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The Local Transport Plan seems caught between tackling the climate crisis and building roads to boost economic growth, writes Dr Steve Melia.

Did you know that the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) is planning to build 10 new roads and widen five more, destroying countryside and suburban fringes around Bristol? The plans have been quietly progressing for two years with most people blissfully unaware of the threat they pose. 

This week, WECA published an updated Local Transport Plan, for Bristol, South Gloucestershire, Bath and North East Somerset (BANES) and North Somerset councils to approve. It includes £8.6bn worth of projects due for completion by 2036.

It’s a bizarre document; seemingly written by two groups of people with totally different views. One group says: all four authorities have declared climate emergencies; we must take urgent action to decarbonise by 2030. The other says: we must build and widen lots of roads to boost economic growth.

The proposals map (on page 128) shows new roads carving through the countryside around: Nailsea, Backwell, Thornbury, Yate, Keynsham, Stockwood, Whitchurch, Winterbourne, Frampton Cotterell, Churchill, Sandford, Banwell and Barrow Gurney. The map is quite small; you have to look very hard and read through a long appendix to work out what they are actually proposing. The lines on the map are “indicative” they say; they might change; the whole plan remains under review, which offers some hope. 

I am currently writing a book about transport protests over the past 30 years, from the anti-roads protests of the 1990s to Extinction Rebellion today. One thing I have learned is that most people only wake up to a threat when it’s too late. By the time an authority publishes a firm plan, it will almost always be too late to stop it. The WECA authorities seem to be facing a dilemma, so there may still be time to avert these threats – if people act now.

How to reduce carbon emissions?

“To achieve carbon neutral transport by 2030 requires a substantial modal shift away from cars to public transport, cycling and walking,” the plan states. To be fair, there are lots of plans to expand public transport (and cycling, but judging by the quality of recent cycle routes, I wouldn’t take that too seriously)  They want to re-open rail lines to Portishead and Henbury, build new stations, extend Metrobus to surrounding towns and in the longer-term build a metro system for Bristol. 

All of that will be great, if and when it ever happens, but better public transport, on its own, does very little to reduce traffic or carbon emissions. Cars and vans account for six times the distance covered by public transport, so if bus and rail use could be doubled, and every new trip replaced a car journey, that could theoretically cut car mileage by one sixth. But unfortunately, only a small minority of additional trips made by public transport replace a journey by car. And on congested roads, every car removed frees up a space for another car to take its place. In my last book, Urban Transport Without the Hot Air, I estimated that doubling bus use in England might reduce car traffic by around 1%.

“Initial modelling suggests that Bristol would have to reduce traffic by around 40% to hit their decarbonisation targets.

It is possible to reduce traffic by expanding public transport and reducing road capacity at the same time. London, Cambridge and lots of European cities have done that. But where an authority expands public transport and builds more roads, the net result is more travel and higher carbon emissions. New roads also cause other problems, such as noise, local pollution and severance of wildlife habitats.

The law now says we must decarbonise transport (and everything else) by 2050. There are only two ways to do this: replace fossil fuels with electric or hydrogen and/or cut the volume of traffic.  

Electrification is happening much too slowly. National governments can and should do more to speed it up, but it won’t solve the whole problem and there is very little that local authorities can do about it.  

That means that if they are serious about decarbonisation, that leaves just one option: reduce traffic. Initial modelling for Bristol City Council suggests that Bristol would have to reduce traffic by around 40% to hit their targets. WECA’s Transport Plan says they will consider congestion charging, but to make a big impact, the charges would have to be quite expensive. Good luck to any politician who wants to try that.  

More realistically, it suggests “reallocation of road space” from general traffic to public transport, cycling and pedestrians. That could work if it was done very widely, but not if the “reallocated” space was replaced by new or wider roads.

Over the next few weeks, Bristol and the other councils will be voting on the new plan. Take a look at it and if you share my concerns about new roads, email your councillors and the Metro Mayor Tim Bowles, urging them to think again. If they press ahead, ignoring their own climate targets, perhaps we need a return to the civil disobedience of the 1990s.

The plans will be discussed by Bristol City Council’s cabinet on 3 March.

Dr Steve Melia is a Senior Lecturer in Transport and Planning at the University of the West of England.  He has advised several local authorities and will address the parliamentary climate assembly in Birmingham next week.

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  • Tony Carey says:

    Dear Dr Melia,
    I total agree with you but….
    Tell me how you are going to shift heavy goods, building materials, etc. without a decent infrastructure.
    Bristol has a ‘ring-road’ that stops at Brislington and no inner ring-road at all.
    Bristol City Council unanimously declared a climate emergency last year but, from my observations, very few if any of the Councillors who voted for this have made much alteration to their life-styles to acknowledge this fact.
    Also, the residents of Stockwood and Whitchurch are all complaining about the possibility of routing the new ‘ring-road’ near to them yet they are all prepared to drive through Brislington to get to and from the M4 motorway. Hypocrisy springs to mind!
    The NO2 detector at the top of Brislington Hill is one of the highest reading detectors in t he city and yet Mayor Marvin’s plan will only shove more traffic our way.
    I am one of those who believes that electric vehicles is NOT the way forward (although I do have an electric ‘assist’ cycle). If as much funding had been made available to develop Hydrogen technology as has been spent on Hinkley Point ‘C’ then we could have Hydrogen ‘fuel-stations’ all over the country.
    Hydrogen and Hydro-power are the ways forward, the resources are there and we need to harness them.

