Is it time to end road building?

Oh what a lovely urban motorway. Image: Getty.

The new Office of National Statistics report on carbon emissions and road transport should be a wake-up call. Despite the pressing need to cut emissions, greenhouse gases from road transport have increased by 6 per cent since 1990.

For decades the main solution to the UK’s congested roads has been to build more. The UK government spends over £10bn on our roads every year, or about 1.2 per cent of all government spending. By any standard that’s a lot of money. And while it has long been obvious that the environmental impact is unsustainable, recent research has weakened the case for road building.

So why are we still building new roads and is it time to stop?

What’s the benefit of more road building?

Building roads is supposed to cut congestion and speed up journeys.

But a review by Highways England published earlier this year found that, overall, dozens of roads were more congested as a result of road building. A 2017 analysis by Campaign for Rural England (CPRE) of 25 road building projects found only five had evidence of any impact.

In the long-term, new road space encourages more journeys by car until the extra capacity is clogged up once again. In fact, the same CPRE review found that road building commonly created congestion on nearby roads, leading to calls for even more road building. 

UK roads have a massive carbon impact

Around 30 per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions come from vehicles on our roads, including 18 per cent just from cars. Road transport emissions have increased in the last 20-years despite improvements in technology – largely because people are driving more.

The mooted cut to fuel duty would only encourage even more car use at a time when we need as many journeys as possible to be made on foot, bike or by public transport.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we have until 2030 to halt climate change. Electric vehicles will help, but not soon enough. The UK government knows this, which is why it has only committed to end the sale of fossil-fuel vehicles a decade later in 2040. The UK Committee on Climate Change has said this will not contribute to keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees.


Invest in cycling and walking infrastructure and a zero-carbon future

There will be billions of pounds available if we stop building new roads. Over 10 years, we could fix the £11.6bn backlog of road maintenance and still have about 90 per cent of the bloated road building budget left each year.

The government could use this money to focus on building safe walking and cycling infrastructure for children to travel to school. In our busy towns and cities, tackling the school run and taking those car trips off the road could have a much bigger impact on congestion.

We should be building protected cycle routes on arterial routes to make cycling a safe and convenient transport mode for millions of people to get to work, the shops and most everyday journeys.

Infrastructure for walking and cycling is a fraction of the cost of roads, but it’s what you get back that matters. A Department for Transport report boasts of a £4 return on investment for every £1 spent on certain major road schemes, but the average return on investment for cycling is £13 for every £1 spent.

We should also put more money into clean, affordable public transport. We need greater investment in low-carbon bus fleets and bus priority infrastructure to make bus travel fast, convenient and green. Continuing the electrification of the railways would also permit faster journeys with lower carbon emissions.

What next?

The severity of the climate emergency means we need system change.

Things might be starting to change in Scotland, where a new National Transport Strategy does away with promoting faster journey times in favour of journey reliability, and declares that transport must contribute to delivering net-zero carbon emissions. The logical conclusion is that building more roads is incompatible.

Separately, an independent review of air quality policy commissioned by the Scottish Government has concluded that national road investment should end in five years and spending on walking and cycling should double to around £30 per head.

The mantra of road building is being challenged by the evidence. It’s time politicians recognised that new roads come at a cost we can no longer afford.

Alex Quayle is senior policy officer at Sustrans.

 
 
 
 

Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.


The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.