A new report from Arup says roadbuilding in the UK has ground to a halt despite obvious economic benefits of new schemes
Something interesting may be stirring in UK roads policy. Ever since (the late) Lord Channon and former secretary of state for transport (1989) announced that Britain would be embarking on “the largest road building programme since the Romans” the appetite in Whitehall for UK road schemes has gradually waned.
This may be for good reason. Majority public opinion tended to turn against large scale roadbuilding soon after Channon’s fateful announcement. Think Swampy and his protest against the A30 in 1996. Whitehall mandarins soon worked out that they could drop a policy that was generally unpopular with the voting public and at the same time boost their green credentials and trim expenditure by the Department for Transport.
Delays are forecast to increase by 54% to 2035 compared to 2003 levels
The only problem with this is that traffic and congestion has continued to grow almost unrelentingly ever since. Roads account for about four fifths of all journeys. On the government’s own figures, this is all set to get worse. Delays are forecast to increase by 54% to 2035 compared to 2003 levels.
A principal driver of demand for roads is long term population growth. An extra fifteen million people are projected to be living in the UK in the next forty years; an increase of twenty-four percent on today. Matters would perhaps be less severe if road space was charged for, as is the case for all other motorized transport. UK roads (and fascinatingly) the health service are uniquely rationed by queuing.
That brings us to our new piece of research published today. In it Arup and the RAC Foundation show that other countries have had considerable success in tackling this seemingly intractable problem. A combination of innovative financing models involving the private sector and user charging, have delivered valuable additional road capacity on a financially (and even environmentally?) sustainable basis across the globe.
Public acceptability for charging for roads increases once user friendly ‘free-flow’ technologies are used and the benefits of increased capacity are experienced day to day
Experience of what works (and what doesn’t) from France, Canada, Spain, Portugal, Australia and the US shows that public acceptability for charging for roads increases once user friendly “free-flow” technologies are used and the benefits of increased capacity are experienced day to day.
With some 96 motorway and main road projects remaining unfunded - often with very high benefit to cost ratios - there’s a real opportunity for the UK to couple some of these models to ‘shovel ready’ projects. And a funding shortfall of around £13bn means pension funds and other investors should have something substantial to go at too.
With the government’s Highways Agency strategic review reportedly kicked into the medium to long grass while the new secretary of state settles in, the question is whether she will be ambitious enough to grasp the nettle on this hugely important policy question.
Transport to the Olympics and high speed rail policy are interesting subjects. But dealing with highway under-investment and road congestion on an epic scale are perhaps prizes that even the Romans would have seen as worthy of praise.
Alexander Jan leads Arup’s UKMEA transport transaction advice team.