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Better not bigger: why the Government needs to put (at least) £3 billion into a 'green retrofit' of major roads

Sian Berry's picture
A cycle bridge in the Netherlands, credit Environment Blog on flickr

Today, alongside 12 leading transport and environment groups, we've launched a major new proposal for reducing the impact of our existing roads on the environment and the communities that surround them.

Unlike building new lanes and road links, a 'green retrofit' programme for main roads would have long-term benefits, helping undo some of the damage being done on a daily basis to wildlife, views, noise, air and water pollution. With the addition of smart technology, bus and coach priority and better crossings and facilities for walking and cycling, it would also help make journeys more efficient and easier to make in active, healthy ways that don't clog up our roads.

The Department for Transport is preparing the first Road Investment Strategy (RIS), to be announced by the Chancellor at this year's Autumn Statement in December. The RIS will govern the first five years of operations of the Highways Agency as it is turned into a government-owned company, and will allocate more than £15 billion to capital investment in the road network.

There is a real danger that only projects that make the Strategic Road Network bigger and wider, along with potential new road links through National Parks and protected sites, will be included. So, with a very wide range of green groups and transport organisations, we've been lobbying officials and ministers to put a big chunk of the RIS funding into reducing the impact of the existing road network instead.

This would be better value for money than large road-building projects and more 'shovel-ready', since groups like ours are more likely to welcome than challenge projects to make roads more efficient, more integrated into the landscape, less polluting, and less of a barrier to people on foot and bikes, and to wildlife.

Landbridge in the Netherlands - credit natuurbrugzandpoort.nlOur report, Better not bigger, sets out how these plans could bring benefits right across the country and - importantly - how the £3 billion programme we are proposing (20 per cent of the capital budget for roads) should be spent in corridor- and area-wide programmes rather than as a ragbag of small projects under each theme.

Key types of projects for corridor-wide retrofit programmes include:

Green bridges
The Netherlands has built more than 600 gloriously attractive 'ecoduct' land and wildlife bridges across its roads and railways since the 1980s, yet only a couple of examples exist in the UK.

Hovenring cycle bridge - photo credit JT EnvironmentBlog on flickrCycling facilities and crossings
Again the Netherlands puts us to shame with innovative, safe facilities for cycling around its motorway network, including the iconic Hovenring cycle bridge in Eindhoven. At just €6.3 million, similar projects to this could be replicated many times on our roads at a fraction of the cost of one bypass.

Reducing severance for pedestrians
Many of our cities suffer terrible severance from main roads, cutting communities in half and making life more dangerous for vulnerable people. These communities would welcome the chance to feed ideas into a green retrofit programme. Countryside rights of way are also affected. In 2003 the Ramblers published 'You're either quick or dead', a dossier of more than 2,000 locations where walkers needed safer and more convenient road crossings, but only a handful have been dealt with since then.

Severance of footpaths - credit RamblersSmart technology and cleaner vehicles
Smarter cameras and better use of real-time information can make the roads safer and more efficient for drivers, and we are calling for the Highways Agency, not market forces, to be responsible for rolling out and maintaining a network of charging points for low emission electric vehicles.

Traffic reduction and travel planning
The 2000s saw the Highways Agency experimenting with behaviour change and education programmes to get people driving less, sharing cars and using the train, including a successful joint campaign with rail company First in Essex. These schemes have been abandoned since 2010 but could play a huge role in relieving key urban sections of the motorway and trunk road network.

Highways Agency campaign c2003Soothing scarred landscapes and cutting down noise
Main roads rarely contribute positively to the experience of trying to 'get away from it all' in the countryside, cutting through views and causing visual and noise pollution across a wide area. Improved landscaping, less lighting, and less clutter such as gantries and signage, could help to reduce this impact, and lower noise road surfaces would help improve people's lives in urban areas as well as helping restore tranquillity in rural areas.

Coach and bus priority
The most efficient vehicles on the road, coach and bus transport could remove huge numbers of cars from the most congested motorways if given more priority at junctions and better, more convenient places to switch between modes. We also want high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes - used widely in other countries - to be trialled again.

Better not bigger coverWith so many benefits to people and the environment, we can't see how a green retrofit of our major roads could fail to be both popular and effective, as well as being great value for money.

Since we all know new roads quickly fill up with new traffic, we hope ministers will look carefully at our proposals before December and decide whether they want our main roads fit for the future, less damaging and more efficient, or only bigger - benefiting no-one in the long term.

Groups and organisations supporting the new proposals include: