Saturday, 18 July 2015

If we're to serve tomorrow's economy we need to invest more in roads and less in rail

Since 2001 rail travel in the UK has increased by over 50% (and has more than doubled since rail privatisation in the 1990s). I'm guessing that people see this as a cause for celebration and a recognition that 'heavy' rail is part of the nation's long term transport solutions. And this celebration is reflected in the investment programme for those railways, in proposals for brand new railways and in political rows about this investment.

However there's a problem. Currently rail journeys account for just 3% of total journeys (slightly more than this as a percentage of journey miles) and we are repeatedly told - hence the investment programme - that the rail network is over capacity. Let's assume that the investment programme succeeds and rail capacity is increased thereby allowing another doubling in rail journeys (this is a big requirement that the planned investment isn't going to meet) - rail would then constitute 6% of journeys made in the UK and the system would be uncomfortably crammed to the gunnels.

Given that the billions of planned rail investment dwarfs every other planned investment by the UK government, you would assume that it would go a long way towards resolving the nation's transport challenges. Between the investment in the current network and High Speed 2, the UK's rail investment programme amounts to approaching £80bn. This compares to the road investment programme of (and I'm being kind here) less than £30bn over the same period. The UK plans to invest more than twice the amount in rail than on the road network, yet there are 20 times as many journeys by road as there are by rail. Roughly speaking we're planning to spend £40 on every rail traveller for each £1 we spend on a road traveller.

The result of this imbalance in investment is that the UK's roads are not up to scratch. Local authorities have trimmed on highway maintenance (in Bradford we underspend by 30-40% each year on highway maintenance) and have little or no capital available to deliver improvement schemes let alone new road schemes. The national investment programme - the £15bn announced in 2014 that is slightly enhanced by decisions in the July 2015 budget - barely scratches the surface of improvements needed in the strategic road network. Yet a decision to delay one small part of the rail investment programme is treated as a major political faux pas whereas the consistent and lamentable underinvestment in our roads doesn't merit media coverage let alone the sort of outcry we get from train fans.

MP after MP, from every side of the house, lines up to berate ministers, including the prime minister, about rail investment. But questions about roads are few and far between despite most of those MPs' constituents making more use of them than they do of railways. When road schemes are asked about the response is that there isn't the funds, that other schemes have higher priority or that the decision is delegated to one or other agency.

For decades we operated under a sort of 'field of dreams' myth about road investment - 'build it and they will come' was the mantra. Or rather the reverse of this - building roads increases traffic volumes ergo if we don't build roads people will shift to other forms of transport thereby saving the planet (or something along these lines):

In transportation, this well-established response is known in various contexts as the Downs-Thomson Paradox, The Pigou-Knight-Downs Paradox or the Lewis-Mogridge Position: a new road may provide motorists with some level of respite from congestion in the short term, but almost all of the benefit from the road will be lost due to increased demand in the longer term.

The problem is that, wherever we look now, this paradox appears to be weakened - in the UK traffic volumes fell for three consecutive years (something that hadn't happened before) during the downturn and, since 2010 have been essentially stable. This is a situation mirrored in the USA where there has been a significant decline in vehicle miles - the population adjusted estimate is that traffic volumes have fallen back to the level they were back in 1994. This picture - dubbed 'peak car' - reflects the logical cap to car ownership rises driven by declining household size, suburban growth and women entering the workforce (as well as increased earnings relative to the price of cars). The consequence is that we should reconsider the various induced demand models for road development:

In a world of peak car, where traffic levels are flat to declining on a per capita basis, induced demand no longer holds court, certainly not to the level claimed by those who believe it’s pointless to build roads. In fact, what peak car means is that while speculative projects may be dubious, there may be good reasons now to build projects designed to alleviate already exiting congestion.

Our road networks are pretty resilient. Despite decades of underinvestment in maintenance the network remains in place and functional (if a little bumpy). However, if we are to deliver on the demands of a new economy, turn round the economic performance of the North and meet the needs of technological change, we have to look again at transport investment priorities. Placing a bigger stress on roads makes sense both because they are the dominant mode of transport for UK residents and also because those roads will prove central to future transport technologies:

A pair of trucks convoying 10 meters apart on Interstate 80 just outside Reno, Nevada, might seem like an unusual sight—not to mention unsafe. But the two trucks doing this a couple of weeks ago were actually demonstrating a system that could make trucking safer and much more efficient.

While the driver in front drove his truck normally, the truck behind him was partly operated by a computer—and it stuck to its leader like glue. When instructed to do so, the computer controlled the gas and brakes to pull to within 10 meters (roughly three car lengths) of the truck ahead. The computer then kept the two trucks paired at this precise distance, as if linked by some invisible cable, until the system was disengaged. If the truck in front stopped suddenly, the one behind could have reacted instantaneously to avoid a collision.

It's time for a rethink on transport priorities and begin to invest in the infrastructure we need for tomorrow's economy - that infrastructure is roads.

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