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'We have to pull the brake': Wales has suspended building roads for the climate. Should Ireland?

Wales has paused most new road projects pending a review of whether they are consistent with the country’s climate targets.

Updated Nov 11th 2021, 2:47 PM

AROUND THE COUNTRY, dozens of road projects are underway or planned for the coming years.

The latest National Development Plan includes several major roads that have been on the cards for years, like the M20 between Cork and Limerick and the Galway City ring road.

But across the Irish Sea, Wales has temporarily stopped building new roads.

The country’s government decided earlier this year to freeze most new road-building pending a review of the projects as part of climate measures.

In Ireland, according to figures from the CSO for 2019, the transport sector accounts for around 20% of all emissions – second only to agriculture at 35%.

More than 70% of all journeys are made by cars, which typically have higher emissions per passenger compared to modes like buses or trains.

Transport experts have told The Journal that the move in Wales to focus investment on public transport, cycling and walking instead of roads could be a positive if it was replicated in Ireland, but the government – and the public – would need to significantly shift their thinking on transport.

The Welsh government has hailed the measure as a major step forward for the climate – though one politician told The Journal they feel it was a surface-level decision made ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, and that in rural areas, it will further cut off already-isolated communities.

Speaking to The Journal today in Glasgow, Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan said met with a Welsh minister two weeks ago and they had “lengthy discussions”.

“I think what they’re doing in Wales is really innovative, really progressive. It’s very interesting and very relevant to Ireland because we have very similar demographics, size, and culture,” Ryan said.

He said he thinks Ireland can “learn from” Wales’ approach.

The Welsh way

Wales’ greenhouse gas emissions have gradually declined since the 1990s, but in the transport sector, there hasn’t been a corresponding drop.

Speaking to The Journal, Wales’ Deputy Minister for Climate Change Lee Waters said that transport has been “let off the hook from the climate change challenge”.

“It accounts for 17% of our emissions and if we’re going to hit our net-zero target, we have to confront it, even if it’s difficult and painful and politicians are scared of it,” Waters said.

Wales’ Labour government announced the decision to suspend new road-building in June shortly after it was re-elected in a general election the previous month.

“Whenever a new transport minister comes into their job, they are faced with a pipeline of road schemes that are constantly in development,” Waters explained.

“The schemes tend to take six or seven years, so by the time you take office, you are faced with a scheme that’s already had millions of pounds spent on it and you’re invited to agree to it, by which time it’s almost impossible to turn it down.”

Instead, road schemes that were at an early enough stage in the planning process to be paused have been halted and put into the review to see whether they are consistent with Wales’ carbon targets.

Waters said the measure should also “free up resources to give people alternatives to the car”.

At the moment if you want to make bus or rail or active travel improvements, we have limits because we’re spending so much on new road-building. I want us to shift money away from building new roads to both maintain the roads we have but also for public transport to give people a real alternative.”

Ireland’s National Development Plan, which was released in October, allocated €12 billion to public transport, €6 billion to road projects and €4 billion to walking and cycling infrastructure.

Speaking to The Journal, Dr Brian Caulfield, an associate professor in Trinity and former chair of the Irish Transportation Research Network, said that what the Welsh are doing is “very admirable.”

He explained that “as we transition to a low carbon economy, we still need roads, but we need to get [the number of] electric vehicles up to a certain level before we start to build new roads”.

“If we build new roads now, it will result in extra traffic. That’s the bad traffic where you’ve got diesel and petrol cars, and unless they’re electric, I don’t think we can afford it environmentally,” Dr Caulfield said.

The target for reducing carbon in transport is so high, building new roads just makes them harder. I would be very much of the opinion that we should follow what the Welsh are doing unless there are safety concerns. If there’s a road that needs to be upgraded for safety, that’s the only reason that we should be building roads in the next decade.

The revised Climate Action Plan released last week has proposed how far each sector of society needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions for Ireland to reach its overall target of cutting emissions in half by 2030.

Transport must cut its emissions between 42% to 50%.

The plan wants to see 845,000 electric passenger cars be on the road by 2030, along with 95,000 electric vehicles, 3,500 low-emitting trucks, and 1,500 electric buses.

Under the National Development Plan, the road network that those vehicles will drive on is set to expand – but, counterintuitively, more roads can lead to more traffic.

