June 17, 2024

Shelve Major New Roads To Fix Potholes Instead, U.K. Parliament’s Transport Committee Tells DfT

An influential group of British MPs has told the Department for Transport (DfT) that “future investment [in major roads] should focus more on maintenance and renewal rather than brand new projects.”

Instead, the Tory-led transport committee recommends “cancelling complex and costly enhancement projects.”

Transport remains the biggest greenhouse gas contributor in the U.K.

In February, the Welsh Government scrapped all major road schemes, saying it was placing the climate and ecological emergency at the heart of decision making on future infrastructure spending.

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On July 14, transport secretary Mark Harper gave the go-ahead for the building of a controversial $2.3 billion road tunnel close to the internationally famous Stonehenge standing stones in Wiltshire.

In its Strategic Road Investment inquiry, published July 27, parliament’s transport committee said: “Given increasing costs of projects, net zero commitments and ageing strategic road assets the [committee] calls on the Government to ensure that future Road Investment Strategy portfolios are deliverable and prioritize day-to-day maintenance over complex expansion projects.”

AA president Edmund King, who gave oral evidence to the inquiry, said: “We fully support the Committee’s conclusion that the Government should prioritize strategic road maintenance over major new road schemes. Indeed, I actually told the committee that the ‘number one priority is the actual state of the roads; get rid of the potholes’. We are pleased they have listened.”

Glenn Lyons, who also gave evidence to the inquiry in his role as Mott MacDonald Professor of Future Mobility at UWE Bristol, told Forbes.com: “The committee’s report recognizes that the Government is gambling with our future when it comes to decarbonization. The committee is asking the Government to show greater stewardship over the future by also entertaining the need to maintain or reduce traffic on the strategic road network in England.”

Earlier this year Professor Lyons was one of the contributors to a report which called on the DfT to halt all major road building. In this report transport academic Phil Goodwin said:

“Major road building projects are controversial because the process used for designing and approving them is faulty. Appraising, scrutinising, giving approval and finally deciding often leads to increasing division, not a build up of consensus. The process does not give voice to the seriousness of genuine scientific and public concern about the environmental and economic impacts of the growth in traffic and the schemes to provide for it.”

Professor Goodwin added: “There is never full consideration of viable alternatives, such as public transport improvements and management of demand, or the significance of alternative futures for travel demand or the climate.”

Chris Todd, director of the Transport Action Network lobby group, who gave oral and written evidence to the committee’s inquiry, called the MPs’ report “damning” and said ministers need to consider measures to cut motor traffic.

“In a week that has seen roads in northern England under water, while those in the Mediterranean are on fire, it’s time to recognize the need for more funding to protect existing transport networks from runaway climate change,” said Todd.

“The moment has come to bring National Highway’s plans for a future of ever bigger roads down to earth,” he added.

Fix potholes

The transport committee is comprised of six Tory MPs, four Labour MPs and one Scottish National Party MP.

Committee chair Iain Stewart, the Conservative MP for motor-centric Milton Keynes South, said:

“The majority of road users want the Government to prioritise keeping the network in good, safe condition. My Committee also believes that the Departmect for Transport needs to ensure that future Road Investment Strategies are deliverable and reconsider the viability of its expensive enhancement projects.”

Stewart continued: “We also received evidence raising concerns about the switch to electric vehicles happening swiftly enough to mitigate the added carbon emissions that will come from the predicted increase in traffic on the strategic road network. We advise the Government to model and report on options for managing future congestion levels rather than only enabling its growth via [road] expansions.”

Major roads

The Government views the Strategic Road Network—4,300 miles of motorways and major A roads—as a key driver of economic growth, but its road investments could impact its ambitions to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, stated the Strategic Road Investment inquiry report.

The Government’s strategy to decarbonize the sector relies on a rapid switch to zero-emission vehicles.

However, DfT forecasts that major road traffic will increase, and there is a big risk that the uptake of clean vehicles will not be fast enough to mitigate this increase. The DfT’s plans to accommodate this demand through new roads and clean vehicles rather than considering steps to manage demand was called into question by the report.

The report adds that the road haulage sector was enthusiastic about road building plans but that the “majority of individual road users would prefer maintenance and renewal of the existing [road network] to be prioritized over its expansion.”

“In the face of increasing costs, looming net zero commitments and an ageing network in need of maintenance, the Department [for Transport] needs to ensure that future Road Investment Strategy portfolios are deliverable,” stressed the transport committee’s report.

The committee is far from the only part of officialdom to be wary of more and more road building. In a written submission to the inquiry, Oxfordshire County Council stated that “we are concerned that a large programme of road capacity improvements does not tie with decarbonization objectives and targets at local and national level.”

