Monday, January 18, 2010

Highways Agency overstates benefits of new roads

According to the Campaign for Better Transport, the Highways Agency get it wrong when it comes to assessing the benefits of new roads.

This can hardly come as a surprise, as building roads is what the Highways Agency does for a living. Why would they recommend building fewer roads, and do themselves out of a job?

It looks like a classic case of putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop. And the amounts of taxpayers' money at stake are truly eye-watering. £8.3 bn spend on roads in 2008. That's so eye-watering that you would expect the Taxpayers' Alliance to take an interest in the report. And they do, but incredibly, they have a go at putting reverse spin on it, saying in effect that more traffic is a good thing, that personal transport represents the best value. Now, you can conceive of a right-wing libertarian argument in favour of road-building that ignores the social, health and environmental consequences of increasing numbers of roads and car-dependency, but from an organization that purports to be "campaigning for lower taxes" and supposedly will "criticise all examples of wasteful and unnecessary spending" it seems a little surprising. Rather than rubbishing the report for being written by "anti-car fanatics" you might have expected a little more concern about the system for ensuring the taxpayer gets value for their huge amounts of money. You might be forgiven for thinking that the TPA is less of a brave steward of the taxpayer against government profligacy, and more of a right-wing libertarian pressure group!

In any case, the right wing long ago lost the argument about predict-and-provide roadbuilding, partly because so many people on the right saw the damage that more roads and the inevitable consequence - more traffic - were inflicting on their quiet rural villages, on traditional life, on village post-offices, local shops and communities, on road safety, on the countryside, on of the nice things about environmental campaigns is they often unite people from across the political spectrum. Maybe some of the TPA's Tory party supporters should have a quiet word...

Meanwhile, back in the world of cycling, we have piffling amounts of money being spent on cycle infrastructure projects compared to the Highways Agency budget, but in a lot of cases, even this is largely wasted on substandard schemes that deliver very little benefit in terms of encouraging cycling or making cycling safer and more pleasant. The result being that the schemes end up being re-drafted and re-worked, so you have close to double the design, consultation and implementation costs.

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