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Roads to Nowhere

Build on falling traffic trend – not on the countryside

Sian Berry's picture

10 November: Quarterly traffic figures are out, showing falling vehicle numbers and undermining the case for new roads.

The statistical releases from the DfT cover motorways and main roads in England, Wales and Scotland, and all show a falling trend in vehicle traffic volumes, alongside rising speeds. Across all types of vehicles and roads, motor traffic volumes were 0.5 per cent lower in the third quarter of 2011 than in the third quarter of 2010, continuing a long-term trend.

The releases also shed light on traffic speeds and congestion. For local authority A roads in England in particular, the data is interesting. It shows absolutely no increase in congestion on these roads since 2006 – in fact the overall change observed is that traffic on A roads is now moving 1.8 per cent faster than it was during 2006/7 (25.1 vs 24.6 mph).

This shows up a major flaw in the analysis on which new road plans are based, with predictions of small vehicle time savings - added up over decades - making up the majority of measured ‘benefits’ of building a bypass. These time savings are not calculated in comparison to the current situation, but against a projected level of congestion that is modelled on an assumption of continued traffic growth. Growth that may never actually happen.

And it would be a mistake to assume that reduced traffic is simply a product of the recession, and that economic recovery will automatically bring cars flooding back onto our A roads.

Falling traffic is a positive trend that started well before the financial crisis in 2008. At least partly, it represents a growing desire – particularly among younger people in towns and cities – to live without car ownership and make use of high quality alternatives.

The choices that national and local governments make over the next few years will have a lot of influence on what happens to traffic, offering people more choice or locking them into car dependency.

As Phil Goodwin and other academics have pointed out, London’s reliance on the car has been declining from a peak way back in 1993, and the city saw car ownership and mode share fall sharply throughout the long financial boom of the 2000s, while public transport services improved. So prosperity and traffic growth are not as intertwined as some local authorities bidding for DfT funding for their bypasses would like to believe, and these councils are making a grave mistake by assuming new roads will bring real financial benefits to their local areas.

If councils like Norfolk, Devon, East Sussex and Bristol are keen to spend money improving transport, they should be looking instead at ways to make the most of people's desire for alternatives to the car in their towns and cities with smarter travel and land-use planning; building on the trend for less traffic, rather than building new roads and developments out in the countryside.