Please help us create a safer, more accessible National Cycle Network for all Donate today

Driving car dependency

By Tim Burns,
new housing estate

In edge of town housing developments car travel is the only real option, as everyday destinations like work, shops and schools are too far to walk or cycle

urban street with cars, people walking and cycling, ©2018, Jonathan Bewley

Using our valuable road space to help more people walk, cycle or use public transport is the most efficient way to keep our cities and towns moving.

In this longer look at the Budget, Tim Burns explores whether the Treasury is laying the foundations for rapid urban sprawl across England.

Last week’s Autumn Budget promised to invest £30 billion on the English road network over the next five years. Most of this cash will be spent on widening and building new ‘strategic’ roads across England.

This might sound like a welcome helping hand for English regions, but in reality Whitehall risks locking more and more people into a car-dependent future for generations to come. Recent research from Transport for New Homes is a fresh reminder that edge of town housing developments where car travel is the only real option is still increasing [1]. The Treasury’s £30billion payday for new roads will only encourage more of the same, leading to longer journeys, and more house building on greenfield sites.

When it comes to reducing the economic cost of the NHS, or meeting the aims of the recently revised National Planning Policy Framework, the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy, the Climate Change Act and our plans to improve air quality, the UK Government appears to be shooting itself in the foot.

Funding for ‘strategic’ and local roads

The UK Government recently announced the end of austerity and promised greater spending and investment. Logically that all starts this week with announcements made in the 2018 Autumn Budget.

These promises included the confirmation that Vehicle Exercise Duty (VED) will be hypothecated to create a National Roads Fund of almost £30 billion for the English road network. VED was an environmental duty designed to incentivise the use of more environmentally friendly vehicles. It will now, perversely, be mainly spent on building new and improving existing roads, encouraging ever-increasing journeys by car.

Of even greater concern, the vast majority of the National Roads Fund (over £25 billion) will be spent on the Strategic Road Network, essentially motorways and major trunk roads, through the second Roads Investment Strategy 2 (RIS). RIS2 from 2020 until 2025, is likely to represent a 40% increase on the £17.6bn spent on RIS1.

The Roads Investment Strategy, however, ignores the vast majority of roads and journeys in England. Roads covered by this investment make up just 3% of all roads in England and approximately 34% of vehicle miles [2]. The other 97%, Local Roads, include almost all major and minor roads in our cities and towns. Whilst some funding is available for local roads, for example, £420m for pothole funding this year, levels of spending are vastly underfunded in comparison.

Investing in strategic roads will drive car dependency

We know from history the more we build and widen roads the more people will drive. Last week’s budget announcement is effectively using public funding to subsidise living further and further away from work, schools and other local destinations.

It will help to unlock new housing developments on greenfield sites at the fringe of urban areas or in the countryside, rather than building within cities and towns. This creates urban sprawl and communities where public transport is not viable and where everyday destinations like work, shops and schools are too far to walk or cycle. We are creating communities where all trips are entirely dependent upon the car, often even if they have walking and cycling infrastructure. In the context of climate change, pollution, and a multitude of public health issues, we should be doing exactly the opposite.

This is entirely at odds with the recently revised National Planning Policy Framework which aims to ensure we build the right homes built in the right places and at the same time as protecting our environment. Instead, investing in strategic roads will serve to only increase what appears to be already happening in practice – the construction of many new housing developments built around the car with residents unable to travel unless they use a car.

Urban transport networks are underfunded and need to adopt a less car focussed approach

Most jobs, services and people live in cities and towns. Therefore most additional journeys that will be created from investment in strategic roads will start and/or end on local roads, especially those in urban areas. These roads have not been designed or funded adequately to support this.

Furthermore, a lack of available space rarely allows for wider roads in urban areas. This extra load will only contribute to more congestion, pollution, and increased financial costs for urban authorities. More cars and more dispersed living makes the business case to make public transport economically viable for these journeys almost impossible and distances too far to walk or cycle.

For these reasons, cities across the UK are currently debating how to reduce journeys by car, for example through Clean Air Zones, Workplace Parking Levies, improving public transport, and creating dedicated space and networks for walking and cycling. The percentage of people commuting by car would need to reduce from 53% today to around 43% in 2036 [3], for example in Bristol, just to maintain congestion at the current level, with expected population growth.

This means most cities are trying to move in the exact opposite direction to the UK Government based on signals given in this week’s budget announcement.

Is this what people want?

The imbalance between investment in local, sustainable transport within cities and towns and funding for inter-city transport, based around the car, is vast and growing in the UK. Encouraging people to travel further and for longer appears a strange policy objective considering what people want?

Most people, given the option, would opt for a shorter commute – who wouldn’t want more time with their family and the chance to see their children before they go to bed each evening? Who wouldn’t want better access to local shops, and public services within easy reach of their doorstep?

Why are we subsidising road building to build homes further and further away from where people want to get to, when we could be subsidising homes in urban areas where sustainable transport choices already exist? What could £25 billion could do to help make housing more affordable in urban areas whilst supporting more sustainable and efficient options to get around?

We need to invest in local sustainable transport to enable more efficient movement of people and goods

Transport funding should be highest where journeys are greatest - local roads in urban areas. And evidence demonstrates using our valuable road space to help more people walk, cycle or use public transport is the most efficient way to keep our cities and towns moving.

Despite this evidence, most local authorities are struggling even to repair roads, and national spending is making this challenge harder.

If the UK Government is serious about the environment, our health, building homes in the right places, air pollution, and improving the lives of its constituents then it must invest funding from the National Roads Fund on local roads and prioritise sustainable transport, including walking and cycling.

We urge the UK Government to rethink its approach to VED and roads funding and to start taking walking and cycling seriously by committing to 5% of the transport budget to be spent on active travel, rising to 10% by 2025.


[1] Transport for new homes. 2018. Transport for New Homes Report.

[2] DfT, 2018. Road Traffic Estimates: Great Britain 2017

[3] Bristol City Council, 2018. Draft Transport Strategy.