South Gloucestershire want you to believe that building roads is the solution to climate change

So South Gloucestershire Council are consulting on another big expansion of the A4174 — the “Avon Ring Road” as it was known when first conceived in the 1980s. It’s an instructive study in how highways departments will always have a go at co-opting whatever policy is current to promote the same schemes they always wanted to build, no matter how absurd it makes them look — even when the policy is to halt climate disaster.

Honk if you want to halt climate disaster

The proposal being consulted on is to “improve” the junctions on a 2×2 road, replacing roundabouts with 3×3 “hamburger” junctions. The purpose of this “improvement” — the reason for cutting down hundreds of trees and laying yet more asphalt — is to “reduce carbon emissions” and “minimise the impact of traffic to the natural environment”.

Dive into the “Statement of Reasons” document and the council expand on this laughable doublespeak with a whole section highlighting the fact that it has declared a Climate Emergency and transport is a key generator of emissions. The road expansion will reduce carbon emissions, it explains, by reducing congestion.

Most readers of this blog won’t need me to explain why increasing road capacity is not the solution to congestion — in fact, no readers will, because the Statement of Reasons itself explains the flaw in this logic. The scheme will increase capacity on the road so that more traffic can use the road, thus enabling the council’s own plan for even more car-dependent business and housing in the area. As always happens, the increased road capacity will drive new trip generation until congestion levels achieve their equilibrium again.

Any transport professional with basic competence knows this very well, and any transport professional who tells you “increasing road capacity will reduce emissions” is either lying or not competent to be in the role.

But you’ll probably see a lot of this kind of thing now that climate change is front of mind and councils have declared climate emergency, because highways departments are accomplished at contorting council policies to sell the same old schemes they wanted to do anyway.

Witness the past decade, in which millions of pounds in funds reserved for “sustainable transport” were diverted into building big new roads while their promoters pretended that because they have some bus stops on them (regardless of whether there’s a bus service to stop at them) or a 3.0 metre wide shared-use pavement alongside, they were investments in sustainable transport.

In the 1960s and 70s, council highways departments everywhere decided they needed lots and lots of big new roads, and they made a long list of them. Since then, they’ve navigated dozens of changes in local and national policies and priorities, in public discourse and news narrative. Throughout it all, the highways men have kept working their way down the list, rebranding each of the half-century old ideas as the answer to the problems of the day, no matter how absurd they become.

Bait and switch

Alongside their claims that the road widening will both relieve congestion and help generate more traffic and car trips, South Gloucestershire also claim that the purpose of the scheme is to reduce traffic on other routes nearby, such as neighbourhood high streets and residential areas:

This scheme is designed to encourage necessary strategic car trips to remain on the A4174, the most suitable road designed to accommodate longer distance car journeys, and deter traffic rerouting through our local communities.

 This raises questions.

Firstly, why is there excess traffic on neighbourhood high streets and residential streets in the area? The ring road as it is now was built only a couple of decades ago. If increasing road capacity relieves other routes, why did the ring road as originally built fail to relieve those routes? Why should we believe that widening the ring road will reduce traffic, when building it in the first place only increased traffic? The fact is, we know it won’t. We have decades of consistent evidence that these kinds of schemes generate more traffic on surrounding routes, and any transport professional who tells you that will relieve those routes is either lying or not competent to be in the role.

(South Gloucestershire themselves have plenty of examples to draw on. Aside from the ring road, just a few years ago they removed a bottleneck on one of those nearby local community routes — a single-lane pinch bridge on the A4175 Teewell Hill, over the Railway Path at Staple Hill. That encouraged more people to drive on the A4175, so that now the congestion happens at the next biggest bottlenecks along the route — including the Siston Hill Roundabout on the ring road!)

Secondly, what exactly in the proposal is going to deter traffic routing through local communities?

Because, elsewhere in the Statement of Reasons, they say:

An important part of our transport response is to provide a step-change in providing for walking, cycling and public transport. To do this we will be looking to reallocate road space from cars to people in particular in our populated residential areas and town and district centres. 

This would deter rerouting, as well as reducing car trips altogether by enabling people to make their journeys by alternative means and to alternative destinations, and in the long run by favouring development that is less dependent on car trip generation. But it’s not what is being proposed or consulted on here.