Car use reductions

In 2020, the government’s Committee on Climate Change recommended that motor vehicle mileage needs to be reduced to meet zero-carbon targets, even with full electrification of the vehicle fleet.

Last month this climate change committee published its 2022 progress report which was critical of the lack of specific ambition of the Government to limit traffic growth.

DfT data released in January revealed that its mileage estimates for major roads are “not a direct output of decarbonising transport modelling,” and neither are the DfT’s National Road Traffic Projections.

“In a world where the only thing we know for sure is that the climate is changing and we are not on track to insulate ourselves from the most extreme impacts, the context for assessing the value of road investments has totally changed compared to even a decade ago,” said Jillian Anable, Professor of Transport and Energy at the University of Leeds.

She added that future road building plans will likely “carry over many proposed road schemes that were based on decisions made in a totally different context several decades ago and any new schemes will use an appraisal process that is even older than that.”


Traffic levels in England and Wales are projected to grow by as much as 54% by 2060, predicted the DfT last year.

In a projections report issued in December 2022, the DfT also said road delays could rise by 85% to 2060.

The DfT’s modeling considered the massive disruption to road traffic that occurred in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the well-understood phenomenon of “induced demand”—the “build it and they will come” theory—politicians tend to use such modeling to urge for the building of more roads.

National Road Traffic Projections 2022 argued that “congestion is dependent on the overall level of traffic relative to road capacity and should be expected to increase as traffic grows, provided capacity does not increase to match it.”

Laying down generous amounts of asphalt has always stimulated motor-vehicle use. (Electric cars get snarled in traffic just as quickly as non-electric cars.)


“There is considerable uncertainty around future travel demand,” said DfT’s chief analyst Amanda Rowlett in the December 2022 report adding that “social and behavioral change, emerging technologies, decarbonization, demographic change and growth in the economy will influence how, when and where we travel.”

The rise in road traffic could be as low as 8% by 2060, stated the DfT’s projections, with the likeliest increase being 22% higher than today.

The 54% growth in road traffic is the upper limit, predicted DfT modeling.

“Our aim is that these projections will be used to inform and shape debate in the transport sector,” said Rowlett.

The DfT’s prediction for an 8% uplift in road traffic assumes increased flexible working, online shopping and reduced rates of driving license holding among younger people.

The 54% increase involved the adoption of autonomous vehicles, which “assumes increased trip making for the elderly and increased driving license holding for all.”

Higher fuel prices could reduce such demand. The DfT’s analysis calculates that a persistent 10% increase in fuel prices reduces traffic by 3%.


National Road Traffic Projections 2022 mentions walking, cycling, and rail and bus use but points out that car travel remains the dominant mode.

Since the 1960s, successive governments—of all political persuasions—have wished for more car travel, so have provided for it by building more roads.

The U.K.’s Strategic Road Network has grown like Topsy because building capacity for motorists is usually included in any political boasts about expanding infrastructure.

In 2013, the so-called “greenest Government ever” promised the “greatest investment in our roads since the 1970s.”

It seemed this was ignorant of a similar 1989 pledge made by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. With the Roads to Prosperity report, Thatcher promised her government’s road-building program would be the “biggest since the Romans.”

Some of Thatcher’s roads got built—including the M25 freeway around London, which, at peak times, is now more of a car park than a fast motor road—but the program was halted when it came to be understood that building more roads leads to more congestion.

This was a radical idea when floated by anti-roads campaigners, but it became an orthodox government position—briefly—following advice to government from the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment (SACTRA) study of 1994.

The then Transport Secretary Dr. Brian Mawhinney—a Conservative— told parliament that the Department for Transport “recognized that, as economic growth over the last 15 years has greatly increased traffic levels, the number of congested areas has gone up and with them, the cases where a road scheme might bring costs as well as benefits.”

He admitted that “roads do, to some degree, increase traffic.”

Urbanists have a pithy phrase to describe this induced demand: “Building more roads to prevent congestion is like a fat man loosening his belt to prevent obesity.”

This quote was paraphrased from a 1955 article by Lewis Mumford. Writing in The New Yorker, the great urban planning specialist suggested that “[experts believe congestion] can be solved by increasing the capacity of the existing traffic routes … Like the tailor’s remedy for obesity—letting out the seams of the trousers and loosening the belt—this does nothing to curb the greedy appetite that [has] caused the fat to accumulate.⁠”

Mumford was describing the as-yet-unnamed concept of induced demand in transport.

This theory was described in detail in 1969 by J.J. Leeming, a British road-traffic engineer and county surveyor. He observed that the more roads are built, the more traffic there is to fill these roads.

