Why must we tolerate road congestion, dangerous junctions and poor public realm?

It is time to focus on the social and economic benefits of a decent local road network, says Antony Oliver.

A question for car drivers: How many of you have sat patiently in a traffic jam during the last month? Quite a few I imagine. 

And while some of this delay will have been from vital maintenance to the highway, for the large part it will almost certainly have simply been down to traffic congestion as too many cars battle for too little road space.

A question for cyclists: How many of you have been terrified at a road junction, scared witless by heavy lorries passing or, heaven forbid, knocked off your bike in the last month? Again, while I hope not the latter, quite a few I imagine.

Roads are an issue in the UK. Yet given the amount that we, as a society of car drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, rely on them, it is a surprise how over-looked and under-loved they continue to be. 

"It means switching thinking from roads as a community problem to roads being the solution, the enabler of development and agent that uplifts and releases property value."

Antony Oliver

Of course it is good news that the Highways Agency is being given greater freedom and longer term budgets to invest in the national trunk road and motorway network. But the highways do not stop there. Local roads are the lifeblood of rural communities but also the economic drivers for cities. 

It is a point made well by London Mayor Boris Johnson in Transport for London’s recent Road Task Force progress report when he says: “Smarter management of our roads and streets will ensure that London remains the world’s best city and an even better place to live, work, visit and invest in.”

Admittedly his views focus on the capital but the point is valid no matter where you live, drive or cycle in the UK. Better roads mean better communities, better business and more economic growth. 

Yet for many good reasons the political and technical focus today is centred on the need to boost the investment in public rail projects such as Crossrail, Crossrail 2, Thameslink, High Speed 2 and the London Tube upgrades which are all vital to underpinning the nation’s economic growth aspiration. 

And this investment must continue to be driven with a mixture of public and private finance so as to ensure an effective and modern infrastructure backbone to rely upon.

The question is begged; why can’t we take the same robust and innovative approach to planning and levering in private money so as to enhance and develop our equally important road network? 

The answer is that we can. But it means switching thinking from roads as a community problem to roads being the solution, the enabler of development and agent that uplifts and releases property value. Value that can then be ploughed back into the network.

So while the UK economy will continue to benefit from investment flowing into rail, we must also re-engage with our roads. If not we will fail not only to tackle the significant congestion and safety challenges that we face but we will also miss the chance to create the cities and communities that our increasingly crowded nation demands.    

Antony Oliver is the editor of Infrastructure Intelligence.

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