Expert Blog

The Future of Britain’s Roads

Britain’s road network is pretty terrible. You’ll be aware of this every time you bounce between the potholes on your street, or every time you breathe in the fumes and frustration of yet another traffic jam on the motorway. But let’s be formal about it. Officially, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, the United Kingdom is ranked 28th in the world on the quality of its road infrastructure. We have the sixth biggest economy, but only the 28th best roads. That puts us two places ahead of Namibia, and way behind our European brethren in Spain, Germany and France. This ought to spell va-va-gloom.

Our politicians are, we’re assured, acutely aware of this deficiency. Barely a Budget or manifesto goes by without some promise to fix Britain’s road network. Indeed, the Coalition has pledged to deliver “the biggest spending on roads since the 1970s”, with £28 billion allocated for the task as part of the National Infrastructure Plan. Apparently, that will buy us new roads, wider roads, resurfaced roads and a whole lot of filled-in potholes. Huzzah!

But before we get too excited, here’s a question that is worth asking: shouldn’t all this renovation work have happened years ago? In a simple sense, of course it should. The economy will, over the decades, have lost incalculable billions of pounds and working hours to the congestion on our roads; not to mention the effect on the average motorist’s psyche. But there’s a more complicated sense, too. As policymakers struggle to bring the roads of yesterday up to the standards of today, it could leave us unprepared for tomorrow. All of these new roads might soon be obsolete themselves.

This is because the way we get around is a-changin’ – and fast. This much was revealed by the Department for Transport’s recent National Travel Survey. Did you know that the number of trips made by privately-owned cars has declined by around 12 per cent over the past twenty years? Or that the proportion of 17 to 20-year-olds with a driving licence has fallen from 44 per cent to 31 per cent? That’s what the survey showed. And it also showed that we’re making more use of public transport. The number of trips on London buses has increased by 45 per cent over the same period.

Car manufacturers will pray that these changes are temporary. And perhaps, in part, they are. A faltering economy can make people think twice about taking their petrol-guzzling motor out for a spin. A recovery can have them reaching for their keys once again.

Yet there’s also reason to believe that car use has already peaked, and that that peak occurred fifteen to twenty years ago. Just look again at the declining number of young people with driving licences. A few years ago, anAmerican survey found that most youngsters now want Internet access ahead of a car. Honkin’ down the highway, as the Beach Boys once put it, has been supplanted by the Information Superhighway. It’s cheaper, it’s easier, it’s quicker, it puts you in touch with more friends and, sadly for the automotive industry, it ain’t going away.

Road-builders would probably respond that they’re not in the business of anticipating long-term trends – they’re in the business of building roads. And we need those now, whether or not the kids are keen on cars. Besides, there are other trends to consider. Individual people may be using cars less and less, but what if there are more people in total? Population growth is one of the main reasons why, in its Action for Roads document, the Government forecasts that traffic on “strategic roads” – the major thoroughfares that connect cities and airports and ports – will rise by 46 per cent in the next quarter-century.

So just get on with pouring the asphalt, right? Hm, it still may not be as simple as that. Even if we accept the Government’s forecasts about traffic density – a big, old ‘if’ – there’s still the question of traffic quality. What sort of vehicle will populate these roads of the future? Again, there’s plenty of change afoot.

The rise of electric cars is probably one of the greatest revolutions of our lifetime. You may not notice it much now: only 1.45 per cent of the 2.26 million cars sold last year were of the plug-in or hybrid variety. But you will notice it soon: to turn to another set of governmental forecasts, the Committee on Climate Change believes that 60 per cent of the new cars sold in 2030 will be electric. The Government wants “almost every car and van to be a zero emission vehicle by 2050”. They’re already championing the cause of pooled electric cars in cities, on the grounds that many people don’t really use the gas-guzzlers they own.

And then there’s an even greater, albeit concurrent, revolution: driverless cars. According to the consultancy IHS Automotive… oh, you’ve probably had your fill of forecasts and percentages. Instead, let’s just imagine the world according to Sergey Brin and Elon Musk. You’ll look out, each morning, on to your uncluttered driveway. Order up a car on your smartphone. It will arrive, from some central hub, at a predetermined time with a predetermined internal temperature and a predetermined song playing on its speaker system. At which point, you’ll hop in, and it will deliver you to your meeting, all whilst you write poetry and do your calisthenics on the way. Wow. 

All of this will, of course, require new sorts of road. How new? Well, a couple from Idaho are currently working onsolar-powered roads. The technology is still in its infancy – so much so, in fact, that you recently push money towards it via a crowd-funding site. But the thinking behind it is already well-established. The road surface itself will be made of durable, textured glass, with all the solar gizmometry embedded below it. The energy that’s generated could be used not just for the streetlights on the way, but also for LED road markings, or even to charge electric vehicles as they move. That means no more concerns about charging points and whether we’ve got enough of them. Just miles of amazing sci-fi highway.

If it actually happens, that is. One of the problems with all this future-gazing is that the future is stubbornly unknowable. Sure, we know that driverless cars are coming. We know that politicians want things to be greener and more efficient. But which driverless car will be the first to go mainstream? When will we start talking about hover-mobiles, and not need road at all? There are no answers. All we can do is read stories of automated truck convoys and of cities reshaped by new modes of transport, and wonder. How different will out lives be in a decade or two?

Which brings us back to the beginning. It’s good that the Government is trying to fix our roads – better is better, after all. But fixing them to the standards that other countries have enjoyed for years, and at a time when everything is in flux, will leave an insistent fear in place. We might always be playing catch-up.

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