Welsh City went to nowhere after Cardiff ditched a new shortcut

On the edge of the residential development St Ilid’s Meadow, in Llanharan, south Wales, two traffic signs inform drivers that the national speed limit applies. But, just behind it, the path ended abruptly at a gate and opened the way for thickets overgrown with an old exposed coal mine.

The dead-end street is one of several around town that testifies to how developers for years anticipated connecting the streets to new high-speed shortcuts as part of plans to add 1,850 homes to the area. Many local residents were supportive, believing the new arterial network would relieve pressure on the narrow Victoria highway that runs through the city, 15 miles west of Cardiff.

But on 14 February this year, the Llanharan bypass was one of 31 road construction projects in Wales canceled by the devolved government in Cardiff. The Labor-run administration said it was no longer appropriate, given its decarbonization targets, to authorize new roads that provide greater capacity for private car travel or allow increased vehicle speeds.

The Welsh arm of environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth hailed the move, which gave the green light to just 17 projects, as “world-leading”.

The controversial decision has led to protests in some Welsh communities who have lost their new roads, which they say are necessary to address their acute transportation problems.

Liberal Democrat MP Neil Feist
Liberal Democrat MP Neil Feist: ‘All these new commuter homes are still being built – but there are no short cuts’ © Francesca Jones/FT

Neil Feist, a Liberal Democrat member of the Llanharan community council, expressed the frustration that was widely felt. “Everything just hit a tipping point,” he said. “All of these new commuter homes are still being built – but there are no shortcuts.”

But speaking at the Welsh government office in Cardiff, Lee Waters, Wales’ deputy climate change minister, in charge of transport policy, told the Financial Times there was no turning back. “I care more about tackling climate change than winning my seat,” he said. “The nature and severity of the threat is existential.”

He said drastic action was essential. Greenhouse gas emissions from transport in Wales fell by only 6.3 per cent between 1990 and 2019, the last year before the coronavirus disruption, compared with a 35 per cent cut from power generation and industry, he added.

“Unless someone is ready to pull on this handbrake, we will never match our rhetoric to our actions,” Waters said. He added there was a “huge cognitive dissonance” in Wales around the country’s commitment to achieving annual net zero carbon emissions by 2035.

The locator map shows Llanharan in Wales

“Everyone signed up for high-level targets,” Waters said. “Once we go from general to specific, people run a mile. People simultaneously want us to reach net zero by 2035 but they want us to continue building rural shortcuts.

The key questions for this bold experiment to answer are whether this is the best way to reduce carbon emissions from transport and whether the economic price is worth paying.

The cancellation of the 31 projects was based on the argument that adding road capacity only encourages more car trips. Studies have shown that multiple projects generate the same level of bottlenecks that drove expansion in the first place.

Waters said Britain’s other devolved administrations – in Scotland and Northern Ireland – were watching closely and that the initiative was also attracting interest from Sweden and Spain.

Lee Waters
Lee Waters: ‘I care more about tackling climate change than about winning my seat’ © Francesca Jones/FT

In late June, the Climate Change Committee, an independent adviser to the UK government, recommended the Westminster administration undertake a similar review of its road building program for England.

The UK government says increasing use of electric vehicles means it is “on a clear path to net zero” despite plans to continue road construction. “Our road investment strategy is designed for all vehicles including green cars, buses, vans and [heavy goods vehicles],” he added.

But Waters pointed out that CCC said the switch to electric vehicles was a “necessary but not sufficient” step towards net zero. The committee said that increased use of bicycles, walking and public transport – which Waters’ policies aim to encourage – could reduce emissions more quickly and cost-effectively.

“The UK Climate Change Committee explains . . . that we do need to decarbonize our cars but that it will not be enough to achieve the very steep, precipitous targets that we have,” said Waters.

However, Natasha Asghar, shadow Conservative transport minister in the Welsh assembly, dismissed the Labor government’s road policy, which includes a standard 20 mph speed limit in urban areas, as “ludicrous”, adding: “We don’t have the strong economy to make radical changes.” This.”

Natasha Ashgar
Conservative transport spokeswoman Natasha Asghar dismissed the road policy as ‘ridiculous’ © Ben Birchall/PA

Stephen Glaister, emeritus professor of transport and infrastructure at Imperial College, also criticized the approach in Wales, calling it a “back-to-front policy”. He added: “Trying to reduce traffic by not provisioning capacity would likely be counterproductive. . . You are likely to generate jams.

Waters acknowledged the disquiet in a community that had lost. Further north in Llanbedr, on the Welsh coast, local residents blocked roads through the village in protest at the cancellation of a shortcut planned earlier this year.

“All of a sudden, we’re taking from them without giving them any assurance of alternatives,” Waters said, adding the “big challenge” is getting car travel alternatives fast enough to convince residents. “Managing it is a challenge because money is limited and these things take a long time.”

Feist said that was a problem for Llanharan because it had few provisions to encourage walking or cycling and rail service was “erratic”.

David Evans, Llanharan’s representative on the Rhondda Cynon Taff council and independent politics, said the only answer was a revival of the bypass proposal or condemning the city for years of traffic jams and air pollution. “It’s something that is needed,” he said. “It really is that simple.”

There may still be a compromise, according to Huw Irranca-Davies, the Welsh Labor MP for the Llanharan region. He pointed to the government’s recent promise to the people of Llanbedr to consider a relief route that travels at a much slower pace than traditional shortcuts.

“We have a real opportunity here in Llanharan to think about how we not only build roads but we build beautiful, fun and desirable communities,” said Irranca-Davies.

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