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Roads to Nowhere

Professors urge smarter transport planning

Sian Berry's picture

23 January 2013: Thirty-two transport professors have warned ministers that trying to build our way out of congestion is a dead end.

Co-ordinated by the Transport Planning Society and supported by the Royal Town Planning Institute, the letter, sent to the Secretary of State for Transport yesterday, is signed by 32 professors working in transport and planning for 19 different academic institutions.

It questions current claims about infrastructure investment and economic growth and warns of the dangers of planning new developments in a rush for growth, without thinking about transport and land-use planning in an integrated way. It also warns about a lack of understanding of how investment in cities and smart growth around urban centres could bring both economic and environmental benefits, and questions why no progress has been made on how to pay for future improvements to the transport system, with issues around road pricing being ducked.

The letter also raises concern about unrealistically high forecasts of traffic growth that might drive a return to road-building, saying:

"Recent evidence from the UK and internationally shows signs of road traffic growth leveling off, even after accounting for lower than anticipated economic growth. These trends are something which the Department for Transport has never forecast and which we are only beginning to understand. Whilst a growing population may well exert an upward pressure on demand, the basis for major infrastructure spending decisions appears to be changing."

The full letter with all the signatories is reproduced below and can be downloaded from the Transport Planning Society website.

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The letter:

Dear Secretary of State

Transport strategy – where should we be heading?

We write to you as a collective voice of professional concern and advice in relation to UK transport policy and investment plans.

Undoubtedly, the task of planning for the future mobility of the UK is more challenging than when we wrote to your predecessor in 2002. Operating within significant fiscal constraint the Department for Transport is seeking to stimulate economic recovery, tackle climate change and improve the well-being of the population. However, we are concerned that a perception of the economic imperative is leading to a series of important decisions on all of the major transport modes being taken in the absence of a coherent and integrated national policy framework for passengers and freight.

Recent evidence from the UK and internationally shows signs of road traffic growth leveling off, even after accounting for lower than anticipated economic growth. These trends are something which the Department for Transport has never forecast and which we are only beginning to understand. Whilst a growing population may well exert an upward pressure on demand, the basis for major infrastructure spending decisions appears to be changing.

There exists a range of views as to the importance of new transport infrastructure in stimulating economic growth. The evidence base is not as strong as you, or we, might wish it to be. Where real and substantial gains in connectivity and accessibility can be achieved (for example with city based investments such as CrossRail) the potential to unlock employment seems clear. As the 2006 Eddington Review pointed out however, the UK is already comparatively well connected, rendering the employment gains promised for many schemes difficult to realize.

Even were one to accept an economic imperative to invest in significantly expanding the strategic road network there is a well established evidence base that demonstrates that this will generate more traffic. Our cities are simply not equipped to take further growth in road traffic and the benefits of faster journey times on the strategic network risk being lost in greater congestion on local urban roads where the majority of journeys are undertaken. Across all of our networks we would urge a continuation or acceleration of smart demand management measures to ensure we get the best use of the infrastructures we already have – including our telecommunications infrastructures. The UK is a world leader in many aspects of this. Our service and knowledge-led economy should not be assumed to be as tightly coupled to road traffic for its success as it once might have been. There is substantial recent evidence, including the Local Sustainable Transport Fund and the Olympics, on the success of travel behaviour change programmes,  underscoring demand management potential.

Integration across government is also important. On land use, changes to policy could well store up traffic problems for the future rather than encouraging economic growth. In reality, good transport and land use planning has prevented congestion and supported the economy, not held it back.

On funding, no progress has been made in the debate on how we should pay for improvements to the transport system. Understandably perhaps, your predecessors and the Treasury have ducked the issue of establishing a new congestion based system of pay as you go motoring. This could continue, but for how long? Tax revenues are forecast to fall as vehicle fuel efficiency improves to fulfill a major plank of your carbon reduction strategy. Increases in fuel duty to fill this hole have been a temporary fix, lack public support and fail to establish a stable platform for transport investment. There is a need to find a
new way of charging for motoring as we move away from fossil-fuels.

We conclude, as we did in 2002 that policies on infrastructure, land-use, operations and prices must be consistent with each other if they are to offer a realistic chance of making things better instead of just accumulating long term problems. The past decade has shown how difficult integrated transport planning can be, but it remains the best hope to tackle the challenges you face. We urge you to work with us and the professional institutions in establishing a clear long-term national policy framework.

Yours sincerely

Professor Greg Marsden
Professor of Transport Governance
University of Leeds

Professor David Metz
Visiting Professor, Centre for Transport Studies
University College London

Professor Peter Mackie
Research Professor
University of Leeds

Professor Angela Hull
Professor of Spatial Planning
Heriot Watt University

Professor Graham Parkhurst
Professor of Sustainable Mobility
University of the West of England

Professor Tom Rye
Visiting Professor of Transport
Open University

Professor Stephane Hess
Professor of Choice Modeling
University of Leeds

Professor John Nelson
Professor of Transport Studies
University of Aberdeen

Professor Iain Docherty
Professor of Public Policy and Governance
University of Glasgow

Professor Glenn Lyons
Professor of Transport and Society
University of the West of England

Professor Mike Maher
Professor in Mathematical Analysis of Transport Systems
University of Leeds

Professor Richard Allsop
Emeritus Professor of Transport Studies
University College London

Stephen Potter
Professor of Transport Strategy,
The Open University, Milton Keynes

Professor Jon Shaw
Professor of Transport Geography
Plymouth University

Professor Chris Nash
Research Professor
University of Leeds

Professor David Banister
Professor of Transport Studies and Fellow of St Anne's College,
Oxford University

Professor Miles Tight
Professor of Transport, Energy and Environment
University of Birmingham

Professor Malachy Carey
Research Professor
University of Leeds

Professor John Parkin
Professor of Transport Engineering
London South Bank University

Professor R E Wilson
Professor of Intelligent Transport Systems
University of Bristol

Professor Wafaa Saleh
Professor of Transport Engineering
Edinburgh Napier University

Professor Phil Goodwin
Emeritus Professor of Transport Policy,
University College London and
University of the West of England

Professor John Preston
Professor of Rail Transport
University of Southampton

Professor Mike McDonald
Emeritus Professor of Transportation
University of Southampton

Professor Julian Hine
Professor of Transport
University of Ulster

Professor Stephen Ison
Professor of Transport Policy
Loughborough University

Professor Stephen Stradling
Professor Emeritus
Edinburgh Napier University

Professor Mark Wardman
Professor of Transport Demand
Analysis, University of Leeds

Professor Margaret C. Bell CBE
Science City Professor of Transport and Environment
Newcastle University

Professor Peter White
Professor of Planning & Transport
University of Westminster

Professor Steve Atkins
Visiting Professor
University of the West of England

Professor Austin Smyth
Professor of Transport
University of Hertfordshire

Keith Buchan
Chair of the Transport Planning Society

Trudi Elliott CBE, Chief Executive,
Royal Town Planning Institute

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