A major report into the impact of road building has found evidence schemes increase congestion, fail to provide economic benefits and lead to car dependent developments as well as damaging the environment.
Commissioned by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), The end of the road research looked at over 80 official evaluations of road schemes, as well as carrying out four detailed case studies of older road schemes. The report’s research and findings focused on the national strategic road network.
As well as drawing damaging conclusions about the economic and social value of road schemes, the report heavily critices the official process for appraising road schemes before they are built – and evaluating them after they open – labeling it ‘seriously flawed and in need of far-reaching reform’.
The report cites evidence from 13 cases analysed in detail for traffic impact and concluded that on average, traffic grew 47% more than background levels after new road schemes, with one scheme more than doubling traffic within 20 years.
It also highlights a wealth of historical academic research that draws the same conclusion going back to the 1920s. After reviewing 25 schemes that ‘were justified on the basis that they would benefit the local economy’ the report found that in ‘76% of these schemes, the evidence ranged from thin and circumstantial to non-existent’.
- 32% had no evidence to enable a judgement to be made about the economic impact of the scheme.
- 44% had weak evidence of economic impact (either positive or negative)
It states: ‘Only 24% had evidence of economic uplift, but this was mixed. In most cases this statement needs to be qualified, because any economic improvement was probably the result of changes incidental to the road scheme.
‘There is also no evidence on whether new economic activity associated with these road schemes was genuinely additional, or simply a displacement of economic activity from elsewhere.’
On the environment, it finds that 80% of schemes analysed ‘had an adverse impact on the landscape, whether at one or five years after completion, and 57% affected an area that had a national or local designation for landscape, biodiversity or heritage.’
It also argues that road building encouraged car-dependent ‘ribbon development’ of homes and industry along transport corridors, ‘killing investment and regeneration in local town centres, while damaging the countryside’.
Ralph Smyth, head of infrastructure and legal at CPRE, said: 'Rather than looking to the past, the Government must invest in a forward looking mobility strategy that puts quality of life ahead of the car. The Government should reopen old rail lines, offer people travel options in town and countryside, and harness new technology to make more efficient use of road space. It should promote new housing on brownfield sites closer to jobs and services, rather than unleash car-dependent sprawl on green fields.’
The Local Government Technical Advisers Group supported the report's findings and said: ‘There really has been and is very little excuse for not knowing the adverse consequences of the spending on capacity and (temporary) speed increases to the Strategic Road Network, from the knowledge of any political party or professional advisers in the Department of Transport or Highways England.’
Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, responded: ‘This report highlights some home truths. We are a congested island with a growing population and expanding economy. Few of us battle daily congestion on the roads and railways through choice but necessity; because we need to get to work, get the children to school or get to the shops.
‘We might never remove the need to make these journeys but we can make them shorter and easier if both land use planning and transport planning march in step, closely linking housing, business and retail development.’
A Highways England spokesperson said: ‘The strategic road network is vital to the success of the UK economy; we simply cannot operate without moving people, materials and goods around by road.
‘The improvements we are delivering will ensure our roads continue to operate safely, efficiently and effectively, and are capable of meeting the demands placed upon them in a sustainable manner.
‘Our programme also focuses on upgrading the current network, and includes a set of ring-fenced funds to deliver benefits that are important to customers and communities in addition to a safe, reliable network.’
A Department for Transport spokesman reiterated the Government argument that it was was investing in roads 'to cut congestion and make journeys quicker, safer and more reliable’.
However he also highlighted that ministers were making ‘record investments in modernising rail’ as well.
The Highways Term Maintenance Association (HTMA), representing road contractors, commented on the importance of well-maintained roads.
Executive director Geoff Allister OBE said: ‘HTMA continues to highlight the economic and social benefits of keeping roads in good repair. There is a compelling commercial argument for timely interventions in highway maintenance to arrest the decline in the condition of the road network with case studies showing benefits to cost ratios in excess of 2:1.'