Leeming’s description idea was conceived shortly after German mathematician Dietrich Braess released the Braess’s paradox which demonstrated that “selfish” motorists can not be relied upon to consider the optimal travel times for all rather than just themselves, leading to delays for all.

While Leeming’s study has become an accepted theory among most transport academics, induced demand was known about long before 1969.

Writing in 1866, surveyor and engineer William J. Haywood, one of the builders of London’s Holborn Viaduct, said the new thoroughfare would attract more travelers: the “facility of locomotion stimulates traffic of itself,” he wrote.

His solution? Build more roads.

This was also the conclusion of Sir Charles Bressey’s Highway Development Survey for London, published in 1937. In his report, Bressey wrote: “As a typical instance may be quoted the new Great West Road which parallels and relieves the old Brentford High Street route. According to the Ministry’s traffic census extracts … the new route as soon as it was opened carried four and a half times more vehicles than the old route was carrying. No diminution, however, occurred in the flow of traffic along the old route and from that day to this the number of vehicles on both routes has steadily increased…These figures serve to exemplify the remarkable manner in which new roads create new traffic.”

Writing in 1932, the British town planner Thomas Sharp accurately described how some motorists would only be satisfied once every inch of land was capped with asphalt.

“A motorist is apt to complain of the ‘overcrowded’ condition of the road if he finds he has not continually got a whole mile-long stretch of it to himself,” wrote Sharp.

“He will declare there is no pleasure in motoring under such conditions. He will search his map for some alternative route by quiet lanes where he can speed along with the road to himself. And when others find that alternative route and all further alternatives are exhausted, he proceeds to demand a new road system so that his motoring may again become a pleasure.”

Cut backs?

Last year an official from the U.K.’s Department for Transport wrote to local authorities warning them that budget cut-backs will mean major road schemes, previously considered dialled-in, wouldn’t be funded from central government if they are likely to increase carbon emissions. The schemes may also be cancelled if they do not cater for active travel, such as cycling and walking, or public transit.

Philip Andrews, Head of Road Investment, Policy and Pipeline Development at the Department for Transport, wrote that the government that “will not have sufficient funding to continue to fund all the [major road] schemes currently in the programme to the current scale or timing.”

He pointed that there have been changes to government policy around transport investment, analytical requirements on carbon emissions, and “effects of Covid on delivery and future demand.”

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English local authorities were invited to “reconsider the schemes in the current programme.”

Andrews suggested that “certain schemes may no longer be a priority because they have increased in cost, cannot be progressed in a timely fashion or no longer fit with the local authority’s latest transport objectives.”

Going forward, local authorities will have to give more weight to whether new road schemes offer “value for money ,” or VfM.

“Is the scheme likely to be low or poor VfM?” Andrews asked, suggesting that, if so, local authorities might want to reassess them.

The benefit to cost ratios (BCRs) of road building schemes are often poor, while the BCRs for low-carbon, health-promoting transport schemes are generally high.

In a 2013 report from the Department for Transport it was revealed some cycling schemes have off-the-scale BCR’s of up to 35 to 1.

To put this into perspective, the government’s Eddington transport study of 2006 said the BCR for trunk roads was just 4.66, and that figure is likely to be much lower now.

New calculations

In his letter to local authorities Andrews said that the “importance of decarbonisation has increased since May 2019 so consideration of whether the scheme is likely to make carbon worse and lead to a lower VfM.

He added that new calculations will be necessary “now the cost of carbon has been increased substantially.”

He further stated that “active travel and bus improvements are also issues that have grown in importance and any opportunities to promote these in major schemes should be reflected, where possible.”

It’s unlikely that the national government will pay heed to the transport committee’s recommendations. In addition to announcing the recent go-ahead for the Stonehenge tunnel the government today called in the decision of Oxfordshire County council’s planning and regulation committee on a $450 million road expansion in Didcot, Oxfordshire.

Speaking at a public meeting, Green Councillor Emily Kerr of Oxford City Council said: “This road was conceived nearly a decade ago when less than 3% of people worked from home. E-bikes were a nascent industry. Traffic forecasts were from 2015/2018. The world has changed since then. People want good public transport.”

Labour councillor Charlie Hick of Cowley said building the road contradicts the county council’s own policies: “We have a target to reduce car trips by 2030 by 25%. This smashes through this.”

The council’s planning and regulation committee voted to refuse the application for dualling the A4130 road but now there will be a review by the government-appointed planning inspectorate and the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities who will take the final decision about whether to approve the application.

A public inquiry will be held before a decision is made on this road scheme but calling in the decision usually means the decision will be reversed by national government.

The current administration seems happy to ride roughshod over climate concerns.

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