New M4 – Yes or No?

So next week, Welsh Government and Mark Drakeford the First Minister, will make a decision on whether to proceed with the new M4 around Newport.

I guess its time for me to come clean as well.  So just a few words to set out where I am on this matter today, June 1st, 2019.

Unlike many others I don’t think this is an easy decision.  It was perhaps 5, 10 and certainly 15 years ago (when we should have perhaps just got on with it); but not today with the increasing and now more widespread realisation of the existential threat of climate change.

So, where am I?

Well its clear that the current proposed black route will provide more capacity and resilience; it will support the regional economy and has a positive BCR.  I am also clear that the current M4 around Newport, built in the 1960s, is way beyond its design life and has risks and liabilities that have to be managed and that this obligation has a cost.  More serious are the real risk of critical failures in such an old piece of infrastructure as was so tragically demonstrated in Genoa in 2018.

A new road will be purpose built, be easier and less costly to maintain and will provide a piece of fixed transport infrastructure for South East Wales for at least the next 50 years.

I am also clear that technology and electric vehicles (EV) will make more likely that within perhaps twenty years the vast majority of vehicles using our roads will be electric.

So that means I am in support of the new M4…. well, until recently I was (just!) and have shared that view with associates at CBI, FGC, WG etc 

Now, for the reasons below I am not, I was wrong….

Firstly, there is the reality that in almost all previous examples of road schemes, when you build more capacity, it fills up, unless you adopt fiscal means to supress that demand. I have argued in support of others that if you do build a new road you have to toll it…and that it was perhaps not the best idea to remove the current tolls. 

More important, and as I set out in my longer article on Climate Change and the economy (so please read that for a more detailed argument), I think this is more symbolic than economic.

Our whole economy, especially since the 1950s, has become too dependent on long supply chains and personal mobility options and freedoms that are supporting a pattern of choices and behaviours that are ultimately damaging our environment (as well as having a negative economic impact on some of our most disadvantaged communities).  We really do need to change what we are doing – and that means tough choices; for government, for companies, for organisations and all of us as individuals.   None of us have been paying the full environmental costs of the “freedoms” and choices we have enjoyed. 

This will undoubtedly present short term cost and inconvenience. 

So, if as I expect, Mark Drakeford makes the brave decision to cancel the new M4 we need to wrap around some other interventions.

More tactically, the current M4 will need to receive investment so that it functions and is safer for longer; in advance of more substantive changes we still need a fit for purpose road.

In the medium term we have to find ways to enable and incentivise means to reduce our need to drive in cars at the same time of day to the same place every day.  Its only that last 10% of traffic that cause the congestion – if we can disperse the demand on our infrastructure over a longer period of time then the congestion issues will reduce (the same is true of our demand for public transport services)

I perfectly accept that this decision will have an economic impact and cause continued difficulties for those people who have no choice but to use cars, lorries, etc across South Wales.  But as I said this is symbolic and government needs to make tough choices even when they are unpopular.  This is one such example.

My change of mind is because of the bigger issue of climate change and the need to “change our direction of travel” (sorry!) in respect of our economic and mobility choices.

There are also other measures needed to begin to address the climate change threat; to cancel the project without perhaps signposting other measures and interventions would be a missed opportunity.

We need to see massive investment in public transport; today over 80% people commute in their cars and less than 10% use public transport.  In the 1950s it was pretty much the opposite!  We have to try and go back to a 1950s mode share.

Some of the £1.4Bn allocated to the road (which for Wales is very large capital sum) needs to be directed to more public transport. The UK Government also needs to step up to the plate and address its long term underinvestment in Wales rail network (which is a non-devolved matter); it also means more buses and bus lanes and especially in our cities and larger town,  more active travel.

To complement, we also need measures to make it easier for people not to have to travel to the same place at the same time every day.  This may mean more staggered working hours, working locally or at home some days.  Can we find means to encourage freight use of our roads at different times of the day.  For example, most roads, including the M4 are more or less empty overnight.  In future autonomous electric freight vehicles could be using that huge unused capacity. This may require fiscal measures to both incentivise and discourage certain choices and behaviours…and yes road user charging.

To those that say that cars will all be electric  and autonomous in future and so there is no real problem; well  I am sorry we need to reduce our need to use cars full stop ( I did set out some arguments on this in 2017). Cars still cause congestion and as I argued in my article on Transit Oriented Development, we have built our lives around cars and the personal mobility freedoms it provides – jobs, houses, school, retail, hospitals, etc -which is environmentally very damaging as everything we need to do now requires longer journeys, more time and more energy. None of us have paid the price for those freedoms.

To complement the decision to cancel the M4, we therefore need a much harder line on planning – especially where we locate new homes, jobs, public services.   We must densify and build around our existing urban footprint and around our public transport network, stations etc. 

Welsh Government and local authorities must take a hard look at similar types of “car dependant” schemes and certainly other road proposals under development. For example the airport road through the Vale of Glamorgan; and the new Llanfrechfa Grange hospital now being built should be the last time the public sector is allowed to build a major facility so dependent on car access.

It also means that those who complain of “over development” in places like Cardiff for example– which is actually low density when compared to many European cities – explain how we provide the new homes we need without otherwise encroaching green field land elsewhere. 

TfW must also be directed to grapple not just with the doubling of capacity of the valley lines with the new South Wales Metro, but how we double that again and how we at least quadrable public transport capacity E-W across south Wales along the M4 corridor.  (I have some ideas!) 

This means that our traditional approach to transport planning – even the new WelTAG guidelines  – needs to be revised or at least re-positioned within a revised policy ecosystem that leans much more in favour of mass transit public transport solutions and transit oriented development.

So the M4 decision must be symbolic of a broader policy programme with complementary interventions to take on climate change and begin to re-engineer both our economy and our mobility choices so that we can begin to live in a way that is more in balance with our environment.

Whilst I fully accept the short term difficulties and challenges, we have to view this as an opportunity…


Given the twitter comments following my posting of this blog I thought a few comments might help….

This was a tough one for me as until very recently I was in support of the new M4 for some of the reasons I summarised at the top of my blog.

However, the climate change issue is so serious I think we have to act; this is a global issue that requires us all to re-think how our economy functions, where we live, how we travel, what we buy, when we buy, etc. I did try and set out some of this in my recent climate change blog (sorry a bit of rant with a political bias!)

I perfectly acknowledge the real difficulties and constraints associated with the current M4. However directing a huge amount of capex at further car based measures is not honestly addressing the underlying and more serious issue.

This I hope is an opportunity to have a serious discussion about how we begin to take our “climate change responsibilities” more seriously – we have to.

In terms of measures…

In the short term we need to find ways of dispersing the current road demand more evenly throughout 24 hours…I think we need some peak hour road charging.(sorry!)

It also means engaging with employers and employees to find ways of introducing more flexible working patterns. Some earlier/later starts, working remotely or at home some days, etc.

As I set out its only (approx.) the last 10% of traffic that cause the congestion…. if we can reduce and “even out” the demand then we can better utilise the current road

We need a massive programme of public transport investment along the M4 corridor to begin to provide a viable alternative

More than anything else we need a conversation about the kind of economy and mobility choices we can sustain to protect our environment. Its this issue we all should be grappling with – esp our politicians (internationally) who have not yet collectively done so.

I have also written a complementary article about a public transport concept for the M4 corridor

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