For a long time, there has been very little published about the role of roads and the future priorities in the industry. Now, rather like buses, we have had three important documents coming out rapidly one after another, two from the Department for Transport and one from Transport for London, which will stimulate the debate for some time to come.
So in quick succession, we got the Roads Task Force report which was commissioned by Transport for London but produced by an independent committee, then, from the Department, the response to a consultation over road user charging and Action for Roads, A network for the 21st century setting out a series of ideas on the future of roads for consultation.
In many respects, the Roads Task Force document is the most interesting. All the headlines were about an unlikely plan to put the South Circular Road in a tunnel but actually the detailed thinking at the heart of the report was much more interesting. It highlights the different types and uses of roads in the urban context and tries to establish how to ensure that all three key aims for the network are met: ‘transforming conditions for walking, cycling and public transport; delivering better, active and inclusive places and new city destinations; and maintaining an efficient road network for movement and access’.
The trouble is, of course, these aims are frequently in conflict with one another and the document recognises this to some extent. Busy high streets need people to be able to park in order to shop but they are also often through routes where traffic is held up by people stopping. Reconciling these diverse needs is, as the report stresses, increasingly difficult in the face of increasing demand.
Moreover, Boris Johnson, in fact, has rather undermined these priorities by dispensing with the roads hierarchy, which meant prioritising more vulnerable roads users, that was TfL policy before he was elected in 2008. The trouble with the strategy is that it seeks to be all things to all people. In fact, demand management is the key. Without it, those aims will be irreconcilable.
Which brings us neatly on to the second report. The consultation was over plans published late last year on how to enforce road user charging as set out in the Labour’s Transport Act 2000, which clearly was quietly slipped out since there were only 60 responses. The recommendations in the report are that failure to pay user charges – road tolls to you and me – should be treated pretty much like other motoring offences such as parking. However, the key point of interest is not so much in the recommendations, but the very fact that this type of analysis is being quietly undertaken by the Department.
While road tolling is as popular as caravans in the fast lane and politicians in public are steering clear of it, many transport commentators reckon it will inevitably be introduced at some stage and this type of work is quietly preparing the ground for it.
The Department’s major roads statement, Action for Roads has clearly been hamstrung by the idea that roadbuilding will be essential to keep the economy moving and to stimulate demand, a key part of George Osborne’s policy. To do this, the idea that we need more roads to accommodate demand is essential but the problem is that there has, in fact, been a decline.
The document, therefore goes into remarkable contortions about why traffic levels have barely grown for the past 15 years. It says that a variety of factors, such as reduced use of company cars and fewer younger people having licences ‘have resulted in a lower level of traffi¬c than predicted in some earlier forecasts’. The report, rather comically, tries to explain this away by saying that ‘the results do match what existing models would have predicted, had they known how the economy, population growth and the costs of motoring would behave in those years’. That is rather like saying that if we knew what was going to happen, we would know what was going to happen.
It would have been more interesting to see an honest and thorough assessment of future demand, in the light of recent trends and events. It may come from elsewhere. The Independent Transport Commission has responded to the government’s consultation paper by announcing that it is undertaking research on public attitudes towards paying for roads and their use. This is very opportune, as the chairman of the ITC steering group, the ex transport minister Steve Norris put it, it is clear we need to think much more creatively about how we fund our roads infrastructure if we are to maintain a first class network’. Norris, however, was always a brave politician who was ready to challenge orthodoxies. Whether his successors are seems to be more doubtful, but there is no doubt that, as he puts it, new sources of money for funding and managing the road network are essential.
These reports are all important documents, but attract little interest from the public. That is a shame since there is no doubt that over the next decade or two, Britain’s roads are going to go through changes as radical as those when the motorway network was first built as a result of technology, shortage of money and changing patterns of demand.
• Christian Wolmar is a leading transport expert