Posted by: wesleyjohnston | July 28, 2012

The A5 upgrade “more questions than answers?” – some “facts” debunked

Last week Chris Murphy, a conservationist who is also a leader in the pressure group Lough Beg For Life, wrote an article in the Belfast Telegraph questioning the rationale behind the proposed upgrade of the A5, and also the A6 on either side of Toome.

In the article he points out the damage that has been done to wetlands and wildlife habitat in the past due to thoughtless infrastructure development. In particular, he uses the example of the channellisation of the River Blackwater around 30 years ago as an example of how damage can be very long-lasting. I cannot fault this argument.

Thanks largely to the efforts of conservationists such as Mr Murphy, in recent years there has been a recognition that new infrastructure, such as roads, must take environmental considerations much more into account than was the case 20 or 30 years ago. Indeed, this is one of the reasons that road schemes are more expensive today than in the past. Whereas it used to be acceptable to plumb drains directly into watercourses, we now build complex systems of attenuation and settlement ponds in order to prevent pollutants reaching rivers.

However, the article makes a number of fallacious points which must be countered.

1 – “Is upgrading the A5 really the best way to spend £850m, or the possibility of shaving a few minutes off the journey between Randalstown and Castledawson, £120-150m?

This is another example of the oft-repeated falsehood that upgrading roads to dual-carriageway standard is primarily motived by the need to “shave a few minutes off the journey time”. This will certainly be a desirable effect of the scheme, but it is not its primary motivation. The primary motivation is two-fold:

  • Firstly, to improve road safety. High-quality dual-carriageways have TEN TIMES fewer deaths than single-carriageway roads such as the existing A6/A5. Some may say “why not upgrade the existing road”? You could do this, but it would not be anywhere near as effective. For every 10 deaths on the A5 today, there would be about 5 over the same period if the existing road was upgraded, but just 1 if the road was upgraded as proposed. For more about this, see this blog entry.
  • Secondly, to reduce driver stress. Driver stress is triggered by a multitude of small factors that add up and act to discourage people from using a road. When the stress level is reduced, an effect these proposed upgrades will certainly have, the road becomes more attractive and will hopefully attract more journeys. This will, in turn, indicate an increased freedom for people making choices about where to work, play and invest.

2 – “If the Executive and the Irish government want to tackle traffic congestion and reduce journey times, they need not look as far as Paris, Brussels or Mexico City. For a good snarl-up they should look at Enniskillen, Omagh, Strabane, Belfast and Dublin. This is where real congestion is, in our towns and cities – not along the A5, or the A6.”

This is a straw-man argument. All the towns listed by Mr Murphy are good examples of towns affected by traffic congestion, but it is generally not possible to “solve” congestion problems like this in an urban setting without an unacceptable level of road building. Attempting to do this was the policy in the 1960s, but was officially abandoned over 20 years ago. Congestion is the primary type of problem affecting roads in urban areas, and efforts to tackle this are generally focused on public transport initiatives today, with road improvements limited to strategic roads only.

However, roads in rural areas do not suffer from the same kind of problem. With a few exceptions, such as the M1 in the rush hour, rural roads don’t often suffer from sustained congestion. Indeed, the current A5 and A6 run well within their capacity, so they’re not “congested” in the sense that streets in city centres tend to be. No, the problem on rural roads is (1) road safety, and (2) driver stress. Journey times are another, although less important, consideration. The upgrades proposed for the A5 and A6 are not primarily congestion-tackling projects.

3 – “A better investment for all would be an improvement in public transport infrastructure, such as a modern rail network between Derry and Belfast”

Better public transport, when correctly targeted, is a good investment, and indeed a scheme has just got underway on the Coleraine-Derry line as I write. Is there any reason why we can’t do both? It is common for opponents of road improvement schemes to imply that you can either upgrade public transport or improve a road, but not both. Why should this be so? They both have a role. Public transport is ideally suited to two types of journey:

  • Journeys from the hinterland of a large urban area into a concentrated core, for example commuting.
  • Journeys from the core of one urban area to the core of another, for example inter-city business travelling.

