Posted by: wesleyjohnston | August 15, 2012

How much land do roads take up?

An excellent BBC article from six weeks ago highlighted an interesting phenomenon – the great myth of urban Britain. The basic point is that many people today think the UK is far more urbanised than is actually the case. As the article notes:

On most urban roads, one can be tricked into thinking that the ribbon of grey we see reflects the land use for miles around. But when you look out of a plane window as you buckle-up ahead of landing at a UK airport, the revelation is how green the country appears.

In practice, only 6.8% of the UK can be classed as urban, and of that, 72% is actually green space (parks, gardens, sports fields etc). Therefore only 2% of the UK is actually built upon – and that figure has been reached only after several centuries of urban expansion.

Reading some of the press-releases that have emerged from the environmental lobby in recent years, you would be forgiven for thinking that the UK is at risk of becoming one gigantic suburb as farmland rapidly disappears below tarmac and bricks. That the last farmer is hanging on desperately to his land before the builders move in. And yet it’s simply not true. The urban areas of our country are dwarfed by the vast, green open spaces that surround them. It is always sensible not to waste good farmland or needlessly destroy natural habitats, but the notion that we’re rapidly concreting over our green and pleasant land is just not true.

This is important because this false impression is used by those with agendas to oppose developments in infrastructure, housing and industry. The road network is a particular target of this propaganda. Given that the road network is the way in which practically all other land in the country is accessed, it is not surprising that anyone who chooses to leave their home regularly will see a lot of the road network. Journeys between towns, through the countryside, generally involve travelling along major roads. We see roads anytime we visit someone, go to the shops or go to work. Roads, roads, roads. All of this leaves the impression that the country is covered by roads. Yet, it is not. The only reason we don’t realise this is that most of us don’t strike off walking cross-country in order to see the sheer vastness of the rural area.

How about the road network in Northern Ireland? If you took a satellite picture of Northern Ireland and threw a dart at it, you would have to throw it 43 times before you would even have a 50% chance of hitting a road. That’s because the road network only takes up 1.6% of the land area of Northern Ireland. By contrast, agriculture, hedgerows, watercourses, natural land and woodland occupy 92.6% of the land area of the province. If you don’t believe me, just fire up Google Earth and scroll across County Down or County Tyrone and you will see just how vast the rural area is compared to urban areas like Belfast.

Our road network has been in development for centuries. Yet, even if we were to invest billions of pounds and double the area of our road network, the “green” land would be reduced from 92.6% to 91.0%. Wow.

One titbit to throw in at this point – in 1949 there was 125 m² of road per person in Northern Ireland. Today there is 120 m² per person. Less road per person today than in 1949. Interesting.

Second interesting fact – 44% of the area of the road network is made up of minor rural roads, ie roads that are basically required to access farms. Urban roads account for about 25% of the network. Far more roads are required to service Northern Ireland’s agricultural sector than all the urban areas combined.

And what about the “evil” motorways and dual-carriageways that are “tearing up our landscape”? How much countryside has been buried? All the motorways and dual-carriageways in Northern Ireland taken together occupy just 15 km² of land (which, incidentally, is only 0.1% of the province’s 13,843 km²). And we’ve sacrificed this land for what? Only safe, reliable transport over long distances, boosted economic development, fewer road deaths, increased freedom for work and leisure. 15 km² of land is a price well worth paying for such benefits.

So everybody can calm down – there is no problem with the amount of land occupied by the Northern Ireland road network, and there is no convincing argument for opposing road schemes on these grounds.

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