There’s plenty of roadspace at night

Open Road motorway at night

Mike Penning, the portly roads minister, needs to be bound and gagged and dumped on the M6, at 3am, just north of Carlisle. I’m not advocating the death of a minister of the Crown; Penning would be perfectly safe for quite some time because this massively wide motorway is pretty much empty at 3am. Maybe after surviving unscathed Penning would come to understand there’s plenty of roadspace to go around, it’s how we use it in peak times that’s the problem.

At a transport select committee hearing two weeks ago Penning – and his LibDem partner in crime, Norman Baker – said there could be no national funding for cycle paths because this is a “local issue” but Penning is more than happy to pour money down the drain for “strategically important national roads”. One such road scheme to get the green light is just a few miles from where I live. Tons of extra motorised traffic has been generated thanks to the building of the second Tyne tunnel; the Silverlink junction where the A19 meets Newcastle’s Coast road is at gridlock at peak times of the day.

At night, like the M6 and like much of the UK’s road network, it’s empty.

The width of the road is plenty wide enough for maybe 18 hours out of the day; the bottlenecks occur sporadically, and at wholly expected times. Instead of managing this bottleneck with traffic mitigation measures, national Government will be spending £170m of taxpayers’ cash (that’s our money they’re wasting) on widening this junction for a few people for just a few hours per day. This is lunacy. The expected “congestion easing” won’t happen. As is extremely well known, extra road capacity leads to induced demand and any improvement in “traffic flow”, in peak times, will be soon swallowed up.

Even if an increased number of cars are speeded through this junction for a few weeks (and that’s all that £170m buys you) there will then be a crush somewhere else on the network. More and wider roads will be needed elsewhere on the network. But there’s precious little space for this, and there could never be enough cash to satisfy the unthinking demands from drivers for fast, empty arterial roads during the so-called “rush hour.”

The private motorcar is damn useful, but only when there’s just a few of them dotting around. When there are millions of the things, they’re not so convenient. And the Department for Transport projects that millions more private cars will join the swell over the next 25 years. Not learning from past mistakes, and somehow hoping failed solutions will work “this time”, is madness. Yet it’s a shared madness, a group hallucination that’s costly, wasteful and, quite quickly, ineffective.

Check out the crazed comments from local politicians and business leaders who believe spending £170m on one road junction – just one road junction – is money well spent:

North Tyneside elected mayor Linda Arkley said she was “absolutely delighted” at the multi-million-pound ‘investment package’.

“I have been on at them for this for long time, it’s good to see Mike got the message,” she told my local newspaper, which champions more roads as a central part of its editorial focus.

Ms Arkley added: “We have so many opportunities for growing this area…we need to know that congestion is not going to be an obstacle to that.”

The North East Chamber of Commerce has also campaigned hard for “upgrade” cash. Chief Executive, James Ramsbotham, said the £170m-for-one-road-junction news was “a real victory for us and our partners who campaigned alongside us.”

He added: “It is great news for the region as it will ease congestion and complement the recent Tyne Tunnel upgrade on this important strategic route for both commuters and businesses. If the Government is serious about rebalancing the economy, future investment should be prioritised for schemes just like this to enable the North East to increase its contribution to UK Plc.

Ramsbotham then said:

“Hopefully, other regional infrastructure priorities such as the essential upgrade of the Western Bypass will receive similar appraisal in the future.”

This should set off alarm bells. The Western Bypass was built just a few years ago to “ease congestion”. It did. For a few days. After that it became stupidly congested during peak hours. “Upgrading” a relatively new road that was meant to ease congestion but that didn’t is sheer unadulterated lunacy.

The Western Bypass is quiet at 3am. We don’t need more roads, we need less motorised vehicles using them. Road pricing would quickly remove unnecessary journeys, but would be an unpopular move. Waving a chequebook and throwing good money after bad is what politicians do best. Here’s Penning in vote-for-me fantasy-land:

“We are committed to tackling congestion, keeping traffic moving and supporting the UK economy, putting in money where it’s most needed and where the public will get a good return on investment.”

This is the same minister who won’t fund cycle paths, and who won’t listen to the growing number of organisations who tell him that concreting Britain is not a long-term answer to congestion. Penning wants a good return on investment? He should talk to his colleagues in the Department for Health. They’re looking at a future where health costs associated with inactivity are set to sky-rocket. Get people out of their cars and moving their fat arses. Scrap the multi-billion pound roads programme and spend it on mitigation measures instead.