“There’s this phenomenon in traffic can transport planning called induced demand. It essentially means ‘build and they will come,” Vera O’Riordan, a PhD student working at the MaREI centre, told The Journal. 

“By building more roads, over time it ultimately won’t solve the traffic issue because it will make car transport even more preferable by reducing the time for car transport, and thus giving it an advantage over slower modes such as active travel and over public transport,” O’Riordan, who works on modelling low-carbon pathways and policies for passenger transport, said.

When a new road is built, it initially makes traffic go faster, “which, relative to public transport, makes it more attractive to people to use it as a mode choice, so then that makes the uptake of public transport and walking and cycling even more difficult”.

In economics, the idea of induced demand applies to situations where the supply of something increases and then the demand for it rises too.

Experts believe it’s a theory that holds true on roads. A new road is built and, at first, gives more space for cars, which encourages more people to take more journeys and to use a car to make them, ultimately leading to additional traffic.

One extreme example is one of the widest motorways in the US, which stretches 26 lanes (including “feeder” roads) at its broadest point in Texas. It was expanded between 2008 and 2011 to reduce traffic congestion, but traffic on the road was worse after it was widened than before.

Rural regions

A small Welsh town called Llanbedr on the west coast of the country is one of the first areas to see a significant road project cancelled since the start of the review. 

A 1.5km stretch of road that received approval in March was meant to relieve traffic congestion and improve access to a nearby airfield, but the review panel has decided the road would likely increase carbon emissions.

Local politician Mabon ap Gwynfor, a Member of the Senedd (MS) for the minority left-wing party Plaid Cymru, believes the decision was a “deliberate announcement around COP26 to try to gain international headlines to make the government in Wales look good so that they could wear a green badge”.

“Llanbedr is an extremely rural and isolated community right on the west coast of Wales. It’s an old village and the infrastructure was designed for the 18th century,” Ap Gwynfor told The Journal.

He said the town needs investment in its roads because the current infrastructure is outdated and that private cars are the only option for accessing distant services amid a lack of public transport.

“There’s a very narrow small bridge that goes over it. It can only carry a few tonnes at a time and therefore is not designed for modern transport, yet that is the infrastructure that has remained in place and the village is dependent on it.”

He said the narrow bridge is often congested, particularly in the peak tourist season, which, along with agriculture, is one of the village’s main industries.

There are no GPs in Llanbedr – the nearest practices are four miles north in a town called Harlech or six miles south in another called Bournemouth.

“The closest cottage hospital is miles away, let alone dentistry, which is nigh on impossible to get anywhere in rural Wales, and opticians. All these health services which aren’t available for us here. That’s a huge problem,” Ap Gwynfor said.

“Then on top of that, we don’t have your 3D pictures, your leisure centres, and things like that. They are miles away. If you’re a young person who wanted to join a football team, you’ve got to travel vast distances, and especially in winter when it’s colder and gets dark sooner, it’s very difficult to access services.”

If you live in Llanbedr and you want to go to a superstore to do your weekly shop, there’s only four buses that you can get, which means you have to hang around in that store for maybe a couple of hours more than you need to in order to catch the next bus back, or if you go to a sixth-form [school] or college, you’ve got to hang around for hours for the bus. And if you miss the last bus, which is in the late afternoon or early evening, then you’ve got to phone a friend or family member to come pick you up in the car.

“It’s all well and good for the government to talk about the need for modal shift in transportation but they’re not funding that. That’s why we are so angry about this.”

He fears the move will contribute to “further erosion in the vitality of rural communities”, with young families moving away because of the difficulty involved in accessing services.

“We need more services closer to our communities, we absolutely would like that, but they’re not going to do that. They’re not going to build GP services or leisure centres in every community – so okay, let’s see if they’ll improve public transport. They’re talking the talk, but we’re talking here about millions of pounds of ongoing investment into these services, and they’re not doing that.”

llanbedr-railway-station-on-the-cambrian-coast-railway-llanbedr-gwyneddnorth-wales-uk Llanbedr's unstaffed train station. Trains only call at the station on request and have not stopped at all since the start of the pandemic because the short platform does not allow for social distancing Source: Alamy Stock Photo

A recent report commissioned by Public Health Wales and Wales’ Future Generations Commissioner identified that poorer and marginalised communities are the least responsible for climate change but the most likely to be exposed to its negative effects.

