“Building more roads to prevent congestion is like a fat man loosening his belt to prevent obesity” said Lewis Mumford in 1955. New roads create traffic, and we have known this for decades.
There’s a pretty simple reason why. Every journey has a cost in time and in money. The longer it takes us to get somewhere, the higher the price we pay. If you build a new road or widen a highway to reduce traffic congestion, it lowers the cost of making the journey. The rest is basic supply and demand: lower the cost of something, and demand goes up. Here’s more
The phenomenon of new roads creating demand is called ‘, and it was first observed in the 1920s in Britain. Charles Bressey wrote in the 1930s about “the remarkable manner in which new roads generate new traffic.” This was not considered a bad thing. The motorway network was built in anticipation of a new motoring economy. Road building coincided with rail closures in the 1960s as a deliberate effort to encourage car ownership. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government explicitly linked roads and economic growth in a plan called Roads for Prosperity. Yes, roads create traffic. But more cars was good for the car manufacturers and hence the economy.
There was only so long that could go on for, as roads got busier and those blissfully empty motorways clogged up with cars. Air pollution worsened. Traffic moved through city centres at walking pace, but pressure was mounting for land and it was getting harder to build new roads. In the mid 90s a national study concluded that there’s scant evidence that new roads boost economic growth, and that trying to ease congestion by building new roads is self-defeating.
Tony Blair’s New Labour party took heed, and came into office in 1997 as the first government with a policy to reduce car use. “Since new roads can lead to more traffic, adding to the problem not reducing it, all plausible options need to be considered before a new road is built” said a policy paper from 1998. Transport minister John Prescott began planning urban tram systems and discussing road pricing.
The new approach to traffic management lasted all of three years. Some within Labour worried that making car use more expensive would be regressive, pricing out the poor. Even more concerning was the media and popular reaction. The Conservatives accused Labour of being anti-car, and they were winning voters back over the issue. Fuel tax protests were the final straw, and sustainable transport was off the table again. (The story is well told in Jon Reeds’ book Smart Growth.)
Seventeen years later, we’re as wedded to car culture as ever, with even greater pressures on the environment. It’s well past time to talk about reducing demand again, and we can learn from Labour’s failure. Let’s make sure that public transport is affordable and desirable, so that getting people out of cars is a positive. Pricing poorer people off the roads would indeed be unfair. Let’s encourage car clubs and car-sharing, so that motoring remains accessible without being a default option. Let’s think creatively about planning, so that new developments allow for active forms of transport first. Congestion charging has worked in London and could work elsewhere. And most of all, let’s learn from the past and stop repeating the same mistakes, decade after decade.