Transport priorities

Two major UK travel infrastructure projects are slowly edging towards realisation. One is HS2, which is looking increasingly like an extremely expensive way to add extra capacity on the West Coast mainline, affordable only to business travellers; the other is a third runway at Heathrow, to give London’s main airport a fighting chance of remaining a key international hub. While experience shows we are not necessarily the worst at completing such projects – Heathrow Terminal 5 and the Olympic Park were built to schedule, unlike Berlin’s new airport and Stuttgart’s new station – we often seem to be the slowest at starting them in the first place.

Partly, this is a function of an approvals process that allows national pressure groups to marshal opposition to projects on environmental or safety grounds, with governments unwilling to court unpopularity or upset significant numbers of voters. The long, sorry saga of airport expansion around London is a classic example. Inevitably, there will be losers as well as winners from any decision taken, but our elected leaders are paid to take responsibility and should be expected to do so.

In an ideal world, we would not have London’s main airport at Heathrow, close to urban areas and requiring hundreds of aircraft a day to make their landing approach over the capital. But we are where we are and are faced with the need either to relocate Heathrow or expand it (I simplify the situation by taking Gatwick out of the equation, since this is primarily used by leisure travellers and does not have the same hub status as Heathrow).

Replacing Heathrow by a purpose-built airport in the Thames Estuary (inevitably dubbed ‘Boris island’ after the then Mayor of London’s championing of the cause) would solve some of the basic problems but create a whole lot of other ones, as well as being very expensive. Along with having to deal with unexploded WW2 munitions lying in a ship in shallow water near Sheerness, the project would require a massive investment in new road and train links into London. And, although valuable building land would be released and thousands of homes would no longer be bothered by aircraft noise, the economic disruption to the Heathrow area would be huge.

Expanding Heathrow was always the most likely option, despite compounding existing noise, transport and air pollution problems. The economic case is compelling and many of the downsides are likely to be mitigated by technology improvements. But, rather than biting the bullet, even the present government is simply strengthening its support for expansion while kicking the can further down the track by putting this to a Parliamentary vote in more than a year’s time.

As well as the understandable resistance from local residents who stand to suffer more nuisance or even lose their homes, there is intense opposition from a number of campaigning and activist groups, including Plane Stupid, which object to any expansion of aviation. How the concerns raised by environmentalists are balanced against the health of the economy in a world that relies on air travel for long-distance journeys is a question the politicians have not yet answered properly.

There is a similar problem pertaining to roads, with similar opposition from pressure groups. While the government seems set to spend over £40bn (which will surely be exceeded) on a rail project that will not be completed until 2033 and on which no services will run until 2026, the roads serving the same parts of the country carry vastly more goods and people and suffer from under-capacity. This is part of the argument made by Lord Wolfson in his article the state of our roads is a national disgrace, in which he announces the that an improved road system is the topic for next year’s Wolfson Economics Prize.

The problem is that roads are not particularly fashionable, despite their importance. Much of the debate about mobility relates to public transport rather than private cars and lorries, seen by some as, at best, a necessary evil. Certainly in urban areas many journeys are better done by bus, tram or underground if available, and the heavy use of these in cities is clear evidence of this (again for simplicity, let’s ignore the role of cycling for now).

Similarly, trains currently play an important role in bringing commuters into work in cities, where roads simply could not accommodate thousands more cars at peak times without descending into gridlock (let alone the problem of parking places). Many longish-distance journeys are also taken by rail, mainly by business travellers with deep pockets or by those with the foresight to book ahead for an affordable fare. From a low point in the 1960s, rail travel has seen something of a renaissance, albeit in a rather different guise.

But none of this should detract from the fact that many journeys are much easier and quicker by car and that most freight will continue to use roads (if trains were a real alternative, companies would have cottoned on by now). As Lord Wolfson puts it, the road network “…carries about 90 per cent of passenger trips and 75 per cent of freight, but receives under 50 per cent of government spending [on transport]….Car traffic reached a record 249 billion vehicle miles this year and is rising. But spending on road maintenance is falling. Cyclists and bus passengers, as much as car drivers, suffer the consequences.”

Now, this in no way means that we shouldn’t make roads work better for us, and hopefully next year’s prize winner will come up with some interesting thoughts on the topic. Road charging will no doubt be put forward by some. Ostensibly this would be to reduce congestion, but it would also enable the government to pass the cost to private contractors, who would recoup their investment via tolls. In any case, this would mean less public expenditure on roads, despite the fact that motorists make a large net public contribution to the Exchequer. However, the priority of policymakers seems clearly to be the railways, important in some ways but also something of a niche in the overall picture.

Autonomous vehicles will almost certainly begin to make a contribution to better road usage before too long, given the large strides made in the technology in the last few years. But they also need properly maintained roads on which to operate. For too long, it seems that politicians have favoured the argument that building more roads or widening existing ones simply encourages more traffic. This is simplistic and ignores the fact that people use cars (and companies use lorries) for a reason. Let’s hope that governments recognise this and invest our money in a well-considered strategic plan to improve road transport in the short and long term, for the benefit of all.

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