A common failure of our society is not to learn from history. In the 1960s and 90s the Department for Transport (DfT) understood and accepted that building more road capacity is mostly futile. Then it forgets.
DfT is currently consulting on creating a new capital fund for key roads that are managed by local authorities rather than Highways England. In Cambridgeshire this would include the A10, A505, A142 and A141. The fund is primarily for adding capacity by dualling, upgrading junctions and building bypasses.
This initiative is partly intended to appease local authorities, as funding for their roads has been cut drastically. However, this fund will not address the biggest problem: a ballooning maintenance backlog, estimated at £11.5bn nationally.
We already know the major cause of damage to our roads: heavy goods vehicles (HGVs). Because road wear is proportional to the fourth power of the axle weight, a 16-tonne, 2-axle HGV causes as much damage as 50,000 Ford Fiestas. Think about that next time a lorry passes your house!
Another initiative that DfT is consulting on is charging HGVs a distance-based levy. This makes much more sense. It would incentivise logistics firms to use depots more efficiently to reduce the distances that goods are driven (as has happened in Germany).
It would also make rail relatively cheaper for freight. That in turn would justify more and faster investment in rail. New lines (like East-West Rail) and projects to remove bottlenecks (like the Ely North junction) will shift freight off the roads and give more people a reliable alternative to driving.
If cities follow London in creating Low Emission Zones, that will further incentivise logistics firms to make more use of out-of-town distribution hubs, and use smaller vehicles for ‘last mile’ delivery and collection. That would reduce both pollution and road wear in cities.
Investing in new road capacity is expensive, environmentally damaging, and usually only a temporary solution. A distance-based HGV levy plus more investment in railways would achieve a much better outcome: less traffic on the roads, less pollution, and less money spent repairing damage caused by HGVs.
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 17 January 2018.