Engine for Growth is the slogan of High Speed 2… but in last month’s autumn statement it was the road investment strategy that was revving up to go, with over 100 major schemes and investment of £9.4bn over the next five years. 

Nobody knows whether this will attract the kind of protest movement and wider public concern that led the Government to call time on major new highway investment 20 years ago.  Those alert to electoral cycles, however, will wonder whether the motor of this huge programme will survive this year’s spending review and get out of first gear. Others may ponder the prospect of five years of low oil prices, and see a natural companion in more road capacity.

The question of whether the autumn announcement is a serious policy shift is easily answered. Previous upgrade programmes left untouched the most stressed parts of the national highway network. This meant that investment could bring localised benefits but not a quantum shift in traffic volumes.

But now, two of the places which act as strategic constraints – the M25 south-west quadrant and the M60 north-west section – are to be studied to inform the successor RIS which runs for five years from 2021. Unleash the orbital motorways around London and Manchester, and expect volume increases not just on the M25 but also on the M40, M4, M3, A3, M23; not just on the M60, but on the M56, M61, M62, M66, M67…

It is this rather than the identification of network gaps across the Pennines that signals a real change.

The south-west part of the M25 has been studied before – in the HASQUAD study abandoned in the early 1990s. The key idea then was to build a section of one of the 1970s London ringway schemes, parallel to the motorway. Twenty years on, the same scheme will no doubt get a fresh airing, along with further widening of the M25 itself – a fourth lane having been added to the M25 along its south-west quadrant in the meantime.

Covering the same territory, the later ORBIT multi-modal study recommended associated road user charging, but, of course, to no avail. So will it be back to the 14-lane M25 option killed off by the John Major government?

This part of the forward highways programme – if fulfilled – would represent a real policy shift and it demands that wider impacts are considered, not just the narrow question of whether the benefits will outweigh the usually measured costs (which very likely they will do on highly congested networks).

Is the aim seriously to catch up with years of neglecting the challenge of meeting road demand growth? If it is, RISs I and II need to be seen as just a first dose.

And if it isn’t, what exactly is the aim? How can capacity expansion be made sustainable in the absence of any pricing mechanism to manage demand (an even more serious problem with low fuel prices)? 

Second question: what are the implications for development patterns? Motorways don’t help stimulate the city centres which are experiencing high growth in the knowledge-based industries and which are seen as vital to GDP growth. They foster instead an appetite for business and leisure parks and out-of-town retailing. Are we ready for this again, given the relaxation of planning constraints since 2010? These effects need to be studied.

Third: would a return to highway network expansion, together with its land-use and development implications, affect demand for rail travel, which has grown strongly and consistently since road expansion ended in the mid-1990s? Does the promise of continuous smart motorways between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds mean the idea is to claw back some of the rail market too?

A good priority within the programme is the plan to invest in A-roads – neglected territory with a poor score on safety and delays. So the west of England can at last expect completion of the A303 upgrade, complete with a Stonehenge tunnel.

But as with the rest of the programme, though this is good for motorists, what about other road users? Over the last 20 years, the “manage what we have got” philosophy has seen a big transfer of road capacity, at least in cities, towards better meeting the needs of pedestrians and cyclists. When formulating the investment plans, the needs of these other road users seem to have been marginalised.

It could be that a programme that would create continuous segregated safe paths for pedestrians and segregated lanes for cyclists could bring a wider set of benefits – especially on safety and sustainability – including for motorists, and more cheaply.

So I’m calling for one more RIS study, to look into the creation of segregated walking and   cycle routes for the entire national A-road network. A highways programme that shows a balanced response to user needs – not just motorists’ – has a much better chance of public acceptability.

Reference: Transport Times, Jan/Feb 2015 Issue

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