9 May 2016
Category Opinion
9 May 2016,

Among the issues facing the new Welsh government in Cardiff, one that looms larger than most is South Wales’s chronic transport problem.

I choose the word ‘transport’ because too often consideration of this is limited to the Brynglas bottleneck and calls to ‘sort out’ one stretch of motorway by building another.

Having commuted from Caerleon to Cardiff Gate from 2004 to 2015, I do of course understand why M4 congestion looms large in people’s minds.

But, since moving to Cardiff Bay six months ago, I can compare that with negotiating a journey through the capital to Cardiff Gate – and it often takes longer, even though it’s half the distance.

The fact is the whole region experiences road gridlock at peak times, and it’s holding back Wales’s economic growth in more ways than we can quantify.

The trouble with posing the transport question narrowly in terms of the M4 around Newport is that it leaves us wedded to the outdated notion that we can solve urban travel problems with just one more road.

It seems attractive to say ‘we have a bottleneck, so let’s by-pass it’, but all the relief road will do is transfer congestion to other parts of the road system.

Commuters may well arrive on the outskirts of Cardiff or Newport quicker, but when they get there they will face even longer tailbacks than they do now.

And this will only get worse if the Central Cardiff Enterprise Zone is as successful as we all want it to be in attracting thousands of jobs to Wales.

For where are the employees going to come from? They won’t all presumably live in Cardiff or near existing rail services, which means there will be still more traffic on the M4.

Since the 1950s, Britain has slavishly followed the US in having a car-centric transport policy. But that has been changing: cities such as Manchester, Edinburgh and Sheffield have been investing heavily in Metro systems for years.

And now, even US cities are shifting investment away from roads to rail. Los Angeles may be famed for being ‘a great big freeway’ but this month sees a new Santa Monica line opening, taking its investment to $20 billion to create a 131-mile light rail system.

I know we have now have a plan for a Metro but we have come to the party late and the City Deal funding is not enough to do the whole job.

Meanwhile, virtually all the Welsh Government’s capital borrowing facility is being allocated to the £1.1 billion M4 relief road.

Some politicians still privately say ‘you’ll never get people out of the habit of using their cars’, but no one is suggesting cars don’t have a role to play.

The issue, when planning transport for a modern city region, is how you best cater for the tens of thousands of predictable short journeys people make every day, especially to and from work.

And I think it is patronising to say that we in Wales are less capable of change than people in other conurbations who have become accustomed to commuting by train, bus or bike.

Besides, more than one in four households in South Wales do not even have a car and face being excluded from the benefits of growth if policy makers put all our borrowed capital into building 14 miles of road.

Publicity for the Enterprise Zone talks about inward investors having access to 1.4 million people within a 30-minute commute.

Really? The only way we will make that true is by front-loading the investment in the Metro because if just a small proportion of M4 users are enticed onto a fast, reliable light rail alternative everyone will get to work faster.

As the recession years showed, you only need about 10% fewer cars on the M4 and traffic flows smoothly through the Brynglas tunnel.

In a nutshell, whereas the relief road is a policy for relocating bottlenecks, the Metro will help eliminate them by reducing road usage generally.

It’s great to see the Metro gaining political traction, but it won’t make the difference it should if it is developed piecemeal. We need a step change, and that means injecting a big chunk of capital at the outset.


Steve Howell

This article is Steve’s monthly business column for Walesonline and the Western Mail newspaper. He will be speaking on this issue at a conference in Cardiff on ‘Transport-Led Development in Wales’ on June 28.

Steve is also author of Over The Line, a novel telling the story of an Olympic poster girl facing a doping crisis, which is available on Kindle (£1.99) and in paperback (RRP £7.99) via Amazon. As a special offer until the Rio Olympics, the paperback is also on sale via this website at £5 inclusive of postage in the UK – ORDER.