However, motor vehicles are ideally suited to other types of journey:

  • Journeys within the hinterland of a large urban area, but not involving the centre.
  • Journeys whose start or end is in a low-populated area such as the countryside or a village.
  • Any journey that involves transporting more items than can be conveniently carried, e.g. shopping.
  • People who require a vehicle for work, e.g. social workers, tradesmen.
  • Journeys that have multiple destinations, e.g. leaving a child to a childminder on the way to work and getting a pint of milk on the way.
  • Journeys which require travel late at night when public transport is limited and roads are largely empty.
  • Almost all journeys involving freight and agriculture.

It is irrational to suggest that we should be serving the needs of just one of these groups, and not both. It is not an either-or. Money should be invested in both, in line with the journey types outlined above.

4 – “traffic along the A6 flows like a dream; in truth we don’t have a problem.”

The single-carriageway stretch of the A6 between Randalstown and Castledawson claimed six lives between 2004 and 2009. The proposed upgrade would reduce this greatly, perhaps down to about 1 over a similar timescale. In truth, the A6 Moneynick Road is a death trap. And yet it is suggested that “we don’t have a problem”?

Also, anyone who claims that traffic along the A6 flows like a dream has obviously not tried to negotiate the Toome Bypass on a week day morning! There is a pinch point at Drumderg roundabout as the 2-lane Bypass merges down to one lane for the twisty Moneynick Road.

5 – “The Ulster countryside is already more fragmented by roads than any other in the world.”

This old chestnut is usually presented in an attempt to “prove” that we’ve gone car-mad in Ulster. Ulster almost certainly does have a denser road network than anywhere else in the UK, but this is not because we have gone car-mad. It is because during past centuries Ulster has had an enormous rural population working on intensive farms to take advantage of the good soils offered by areas such as County Down. The linen industry further intensified this as thousands of tiny spinning businesses operated throughout large areas of our countryside. Despite the rural population today being much reduced from past years, this dense road network remains in many areas.

The period that saw the most rapid growth in the Ulster road network was actually the eighteenth nineteenth century, after which it slowed. Surprisingly, the pace of road building did not increase noticeably after the private car was widely adopted. In fact, the rate of road building was more or less constant between 1885 and 2009. 71% of our current road network was already in place in 1885, and 85% was in place in 1949, a time when the late twentieth century explosion in car usage had barely begun.

Ulster’s dense road network has its roots in nineteenth century history; it is not a product of excessive road building, and it is disingenuous in the extreme to imply otherwise.

Note also that since 1949 our road network has grown by 18%, while the population has grown by 30%. This means that today there is less road per person in Northern Ireland than at any point in the past century. Northern Ireland does not, and never has, had a problem with road building.

6 – “As for the argument that roads lead to prosperity, the motorways that lead into the west are not proving much help to our nearest neighbours.In spite of billions of pounds of investment in such new roads, Ireland presides over a broken economy, while Dublin remains the 6th most congested city in Europe.”

Another straw-man argument. We know why the global economic meltdown has occurred, and it is ridiculous to claim any kind of link between the current state of the Irish economy and investment in new roads.

7 – “In the case of the A5, we hear the same old arguments about business and tourist routes, safety and journey time, that we have heard before…”

Prefacing excellent arguments about business, tourism, safety and journey times with the words “same old arguments” does not make them bad arguments. See the discussion above.

8 – “ from those who would have liked to have seen the M1 built through the middle of the Lagan Valley, or Belfast’s southern approaches through the heart of Belvoir Park Forest.”

I am not aware of any historical proposals to build the M1 on any route other than the one it currently occupies. There was, briefly in 1964, a plan to build a motorway roughly along the route of the Hillhall Road. However, this was never more than a whimsical proposal and was abandoned five years later.

The reference to “Belfast’s southern approaches” presumably refers to the Annadale to Grahamholme Link proposal made in the 1980s. This proposed road, designed to relieve the Saintfield/Ormeau Road corridor would actually have run adjacent to Belvoir Park Forest, not through the heart of it, taking land from the adjacent golf course. However, public opinion was so negative that it was, probably correctly, abandoned. No comparable schemes are proposed today although Roads Service do maintain a land protection corridor for a proposed bus-only road along the same route.

Finally, Mr Murphy says that “this is not the time for irresponsible spending on roads”. With this, I could not disagree. Spending on roads needs to be very responsible, and the proposed upgrades to the A5 and A6 are just that.

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