Chris Grayling Claims In Parliament That Building Roads Reduces Emissions
In a question-and-answer session in parliament on June 13 the U.K. Transport Secretary Chris Grayling batted away claims from the official opposition that climate change is an existential threat to our planet, and said that any attempt to row back on road building was tantamount to the Labour Party waging a “war with the motorist.”
Mr. Grayling claimed that the “more congested our roads are, the higher the emissions.” And he added:
We cannot destroy our economy and get rid of our roads. We have to decarbonise road transport, but we also have to ensure that our roads flow smoothly. Those on the Labour benches do not get that. They want to scrap road improvements, and they want more traffic jams. Those traffic jams increase emissions.”
Labour’s Rachael Maskell had asked the Secretary of State why he had “failed to undertake a full environmental audit of [the latest] road investment strategy—the most ecologically and environmentally damaging road building programme for a generation?”
Responding, Mr. Grayling claimed that Labour was “anti-motorist” and “anti-road improvements.”
Last year, the Government announced billions of pounds for the Strategic Road Network–which comprise freeways and major “A-roads”–and billed the cash injection as the “largest ever investment of this kind.”
A very similar pledge was made in 2013 by the so-called “greenest Government ever.” The then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander–part of the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government–promised the “greatest investment in our roads since the 1970s.”
This, it seemed, was ignorant of a similar 1989 pledge made by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. With the Roads to Prosperity report, Thatcher promised her government’s road building program would be the “biggest since the Romans.”
Some of Mrs. Thatcher’s roads got built–including the M25 freeway around London, which, at peak times, is now more of a car park than a fast motor road–but the program was halted when it came to be understood that building more roads leads to more congestion. This was a radical idea when floated by anti-roads campaigners, but it became an orthodox government position–briefly–following advice to government from the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment (SACTRA) study of 1994.
The then Transport Secretary Dr. Brian Mawhinney–a Conservative– told parliament that the Department for Transport “recognised that, as economic growth over the last 15 years has greatly increased traffic levels, the number of congested areas has gone up and with them, the cases where a road scheme might bring costs as well as benefits.”
He admitted that “roads do, to some degree, increase traffic.”
This concept is known to transport wonks as “induced demand” and is often summarised with a quote usually attributed to the great American urbanist Lewis Mumford: “Building more roads to prevent congestion is like a fat man loosening his belt to prevent obesity.”
Transport academics tend to credit the discovery of induced demand in transport to J.J. Leeming, a British road-traffic engineer and county surveyor, writing in 1969. He observed that the more roads are built, the more traffic there is to fill these roads. The idea was conceived shortly after German mathematician Dietrich Braess released the Braess’s paradox which shows that “selfish” motorists can’t be relied upon to consider the optimal travel times for all rather than just themselves, leading to delays for all. These ideas were further expanded in the Lewis–Mogridge Position of 1990 and the Downs–Thomson paradox of 1992.
But the mechanics of induced demand was known about long before 1969. Writing in 1866, surveyor and engineer William J. Haywood, one of the builders of London’s Holborn Viaduct, said the new thoroughfare would attract more travelers: the “facility of locomotion stimulates traffic of itself.” His solution? Build more and more roads, of course. This was also the conclusion of Sir Charles Bressey’s Highway Development Survey for London, published in 1937. In his report – penned with the great architect, Sir Edward Lutyens – Bressey wrote:
As a typical instance may be quoted the new Great West Road which parallels and relieves the old Brentford High Street route. According to the Ministry’s traffic census extracts … the new route as soon as it was opened carried four and a half times more vehicles than the old route was carrying. No diminution, however, occurred in the flow of traffic along the old route and from that day to this the number of vehicles on both routes has steadily increased … These figures serve to exemplify the remarkable manner in which new roads create new traffic.”
Bressey’s solution? Same as Haywood’s. More roads.
Writing in 1932, the British town planner Thomas Sharp pointed out the futility of building more roads.
A motorist is apt to complain of the overcrowded condition of the road if he finds he has not continually got a whole mile-long stretch of it to himself, but is one of a widely spaced and rapidly moving queue of half a dozen or so. He will declare there is no pleasure in motoring under such conditions. He will search his map for some alternative route by quiet lanes where he can speed along with the road to himself. And when others find that alternative route and all further alternatives are exhausted, he proceeds to demand a new road system so that his motoring may again become a pleasure.”
Despite knowing that building more roads would lead to more traffic, Sharp still advocated for road building.
Famously, Southern California built hundreds of miles of wide, expansive freeways, but soon after they were built they filled to capacity, as can be seen from this 1950s film of bumper to bumper queues:
Writing in The New Yorker in 1955, Mumford suggested that “people … find it hard to believe that the cure for congestion is not more facilities for congestion.”
Most of the fancy cures that the experts have offered for … congestion are based on the innocent notion that the problem can be solved by increasing the capacity of the existing traffic routes, multiplying the number of ways of getting in and out of town, or providing more parking space for cars that should not have been lured into the city in the first place. Like the tailor’s remedy for obesity – letting out the seams of the trousers and loosening the belt – this does nothing to curb the greedy appetite that [has] caused the fat to accumulate …”
And, as evidenced by the Transport Secretary on June 13, the planet can burn while the fat man–that’s us–loosens his belt in a futile attempt to prevent obesity.