It is the last Saturday of October and seventy committed individuals from all over Britain are gathered in central Birmingham to answer one crucial question: How can we unblock our roads?
This is ‘Roadblock’, an annual conference organised by Campaign for Better Transport1, a national organisation representing the views of around 40 environmental charities and public transport user groups. Between them those assembled are contesting 18 new roadbuilding schemes, just a fraction of those the Government is now planning. These protesters have spent long hours petitioning, organising public meetings, and even making their own videos with vivid names like ‘Road to Nowhere’ to highlight the damage caused by roadbuilding schemes. But why do they have such an axe to grind?
As they see it, there are two major problems with the transport system as it stands: sustainability and the quality of life. And, through its policy of ploughing billions of pounds of public funds into roadbuilding, the Government is conspicuously failing to deal with either.
The first problem is closely tied in with climate change and burning non-renewable fossil fuels. Britain – with a ‘carbon footprint’ 160 times that of Ethiopia – needs to rapidly reduce CO2 emissions to avoid the potentially catastrophic effects of rising global temperatures. Yet, as in every other major energy sector – power generation, house building, coal mining, oil exploration, aviation – the Government promotes policies that increase emissions – by encouraging car use. The recent report Transport Statistics for Great Britain2 makes uncomfortable reading, revealing that CO2 emissions from domestic transport are rising steadily with road transport contributing 93% of the total. Meanwhile, vehicle efficiency has barely improved for years, voluntary agreements by car manufacturers failing to deliver results.
The second problem relates to the belief that people deserve attractive, unpolluted streets where children can play, neighbours meet, and pedestrians and cyclists travel safely and in comfort. For this to happen, we need to use our cars less, requiring policies and incentives that make green forms of transport an attractive option.
So let’s campaign not for a Road to Nowhere but for a better transport system. As speaker George Monbiot asked at Roadblock: If not now, then when? If not here, then where? If not us, then who?