Paula Renzel explores the mismanagement of transportation and how Wales is leading the way to a greener future.
Politicians are often criticised for wanting to please the electorate and avoiding making the necessary decisions because they believe these to be too controversial. Road building is a case in point.
Over the past 30 years, the number of motor vehicles on UK roads has increased by over 15%. The instinctive response from various governments and agencies has been to build more roads or to add another lane in the hope that one more lane will fix congestion. The belief that we can build ourselves out of congestion is a common misconception. However, new roads or bypasses are neither quick fixes, nor do they solve any of the problems long term. As roads get bigger people feel incentivised to drive more, increasing traffic and ultimately congestion. This is called induced demand.
The Welsh Government’s response to the Roads Review easily marks one of the greatest shifts in national transport policy.
With a new road, congestion levels may look like they are improving at first, but are likely to soon be worse than before. This approach also fails to consider the increase in congestion that it will cause on the surrounding road network.
Research commissioned by CPRE which examined 86 official studies of completed road schemes concluded that road building for the past two decades has failed to live up to claims of reduced congestion and economic boost. Yet we are still spending billions of pounds on a strategy that is doomed to failure.
On 14th February, however, the Welsh Government became the first government in the UK to finally face up to reality and put a stop to building bigger and wider roads. The Welsh Government’s response to the Roads Review easily marks one of the greatest shifts in national transport policy.
Deputy Minister for Climate Change, Lee Waters, explained in his speech to the Siambr that this does not mean that we will see a complete halt to all road-building, but rather a raising of standards for where and when roads should be built. From now on, any new road scheme will have to pass four tests, as described in the Welsh Government’s response to the roads review. This means they will have to support greater use of public transport, walking and cycling, reduce carbon emissions, improve road safety and be resilient to climate change impacts. They will also need to enable people to access economic opportunities in a way that is as sustainable as possible.
In England, the Department for Transport (DfT) remains in denial about road building.
This is groundbreaking as it is the first time any national government has put the climate and nature emergencies at the heart of decision making on major infrastructure projects. It also changes the way that alternatives to road building are considered, giving them greater priority. Any road building that does go ahead should not increase car use and should focus on small scale interventions that are cheaper and quicker to implement. The next major challenge is to develop and implement effective measures that improve walking, cycling and public transport so that they become a genuine transport choice for more people. With the Welsh Government’s shrinking budgets, this is likely to be an uphill battle, but it cannot be shirked if people are going to realise that there are viable alternatives to driving.
Internationally there is much that could be learned from Wales’ example. Besides a few exceptions such as Austria, where the Government halted several road schemes on climate grounds in 2021, and Germany, where the Government said it wanted to prioritise spending on rail over roads, most countries have failed to face up to the consequences of building more roads. They are also still failing to reduce transport emissions quickly enough.
In England, the Department for Transport (DfT) remains in denial about road building. Despite not having a credible pathway to net-zero, it continues to run down public transport while increasing traffic and emissions. It is halfway through spending over £30bn on roads up until 2025 and could be about to pledge another £40bn up until 2030. Given that new roads increase traffic and emissions, this is the worst possible action it could take. It is also diverting billions of pounds of scarce public funding into making things worse, rather than into improving public transport and walking and cycling, to make things better.
Given the science, significantly scaling back on road building is the right thing to do.
The DfT defends its position by pretending any shortfall in the transport sector can be made up elsewhere. In reality, with sectors such as buildings or agriculture and land use struggling to deliver, this is little more than wishful thinking. Another recurring argument is that technology and the uptake of electric cars will be the simple solution to all this, but even the RAC Foundation has acknowledged that it is unlikely the electrification of the vehicle fleet happens quickly enough. In other words, other measures, including traffic reduction, are likely to be needed.
What we have seen in Wales is an honest and open recognition that the way we currently plan new roads and infrastructure is unsustainable. Given the science, significantly scaling back on road building is the right thing to do. However, that won’t necessarily make it popular, as politicians respond to short-term electoral pressures rather than focusing on the longer term need. No doubt there will be challenging times ahead, including finding the finances to improve public transport to convince people that there are reliable alternatives. Yet this is a world leading development that few other nations have had the guts or the confidence to do to date. The Welsh Government should be commended for its resolve and willingness to deliver on the promises it has made to tackle climate change and social inequality.
This article was edited by Kaja Brown thanks to the Books Council of Wales’ New Audiences Fund.