A road too far?

On Wednesday, the Deputy First Minister announced the National Transport Strategy for Wales with the main headline being the cancellation of the M4 relief road, a project with an estimated pricetag of £1 billion.

With the inevitability of significant reductions in the amount of funding coming from the Treasury to Wales during the next few years, this was a relatively easy decision for the Assembly Government to make in order to focus dwindling resources on other areas.

The main question, of course, is whether it was the right decision for a Welsh economy which remains firmly rooted at the bottom of the UK’s prosperity league table and needs every advantage it can get.

Certainly, business groups such as the CBI, FSB and the Chambers of Commerce were outraged at the decision, remaining convinced that the road was the "most important scheme needed to take Wales' economy forward".

Whilst the cost of the road has now become prohibitive at a time of austerity, the delays by politicians and civil servants in making a decision regarding this scheme means that many of the alternatives to the relief road - such as encouraging local drivers not to use the motorway, upgrading the southern distributor road south of Newport, and opening a seven-mile private dual carriageway through the Corus site at Llanwern – have been delayed.

This will, undoubtedly, result in increased congestion within the South East Wales area which, in turn, will drive up the cost of doing business in the region.

More generally, there will be disappointment that there is no long term and visionary solution to the problem of traffic congestion such as that experienced on the M4 around Newport.

Indeed, if the government and business groups were actually serious about solving this problem, then they would look to adopt a far more radical approach to that of just throwing money at it.

For example, businesses could encourage staff to avoid rush hour traffic altogether by offering staggered work hours in which staff can arrive at different times as agreed with their employer, thus reducing the ridiculous amount of commuting that goes on during the peak hours of morning and evening. Such practices are widespread within major economies such as the USA or Germany but have yet to be adopted widely in the UK.

Research has shown that a third of all schoolchildren now go to school by car, a figure which has doubled in the last twenty years. The school run by parents across the UK accounts for one million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year. This adds enormously to congestion around traffic hotspots such as Newport where the roads are practically empty during the school holidays at peak hours.

This could be eased by staggering the opening times of schools (backed with pre and after-school clubs) so they do not open at the same time as the daily commute. This could make a real difference.

There is also the alternative of providing a properly subsidised school bus system on the American model which would, according to some, cut 130 million car journeys a year across the UK.

Certainly, these solutions would cost considerably less than the estimated £1 billion bill for a new relief road.

Government also needs to focus more resources on getting freight off the roads and onto the railway system. Whilst this is an issue which the National Transport Strategy says will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, air and noise pollution, there is almost no funding being made available to support the development of the infrastructure needed to make this work.

For example, the Freightliner terminal in Cardiff is ideally placed to enable transport companies to bring goods into South Wales and then distributing them around the region and yet little funding is being made available to support this site which could help reduce the amount of traffic coming through the Newport area at peak times.

Therefore, rather than dealing with the issue of why there is too much traffic at a certain time of the day, the only response to date has been to assume that we need more roads to deal with the problem. That is clearly not the only solution and perhaps it is time for a bit more lateral thinking from politicians and policymakers to deal with the growing economic and transport challenges we face in Wales.

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