Realising a return on road investment
As regular as clockwork, the Times newspaper dropped through my letterbox on Saturday morning at 07:30am; somewhat bizarrely delivered by car, rather than the usual 13 year old replete with headphones, spots and undersized BMX. Now, I could write a piece on the CO? footprint from tree (or recycled fibre), to my front door, and all of the opportunities within that supply chain for improvement. The final delivery by car was merely the tip of the iceberg in carbon wastage, I can safely say. If you are somewhat tired by that topic though, you have been saved by the headline on the mooted increase in motorway speed limit, for cars, to 80mph. Apparently this policy will no longer be implemented as Conservative polling suggests that it will be a vote loser with women.
As with any newspaper headline, you need to take it with a 1kg bag of salt; however this, and past administrations in/action hardly display a coherent strategic vision on the road network. You can build as many Millennium Domes as you like but without a decent legacy project, the public are not likely to get much bang for their buck. The M6 toll was supposed to relieve pressure on the M6, though the stats point to increases in traffic on the motorway and decreases on the toll road. There is an enraging inevitability when you reach the end of the toll and find yourself in heavy, stop start traffic until Stoke-on-Trent is a dim memory.
It appears that there is significant investment in the road network coming from the government; up to £9.5 billion for 2015-16. Increasing capacity in congested spots is sensible, and the investment will no doubt stimulate the economy as the UK crawls from deep recession. It just does not feel like a holistic strategy.
In 2012 David Cameron announced his vision of a privately funded network of toll roads relieving pressure from South Wales right across the country to Norfolk. The Welsh government told them they were not interested, and no doubt environmental interests and NIMBYS in areas surrounding the A14 are already preparing their placards. One problem is that people seem reluctant to pay for toll roads given they ‘pay’ for the roads now through their Road Fund (tax) and perhaps more controversially fuel duty contributions. They think the government should be relieving congestion; just not by building busy roads through the bottom of their garden. Or sites of special scientific interest.
The current extensive works on the M1 and M6 on road widening and variable speed limits, predominantly through use of the hard shoulder, appear to be seen as the way forward. But where is the smart policing to ensure that drivers are in the appropriate lane, allowing traffic to flow. You can guarantee on a stretch of four lane motorway at least 50% of cars will be in the wrong lane, slowing that flow. The full benefits of the investment will not be felt unless drivers’ behaviour can be changed. Like them or loathe them speed cameras did force people to slow down; without forcing lane discipline on drivers, the full benefit of the extra lanes will not be realised.
The RHA and FTA complained vociferously recently when it was proposed by a local Essex politician that there should be an overtaking ban for lorries on stretches of the A12. Although this would presumably mean delays for road hauliers, in some instances you can see the logic. On long uphill stretches of motorway such as the M6 approaching Stoke-on-Trent, significant volumes of truck traffic in the middle lane un-doubtably hampers the flow of cars in the middle and fast lanes.
The speed limit debate is particularly perplexing. I wrote earlier in the year on the consultation over increasing HGV speed limits on certain A-roads; in effect this would mean that the new speed limit reflected the speed that HGVs were doing anyway. No real evidence based approach on road safety was taken, because the requisite data was not available within the scope of the terms of inquiry. The speed limit on motorways for cars is 70 mph, but I suspect you could drive at 80 mph continuously for years before you were ever stopped by police, unless you were doing something particularly reckless. Surely selection of the appropriate speed limit needs to be based on reducing road traffic incidents to a minimum whilst ensuring a sufficient flow of traffic, not whether it will go down badly with a group of the electorate. If a safe speed limit means excessive delays, build more capacity or a means of reducing that over-capacity; by investing in the rail network, for example. Setting a speed limit and then not enforcing it seems counter-productive at best.
So the government is building up the infrastructure, where allowed to, but appears to be ignoring the rules of engagement on that infrastructure. Effective safety consideration, policing and appropriate speed limits could complement this investment and increase the flow of traffic on our roads. Without the whole package the actual improvements are likely to be disappointing.