A Misbegotten Motorway?

The battle of Otmoor raged in 1980 and resulted in the M40 taking a swerve around it. It is a Nature Reserve managed by RSPB, and lies astride the 'east of Oxford' options for the planned Oxford-Cambridge Expressway (a motorway really, given the abandonment of hard shoulders).

Many are puzzled why this road scheme should be even contemplated at a time when East West Rail is being created in the same corridor. Enabling works for the rail project started a few days ago.

The Department for Transport has always taken comfort from evidence of low cross-elasticities of demand between rail and car use. It plans highways and rail investments independently from one another, chastened by the poor experience with its multi-modal study programme 15-20 years ago.

There is a genuine question here as to whether rail and highway projects are attempting to address the same problem. In this instance, the strategic cases for both projects point to 'unlocking housing growth' across the Oxford-Cambridge 'arc of prosperity' as the key aim.

It was Martin Mogridge, of the GLC and later UCL, who showed that with adjacent, congested, networks, improvements on one mode had a direct negative impact on the other. And worse, without road user charging, attempts to reduce highway congestion through network expansion could have the opposite effect to that intended.

Road users along this corridor will tell you that the connections between the main urban centres are okay (although some key roads in the corridor such as the A34 are under pressure and need major junction improvements) – it's the time it takes to get into (or across) city centres that makes travel difficult. The Expressway will have little beneficial impact here. And that will also apply to residents of any new 'garden cities/villages' (locations of which remain unknown). New rail services, on the other hand, will serve the urban centres along the Oxford-Bicester-Milton Keynes/Bletchley-Bedford-Cambridge chain.

So, the question of whether the planned highway and rail investments detract from or support each other turns on whether employment growth is expected in city centres, on the configuration of new residential settlements, and on urban transport. With no spatial plan or planning system at a regional level, there are just too many unknowns for proper transport decision-making. All we can say is that a more concentrated land use development pattern would be supported by the rail project and so would be the better environmental alternative.

It's not as if the problem has been hidden from the authorities. A year ago, work on the Oxford-Cambridge corridor for the National Infrastructure Commission concluded that:

"All new homes should be served by good quality (frequent, fast and reliable) public transport within a short walk or cycle. This is not currently being achieved... Access by means other than the car is... likely to be the key factor in determining the overall spatial distribution of development. Current disparate investigations into nationally significant infrastructure projects (the Expressway and East West Rail) [are] both being progressed by the DfT but in separate teams.... risk[ing] potential synergies...being missed. An over-arching spatial framework should be developed."

And of course, highway and rail developments should be designed to support one another. The rail option – other than the section between Bedford and Cambridge – relies on existing rail rights-of-way, so it can be taken as fixed. Rather than presuming that an end-to-end Expressway – parallel to the railway – is what's needed, a complementary package of highway improvements should be developed.

As elsewhere, highway planning needs to recognise that road users include cyclists and pedestrians as well as motorised vehicles. Where new interurban links are planned, Expressway-style, there should be continuous provision for segregated walk and cycle routes – dislocated hard shoulders – and these need to be linked into existing facilities in built-up areas to ensure they are well-used.

A category of road use usually completely ignored in developing new highway schemes is Interurban Bus. There is an excellent service today across the corridor using high quality vehicles, fully wheel chair accessible, with toilets and wi-fi equipped. Offering excellent service quality, but as with urban buses, deteriorating journey times. On part of the express X1 Route that links Lowestoft with Norwich, Kings Lynn and Peterborough every half hour, a journey time of 47 minutes twenty years ago now takes 74 minutes. The end to end journey takes 3h40 minutes. Great quality but hopelessly slow.

The problem for interurban bus, just as for car users, is getting in and out of urban centres. Bus priority lanes would be out of the question for a single route of 2 or even 4 buses/hour, but highway and local authorities are seeking to reduce traffic levels (to meet statutory air quality standards) and providing bus-only facilities for a combination of urban and interurban buses needs to be considered.

Jim Steer is Founder & Director of Steer (Formerly Steer Davies Gleave)