It said that climate action, including in the transport sector, should not compound inequalities, and that people in rural communities are especially likely to experience transport disadvantage and rely on a car to travel to work.

While public transport is a (at least somewhat) feasible option in Irish cities, especially Dublin, people living in rural regions are often more dependent on cars because of a lack of infrastructure.

Polling by Ireland Thinks for The Good Information Project in July found that only 17% of people in the midlands consider their area quite well or very well serviced by public transport, compared to 77% in Dublin.

Overall, 21% of respondents said their area was very badly served and 25% rated it quite badly.

Dr Caulfield said that a lack of public transport services outside of cities as a barrier to moving away from road-building is exactly “why the investment needs to happen in them now”.

Deputy Minister Waters said that it’s a “really important issue to confront”.

“In rural Switzerland or rural Germany, they have far higher public transport use than we do, and they’re not any less rural than our areas,” Waters said.

“It was a choice that was made. It absolutely can be done, the question is do we have the will to find a way to do it,” he said.

“It takes a certain set of tools in rural areas, but it’s still doable. For example, demand-responsive buses that are a mix between a taxi and a bus, that’s a model that’s commonplace on the continent.

“Bikes have got a big part to play for journeys between towns. Most journeys, even in rural areas, are within towns.”

A new plan by the National Transport Authority intends to increase rural bus services  in Ireland by 25%, bringing frequent public transport to more than 100 villages for the first time.

However, it will take five years for the increase to fully come into effect.

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Solutions

In the meantime, to lower transport emissions, O’Riordan thinks the government needs to focus more on facilitating walking and cycling and using space efficiently.

“There’d be less travel on roads if our spatial planning was denser, so more people living in urban areas,” O’Riordan said.

“These areas have the density to support public transport, which is more space efficient. Car transport isn’t space efficient and that creates the traffic that makes people think we have to build these additional roads,” she said.

“If you’re able to up the capacity on public transport and increase its provision, it’d be far more space efficient, people would be able to get around, and there’d be less traffic, so then there’d be less need for roads and road-building.”

She said that there are “these traditional arguments about walking and cycling that you can’t do them everywhere”, but that electric bikes have the potential to change that.

“It opens up cycling to people who may not have the physical ability to cycle on a mechanical bike and extends the distances. People on e-bikes tend to travel up to 50% further [than on a regular bike], which means that more journeys can be covered by walking and cycling.”

Dr Caulfield says changes to transport need to happen rapidly to reduce emissions and limit the sector’s impact on the climate crisis.

“We need to build all the light rail, build the metro to the airport, invest in cycling and walking and in BusConnects in Dublin and the regional cities,” he said.

“All of this needs to happen at breakneck speed because we did so little for so long.”

‘We have to pull the brake’

The questions the Welsh review will try to answer are how many of the road schemes that the country has in development are consistent with carbon targets and under what circumstances in the future are roads “tolerable to build”.

“They [the review panel] may make an argument on safety grounds or they may say for access, you’re building a new industrial estate and a new road is justifiable, but what we need to move away from is seeing roads as the default answer to the transport problem,” Waters said.

“At some point, we have to pull the brake and say this is not consistent with our climate change rhetoric and we need to take some bold decisions.”

At home, O’Riordan thinks it’s important to consider the order that infrastructure plans are implemented in.

“What’s the priority and what can wait? You can say we’re going to go ahead with roads that we’re building, but first, we’re going to address improving BusConnects, make sure we’re being as space efficient as possible with the space we do have before we go building more roads and making cars even more attractive,” she said.

“I’m not saying do not build more roads, I’m saying there’s a lot more we could do to make our current roads and how we use them more space efficient. How can we transport the maximum amount of people in a given amount of time – that’s to do with public transport.”

Dr Caulfield believes we can only “environmentally afford” to keep building new roads when we have more electric vehicles and freight transport is done more sustainably than it is at present.

“Roads are used for public transport as well – buses, cyclists and all the rest, they still use roads – however, they’re primarily designed for moving private car or freight vehicles and we can’t be seen to be enabling that anymore.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

About the author:

Lauren Boland

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