Why Roads Matter…

The 4WH formula has been a staple of project design for ever. We can assume the Romans only signed off Watling Street after they’d asked themselves the quid est, quando, ubi, quid and quam (to you and me that’s what, when, where, why and how) questions.

Sir John Armitt suggested recently that the element we tend not to dwell on enough in conceiving major projects such as roads is why. The roads industry is happy to define what the project should look like, to develop a delivery programme around a geographic location and a project plan to implement the scheme. Most would think the answer to why we needed a new road was obvious. People want to use it. But that of course begs a second question. And the answer is perhaps not as obvious as it might seem at first glance.

Early policy objectives projected economic growth and then planned the road network assumed to be required to deliver that growth. “Predict and Provide” as it was known survived until the early 1990s during which time the only political argument was from an opposition of whichever colour accusing the government of not delivering enough quickly enough and a government pointing to other more urgent priorities.

That all changed in the early 1990s as growing resistance to roads which divided communities, consumed public open space and spewed increasing amounts of toxic fumes into the atmosphere led to a fundamental revision of priorities.  Just as pertinent was the growing recognition that new capacity in many cases induced more traffic.

In my own time as a Minister of Transport I was invited to approve collector/distributor roads which would widen the most congested section of the M25 from 6 lanes to 12 and came with advice that this additional capacity would be full within a decade.

The automatic presumption that new roads were de facto a good thing exploded during the next five years and the ‘why’ question now demands a much more sophisticated response.

Communication is as vital as ever to an efficient economy and a sustainable community. Whether by internet or physical travel all analysts agree that connectivity equals productivity. Indeed internet connectivity has increased rather than reduced the demand for physical travel. And modern vehicles emit substantially less pollution than those of a decade ago.

But modern planning looks at all modal options including light and heavy rail, and in urban areas cycling and walking short journeys. We need to have examined all possible alternatives before we sanction new road capacity. We need to show why we took the decision to build not just to satisfy those in government who have the key to the money box but for the sake of future generations.   

Steve Norris will be participating in a conference session on “Progress and priorities in the new era of roads investment” at Highways UK. 

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Steve Norris

Steve Norris – former Transport Minister, co-chair Highways UK advisory board