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.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.