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Roads to Nowhere

Private Eye's 'Road Rage' column on traffic and forecasts

Sian Berry's picture

14 August 2013: Reprinted with permission, Private Eye's Hedgehog column recently summarised how unfeasibly high Government traffic forecasts are being used to justify road-building. 

ROAD RAGE - Heavy traffic forecasts…

Private Eye cover 1345The Treasury's plan for "the biggest investment in roads since the 1970s" is at odds with the trend of falling traffic, so mandarins have used outdated assumptions to conjure up new forecasts of massive traffic growth.

Traffic has been falling in countries across the developed world, including the US and Japan, and the trend pre-dates the financial crisis in many areas.  Changes in driving habits are significant but government policies on investment, taxation, subsidy and land use will also affect traffic – especially where the results deprive people of a realistic choice of how to get around.

In Britain, the Tories and Liberal Democrats despair that young adults depend less on cars than post war baby-boomers.  At the Treasury, George Osborne and Danny Alexander have thus dusted off the 1989 command paper Roads for Prosperity which was founded on a belief that roads generate economic growth and on official 1989 forecasts that traffic could almost double by 2015.

We now know that the 1997, 2009 and 2011 traffic forecasts also over-estimated traffic growth but the Department for Transport won't take no for an answer:  even the lowest scenario in its 2013 forecasts is that sustained traffic growth is about to start.  These forecasts will be aired at public inquiries across the land to justify the schemes espoused by Osborne and his pals in the road lobby (Eye 1330).

In making its predictions, DafT considered only the tired old 'key drivers' of traffic growth; rising population; economic growth and fuel price.   Even these weren’t updated to reflect current trends.  (Of the rising population, more and more people are living in urban areas, which reduces car use as there are alternatives to cars, journeys are short and parking can be a nightmare).

DafT's highest traffic-growth scenario also assumes that the oil price will fall every year to 2030.  Alternative predictions of oil prices are conveniently outweighed by "rapid fuel efficiency improvements" in cars from 2015.  DafT assumes these would cut motorists' fuel costs, although the Treasury would grab those savings back to maintain its roads revenue.

Nor does DafT see why traffic trends might be affected by the growth of cycling in London, Bristol and other cities, internet shopping, smartphones, laptops and tablets being used for work, communication and entertainment on the move (incompatible with driving); 20 years of growth in rail travel and the future effects of rail electrification and the masses of carriages which London's Thameslink and Crossrail schemes will release to cut overcrowding elsewhere.

The forecasts even deny significant impact from the High Speed 2 line, promoted by, er, DafT.  Only 7 per cent of journeys on HS2 are predicted to replace car journeys, says DafT, so "HS2 does not affect the key facts and conclusion of this document".  Hang on!  DafT's main argument for building HS2 is to release capacity on existing railways for more trains, new stations and new services – yet DafT's latest forecasts ignore how this might reduce road traffic.

DafT admits that its forecasting model gets London traffic predictions wrong, blaming such surprises as parking shortages, better public transport, bus lanes and roadworks.  Its forecasts treat London traffic as irrelevant to the rest of England, rather than a model other cities should replicate.  That speaks volumes about DafT’s intentions.  These forecasts won’t only channel huge chunks of the transport budget into anachronistic road-building, but they will give ministers and councils an excuse to continue cutting bus subsidies and not to reshape streets to make cycling or walking the popular choice for short journeys. 


No. 1345, 26 July 2013. Reproduced by kind permission of PRIVATE EYE magazine www.private-eye.co.uk