, joined-up planning for car, bus, rail and active travel so they complement rather than compete with one another, and land-use planning that considers housing, employment and transport together.
Such an approach is possible if all organisations involved work alongside communities and developers to plan for the future. We continue to advocate just such a way forward.
This piece has been jointly written by Campaign for Better Transport and Smarter Cambridge Transport.
Image of Cambridge by Charles Clegg via Flickr.