Opinion

If we really wanted to save the planet, we would stop building roads

We are not short of money to correct climate change and transport policy. We just spend it the wrong way, says Professor John Whitelegg from the Foundation for Integrated Transport.

The UK government does not do joined-up thinking very well. We have declared a climate emergency and committed the country to world-beating climate change policy and at the same time we are spending approximately £34 billion to make things worse.

This is the cost of the national road building plan known as RIS2 (£27 billion) and the cost of local roads promoted by councils (£7 billion). We are repeatedly told in Covid-19 times that the government follows science. The additional carbon dioxide emissions generated by road building and increased traffic on the new roads is well-documented by scientists and ignored by government. The government ignores science. Even worse, government and the majority of councils reject non-road building ways of solving transport problems.

If we really were committed to reducing climate damaging carbon emissions as we agreed in Paris or we really were committed to net zero carbon by 2050 we would cancel road building and switch all the funding to world-best joined up thinking about transport. Once again science is important.

Apparently we are committed in the UK to improve public health and to reduce deaths and serious injuries in the road traffic environment. And yet we have some of the poorest quality walking and cycling infrastructure in Europe, plus road traffic danger that deters a switch from cars to bikes and feet.

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Scientific evidence shows that reducing speed to an enforced 20mph on roads where pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles mix reduces the chance of death or serious injury to 5 per cent of those hit by a vehicle. At 30mph, 45 per cent of those hit by vehicles die or are seriously injured.

The World Health Organisation strongly recommends 20mph. The UK government rejects the scientific evidence on which this is based, stating in a 2018 report it had found “insufficient evidence to conclude that there has been a significant change in collisions and casualties following the introduction of 20mph limits in residential areas”.

There is a huge amount of evidence from prestigious, independent scientific bodies that 20mph reduces death and injury in road traffic. The relevant government minister, Baroness Vere of Norbiton, was present when the 20mph policy was adopted at a global ministerial conference on road safety in Stockholm in February 2020.

The rejection of 20mph is unscientific and based on DfT and political prejudice to give cars and people in cars a higher priority than children, older people and those who cannot afford a car. It is a blatantly unscientific, non-joined up policy that fails to deliver carbon reduction, air quality improvement and public health gains as well as making life difficult and unpleasant for the millions of UK residents who have to put up with the noise, stink and road traffic danger of cars in their local communities.

The prioritisation of cars goes deeper. We allocate huge amounts of space to cars that could very easily be used for green space, affordable housing, trees and parks. We encourage anti-social, unpleasant pavement parking in residential areas so that children and other pedestrians have to walk in the middle of the road. There is no space for anyone with a pushchair or wheel chair. The car takes up space that belongs to the people and this is ignored by councils and central government.

Pavement parking of all kinds must be banned but once again the government prefers to encourage the anti-social car driver with free car parking and the free car parking encourages more people to use cars and avoid walking, cycling and buses. Free car parking adds to air pollution which kills 42,000 people every year in the UK and adds to carbon emissions at precisely the time we should reduce those emissions.

If we had intelligent joined-up thinking in government and our politicians did not behave like rabbits caught in car headlights we could have what residents in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

In a recent open letter to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, I called on the Government to adopt ten measures for sustainable transport and achieve zero land transport carbon by 2030. 2050 is too late.

These include:

  1. Swiss style, totally integrated high quality public transport in urban and rural areas
  2. Free public transport, currently to be found in over 100 places globally
  3. A dense network of totally segregated bike paths connecting all schools and colleges with their catchment areas
  4. Car-free cities like Oslo, much bigger than the pedestrianisation schemes we have in most UK cities at the moment. Areas much bigger than the city centres of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Newcastle would be car free.

Current UK transport policy priorities discriminate against the poor, women, children, teenagers, older people and those with mobility difficulties. We are not short of money to correct all these defects. We just spend it the wrong way.

Climate change is a crucially important issue but the changes in policy and spending that will deliver what needs to be done to deal with the climate emergency are exactly the same things that need to be done to create a high quality living environment for everyone, zero air pollution and much improved public health for all.

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