The Big Lie of Road Planning

The big lie of road design is that designs are future proofed to take account of future demand. It is true that they are future proofed  but they are future proofed on the assumption that use of private vehicles will increase. They are not future proofed in accordance with government policies to decarbonise transport or on health objectives.

Approximately eight years ago, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport (DTTAS) in Ireland developed a suite of papers which led to the Strategic Framework for Investment in Land Transport (SFILT) and in 2015 the Strategic Investment Framework for Land Transport (SIFLT). Both SFILT and SIFLT largely reflected 20th century thinking on investment in transport with a roads first policy. This was despite active travel having been identified as a major contributor to combating obesity and growing concern among public health experts about sedentary lifestyles and the impact on both adults and children. The suite did include a paper on climate change but the paper was published before the 2015 Paris Agreement and the 2018 Citizen’s Assembly report.

In 2016, the DTTAS published the Common Appraisal Framework for Transport Projects and Programmes. Its purpose was

….. to develop a common framework for the appraisal of transport investments that is consistent with the Public Spending Code (PSC) and also elaborates on the Public Spending Code in respect of the appraisal of transport projects and programmes to assist scheme promoters in constructing robust and comparable business cases for submission to Government.

In essence, it set down the parameters for the assessment of road schemes based on the roads orientated SFILT/SIFLT. Needless to say, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport (DTTAS) had identified a large number of major road schemes  across the country and in 2018 the Common Appraisal Framework was used to justify their inclusion in the National Development Plan.

After the general election in 2020, the new Programme for Government included an unprecedented increase in funding for walking and cycling for which all government parties deserve credit. However, since then there has been pushback by officials and politicians who continue to prioritise roads.  The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform published a Review of the National Development Plan (Review to Renew) in which the Strategic Investment Priorities list National Roads as the second priority behind Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, but ahead of Environmentally Sustainable Public Transport in fourth place, Climate Action in eighth place and Education, Health and Childcare in tenth place.

The cross-party Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport adopted a similar line. The Committee claims to accept the objective of decarbonisation of transport to meet national targets and/or that the carbon impact of projects should form part of project appraisal. However, in a submission to Review to Renew, the Chair of the Committee, Kieran O’Donnell T.D., listed the priorities as

(i)         The national road network, 

(ii)        Environmentally sustainable public transport and

(iii)      Airports and ports.

The Committee claims that the national road network is the key to regional connectivity, not only for motorised vehicles, but also for cyclists. (Only the 1% of cyclists “brave cyclists” would agree with that statement.)

The Committee also expressed concern that the current Minister for Transport had revised SIFLT and that the revision, now called  the National Investment Framework for Land Transport in Ireland (NIFTI) was already being used to assess projects. The Committee welcomed the commitment from the Minister that the NIFTI will go to public consultation and will be approved by the government before finalisation of the Review to Renew but it put down a marker that it intends to engage further with the Minister and his Department on this strategy.

In planning future transport needs, two key steps are the use of databases to estimate current car trip generation and the extension of car trip generation to future decades. In plain English, this means estimating how many trips will result from a proposed development in the current year and how many additional trips will result in the future, typically a period of twenty or thirty years. 

Irish engineers generally use a largely UK database such as TRICs to predict the number of journeys generated by private vehicles. However, the result of Ireland emulating a country with one of the highest car dependency rates in Europe (rather than a country such as the Netherlands with one of the lowest), reinforces the status quo and in Ireland in the last twenty years has contributed to flatlining in the proportion of people cycling nationally.

TII sets out the calculation of future demand on national roads for the next 30 years in its Project Appraisal Guidelines for National Roads Unit 5.3 – Travel Demand Projections. As it specifies a growth rate in future years of between 1% and 3% per annum depending on the county and assumed growth rate, TII are in theory designing roads on the basis of up to 90% more trips in 2051 than at present. In recent years, the TII has published National Road Indicators annually which report the actual growth of traffic on the national road network. The results are shown in Table 1:

Year20152016201720182019
Annual Growth4.1%4.6%3.0%0.5%2.5%
Table 1:       Annual Growth of Traffic on the National Road Network

So between 2015 and 2019, the actual annual growth of traffic on national roads is even greater than the TII’s highest prediction with some regions of the country experiencing rates in excess of 5% per annum. This gives rise to questions about the sustainability and cost benefit analysis of current road plans.

Phil Goodwin is emeritus professor of transport policy at a number of UK universities and some twenty years ago was one of the first academics to report on the phenomenon of “evaporating” or “disappearing traffic“. In an article last year on the appraisal of road schemes, he challenged the cost of carbon used in the cost benefit analysis of new roads and how the increase of carbon emissions from cars using new roads is minimised by comparison to the percentage of overall carbon emissions. This is in contrast with employment, where additional employment, whether for 10 or 1000 new jobs, is welcomed as a positive thing rather than comparing the increase as a percentage of overall employment levels. In response to the largest ever road building programme in the UK,  he wrote

The new decarbonisation strategy requires that we will use cars less, by a substantial amount.

A similar reduction is required in Ireland. The Appraisal Guidelines refers to four scenarios  – Sustainable & Urban Communities, Global Communities, Dispersed Communities and Car focussed Communities but it appears that local authorities, which are responsible for planning transport infrastructure only concentrate on the last scenario – Car Focussed Communities – in developing their Transport Strategies.

Neither the Department of Transport nor the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport acknowledges in a meaningful way the central role of transport in creating unhealthy communities and the financial burden it imposes on society.  If this government is to be successful, the current road projects in the National Development Plan must be reviewed with revised appraisals and realistic models to ensure that future investment is in accordance with current government objectives rather than ones that belong in the past.

(Net Zero requires reappraisal of the road programme: but how?)

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