  • The Bristol Blogger says:

    The ring road proposal is not about putting a road ‘near’ Whitchurch. The proposal is to put a road ‘through’ Whitchurch.

    Pitting communities against each other and dumping on each other is a an ignorant approach to the problem, typical of the quality of councillor we have in this city.

    • Edd Stacey says:

      I can agree with some of your points, but alot of the problems we have in Bristol are legacy ones, from many a different council not knowing which way to pull. Unlike London where they have a decent, high investment public transport system, we have a bus!! Then you take where various councils have allowed developments in regards to large supermarkets and leisure complexes, to get to them from many parts of Bristol and surrounding areas, you have to drive, as time taken to get there is to long, or you might not be able to get home. Remember if people cant get there, they close, that is people out of a job! As for traffic, they allowed an airport to be built, out in the sticks, where they had another airport with a rail line that runs along side, but demolish this one and build yet more houses in North Bristol. Then you move on to the other bits, slot of people can not afford to have a home in Bristol, so they move out to the smaller towns outside, these have to travel into Bristol, which can take up to 2 hours to do the same journey that could be done in a car in approx 45mins, they also have to pay alot for the privilege of losing 2hours of home life, maybe if buses didnt run around everywhere on longer routes, and also didnt have to service within city commuters aswell. Then we come on to the same people needing to get to the motorways, they can only do it by driving in Bristol or Bath, otherwise it hads an age and approx 50miles to their journeys, this is why Bristol, and Bath need motorway style road, this would cut traffic and vehicles from being in the cities, thus reducing pollution in the cities. Remember even if we all converted to electric vehicle ( that physically cannot happen, some to do with not enough electricity available ) we still need the roads to move about, and these need to be short more energy efficient routes!!

  • Kim says:

    It is crazy to consider using a residential road as a ring road. A road with 20mph zones, speed humps, a 7.5 ton weight limit, speed humps and it is right next to a primary school. Whitchurch Lane traffic already runs a walking speed at busy times.
    I agree that the A4 Bath Road desperately need a solution to the congestion BUT moving it to another road that will not cope with it is NOT reducing congestion. It would also involve destroying irreplaceable Green Belt. The Green Belt is needed now more than ever. It is our lungs in the climate emergency.

    What is even more worrying is that no-one has even done a feasibility study on Whitchurch lane from where the new road would joins to the Hengrove Way roundabout at Hartcliffe!!

    If we need to reduce car usage then the public need to be encouraged not to use them by ensuring that there ia affordable reliable and efficient public transport.
    If only the time effort and money was put into that instead.

  • Kevin says:

    I totally agree with the comments of Tony Carey on this matter.
    The lack of vision that produced the “nearly ring road” ending at the A370 seems incredible. Surely the planners could understand that they would just move the problems, not clear them.
    Extend the ring road to meet the M5 at Gordano, redesign the junction there and create a one way multi-lane gyratory inner ring road, surely this would move traffic around the more densely populated areas and out of the city with less pollution than the current traffic queues.
    Then turn our attention to non-ICE vehicle systems to further reduce pollution. Battery vehicles are NOT the answer, the power grid could not cope if we all chose to recharge our vehicles and public transport couldn’t cope if we all discarded our cars. The mining of components for the batteries carries a heavy enviro-price and self-charging hybrids are an environmental con.
    Embrace fuel cells and build efficient roads to carry them.

    • T Wilson says:

      All of your battery vehicle talking points have been completely debunked. The grid could very easily cope with powering road transport, it would be a small fraction compared to what industry use and it could only ever happen slowly (30 million vehicles aren’t about to miraculously appear tomorrow). The mining of components is also debunked nonsense, battery chemistry improves every year to use less and the total amount mined for batteries is minuscule in comparison to total global mining.
      Fuel cells are nothing more than a con peddled by the oil industry to protect their income from battery vehicles.

  • Louis Macmillan says:

    Ugh, I hate roads, they’re rough, coarse and they get everywhere

  • Chris Watts says:

    This sounds like nimbyism, enviromentalism not in my backyard. Zoom into the map and most of the developments in country seem to be improvements to poor roads and extra cycle paths. Whereas the Bristol development seems to be a extra road and transport so people can use Bristol Airport!

  • Caroline Pitt says:

    Please could someone publicise a legible annotated version of this map, or a link to it?

  • Andrew says:

    Somewhat academic now as BANES and N Somerset have pulled out of the JSP and will produce their own local plan.

    • Steve Melia says:

      They have pulled out of the JSP but not the Joint Transport Plan. That is one of the most bizarre things about this story. A lot of these roads were originally proposed to support housing growth in remote locations, which was thrown out by the inspector of the JSP. The housing plans are being reconsidered but it seems the transport plans are being forced through regardless.

  • David Bruce says:

    A useful contribution Steve. Just how will the Government finance these rampant road schemes, when (if decarbonisation means anything) tax revenue from petrol and diesel will be collapsing and Road Fund revenue will be being given away to encourage Electric cars and vans? A real mystery – some form of charging for roads by usage and congestion will have to be introduced but just don’t call it ‘road pricing’! Modelling different options for the JTP area might provide interesting different investment priorites. Is any research going on?

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