The end of the road or a road to prosperity?

The Campaign to Protect Rural England came out with a report last week entitled The End of the Road which essentially suggested the countryside is about to be concreted over thanks to the government’s roads building programme, and that these new roads will do nothing to ease congestion, but actually make it worse.

Rob Flello, MP for Stoke-on-Trent South, Transport Select Committee Member and chair and founder of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Freight Transport says not only should the CPRE not fear road building but that the right roads, in the right places with the right developments to go with them will protect our green and pleasant land.

“There’s a theory,” Rob says, “called induced demand, which essentially says that the more space there is for cars the more people will drive, taking more journeys and causing more congestion and pollution.  There have been a lot of academic studies which support this view, but many of them miss some of the obvious points, that where you put your road and where it goes through and ends up are hugely significant factors in resulting traffic levels.”

Rob points to a 2001 study by Robert Cervero, Professor of City and Regional Planning at the Institute of Urban and Regional Development of the University of California.  Snappily entitled, Road Expansion, Urban Growth, and Induced Travel: A Path Analysis, Professor Cervero’s work challenges the received wisdom maintained by the CPRE that new roads make more traffic and are therefore generally, “a bad thing.”

“As with so many of these things,” Rob says, “it’s very much a question of how you measure them.  Professor Cervero says that firstly, the scale of the induced demand effect is somewhat lower than others have suggested and also that research has ignored the benefits of road improvement.  Professor Cervero says, ‘This research also reveals significant “induced growth” and “induced investment” effects – real-estate development has gravitated to improved freeway corridors and road investments have been shaped by traffic trends in California. Fighting road projects on the basis of induced-demand should be carefully considered. Energies might be better directed at curbing mispricing in the highway sector and managing land-use changes spawned by road investments.’  Which loosely translated comes out as you can fight every road programme if you want but just be careful what you wish for.”

Rob also points to the remarkable story of Highway 161 between Dallas and Fort Worth in Texas, where a six-and-a-half mile stretch of road was widened in an attempt to combat congestion.  The website, Wired, reports in suitably lurid terms, “In a true fairy tale of a transportation project, Texas spent a measly $4.25 million widening a highway and, in defiance of conventional wisdom among transportation planners, doubled the speed of rush hour traffic on a notoriously congested highway in Dallas.”  

“The reason for the success of the Texas project,” Rob says, “appears to be that it was exactly the right widening scheme at exactly the right place.  A choke point was identified and relieved and the traffic moved more quickly without growing appreciably.  This is also an example of the second point often overlooked by believers in induced demand, that is that other routes may well become less congested thanks to the relief of pressure a new road brings.  What really matters is that we view these things as a whole which is why I have been calling for some time for a national integrated transport policy.  If you pick one road to improve there will always be knock-on effects elsewhere.  If you build a road but don’t ensure good public transport opportunities and good access for continuously moving freight vehicles and you ignore the effects beyond the one road you’re building, there will always be problems.  Part of the solution is building the right things next to the roads so as to maximise their benefits in terms of economic growth and traffic management.”