Close the Roads

It’s the only logical way forward for Britain’s transport

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 27th July 2000

John Prescott’s pledge was unequivocal. “I will have failed,” he wrote in June 1997, “if in five years’ time there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car. It’s a tall order, but I urge you to hold me to it”.

Well Mr Prescott, I hold you to it, and I assert that you have failed. You have failed now, and you will fail five years, ten years and fifteeen years after your promise was made. Your transport plans, for all the fanfare with which they were launched, are a disaster.

How can I state this with such confidence? Because your own projections show it. I refer you to one of the documents you published on Thursday – Transport 2010: the background analysis. Figure 13, chapter 3 shows that, even if your 10-year plan is fully implemented, between 2000 and 2010 traffic volumes will rise by 17 per cent.

We shouldn’t be surprised to find that your promise and the others the Labour Party has made (before the election, for example, it told us that it would “reduce and then reverse traffic growth”) will be comprehensively broken. Studies dating back to 1938 show that road building generates traffic: new roads fill up until congestion persuades drivers to find a different way to travel. As one of your transport ministers commented in 1998, “The fact of the matter is that we cannot tackle our traffic problems by building new roads”.

If you don’t believe him, look at what has happened in Newbury. According to a report by West Berkshire Council, “there is no consistent pattern of traffic change over the Newbury network as a whole”, following the construction of the new bypass. As the inevitable “infill” development between the bypass and the town generates its own traffic, the long-term impact on the town centre could turn out to be deeply negative.

Even your 10-year plan acknowledges that “simply building more and bigger roads is not the answer: we need a more strategic approach.” But a more strategic approach is precisely what you have failed to deliver. You have announced that 100 bypasses will be built and 360 miles of roads widened BEFORE these schemes have been identified, or the need for them has been established. In other words, you have decided to build first, ask questions later.

You surely know better than anyone else that people will not leave their cars behind until there are both incentives to take alternative forms of transport, and disincentives to drive. Instead, you have offered both new incentives to take the train and, through new road building, new incentives to take the car. You promised an integrated transport system, but you have delivered instead a formula for self-destruction, as one half of your scheme neatly undermines the other.

So why are you doing this? The Confederation of British Industry has kindly provided us with a clue. Your plan, it announced, is “a monumental victory for the business community.” The CBI’s lobbyists demanded a transport package worth £180 million, and this is, to the pound, what you gave them. The primary purpose of most large-scale construction is to provide contracts for developers. You have given a struggling construction industry everything it wanted.

The only logical concomitant of a massive investment in public transport is not the £21bn road building programme you have announced, but a £21bn road closure programme. If you are to honour your promises, you must gradually reduce the amount of available road space, rather than increasing it. A long-term, carefully phased road closure plan would show that you genuinely want to make ours a healthier, more cohesive, more inclusive society, governed not by corporations and a handful of target voters, but by the best interests of all of its people. You could start to achieve all the things your “integrated” department claims it stands for: less air pollution, more peace and quiet, more space – as land is released – for playing fields, housing and conservation. And your “public transport revolution” would be an unquestionable and irreversible success.

Instead, Mr Prescott, you have lost faith in your own objectives. You have already broken your promise, made before the election, not to build the Birmingham Northern Relief Road. You will break your promise not to build the Salisbury bypass. You have broken your promises to reduce the amount of traffic on our roads. Soon, young people all over Britain will take to the trees and the tunnels once more, in an effort to force you to keep the promises you made in order to attract our votes. And YOU will call THEM undemocratic.