One promoter of the scheme is grasping at this line as evidence of its environmental credentials, even pointing out that countries which are good at active travel and public transport — particularly the Netherlands — typically achieve that status in part by moving motor traffic onto ring roads and bypasses. And they’re right.

But in this location we already have a ring road — we don’t need to build or expand one to do what the Dutch have done. We should have done the Dutch thing back when the ring road was built, but there’s absolutely no reason not to catch up right away. The ring road half of the package is already complete.

More importantly, there is no detail in the proposal about what the road space reallocation on local streets and neighbourhood centres will look like. If South Glos are going to argue that this is, in fact, a strategic package of works separating motor traffic routes from active travel, public transport and neighbourhood spaces, then they need to consult on that strategic package, not one small part of it in isolation. How are consultees supposed to assess what South Glos are proposing when they don’t know what half of it is? What if the Association of British Drivers were to write in with their support for the scheme, having seen the plans of big roads, and suddenly they find all the local streets filtered and pedestrianised in their name?

In reality, they won’t, because the second part of the programme won’t happen. It will quietly get forgotten about, or delayed indefinitely, or suddenly, once tens of millions have been spent on the road, the funding for the rest will mysteriously become difficult to find. Or in the event that they really do follow up with a consultation on streetspace allocation and active travel schemes, it will get watered down until nothing of any substance is left, when the council inevitably runs scared of a few red faced old men shouting at bollards. Because that’s also what always happens with these things: in order to sell us the big roads they’ve always wanted to build, council highways departments tell us that building them will enable all sorts of environmental improvements which then never happen.

Dorchester Road in Weymouth, which Dorset Council told us would be transformed with trees, extensive greenery and flowers, cycleways and bus priority back when they were promoting construction of its bypass.

Abolish South Gloucestershire

What should we do about these proposals? Well, now is certainly the time to be opposing them and making a serious noise about them. This is a relatively early-stage consultation, whereas too often people don’t take the threat of these things seriously until later stages when it’s much harder to influence things. I’d suggest:

  1. Responding to the consultation with your opposition.
  2. If you live in Bristol or Bath, lobby your own councils to oppose a scheme that will funnel ever more traffic over the boundaries into our cities.
  3. Tell Dan Norris you oppose road expansion. He’ll have some influence over whether it gets funding and is already leaning towards opposition, but would presumably benefit from knowing that opposing it would be a popular move.

You might have better suggestions — do leave them in the comments.

Ultimately though, the only sustainable solution to this sort of thing is to abolish South Gloucestershire.

Abolishing South Gloucestershire would, in fact, be the solution to a lot of the area’s problems, and I am baffled as to why it’s so rarely talked about.

South Gloucestershire, North Somerset and B&NES are all nonsensical units of local government, but South Gloucestershire is the stupidest of the lot. They were created as districts of the County of Avon, along with the City of Bristol district, and in that context at least they made a kind of sense. Bristol contained the city core, and the others contained the commuter suburbs and satellite settlements. Outside of the context of the County of Avon, it simply makes no sense to divide our area into these units.

Avon was itself a problematic local government structure, in large part because it covered a too extensive geographic area with too disparate places in it, stretching beyond the city and its commuter belt to villages that really didn’t belong. But that wasn’t the reason it was abolished, and none of the problems with it were actually addressed or resolved. Rather, it was abolished in 1996 by a central government with an ideological attachment to their unitary authority model and little interest in the local context of specific places. So the districts simply became unitary authorities, covering the same area, only with an even more dysfunctional relationship between them.

And so we have preposterous situations like a city with two different mayors, who can represent different parties and have incompatible visions for its future. Suburbs where a council boundary runs down the middle of the road, and each council has a different strategy for transport and streetspace. A city trying to solve its chronic transport problems with public transport and active travel investment, while its suburbs build ever bigger roads designed to funnel more traffic into the city. A city seeking quality sustainable development, surrounded by suburbs doing everything to facilitate cheap and nasty sprawl.

The solution is to abolish South Gloucestershire. Do what should have been done in 1996, when Avon was abolished, and create a rational structure for the area. Create a Bristol that includes all of Bristol and you will need one mayor and one transport strategy. Throw Badminton and Butcombe and the farms and golf courses back into their counties proper. Disband the highways and planning teams of the suburban councils and shred all the zombie schemes in their archive of plans and proposals.

In the meantime, respond to the consultation before 16 August.

New housing rising beside a trunk bus route, with the Somerset green belt in the distance.

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