Gareth Huw Davies

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Is it time to ‘prioritise mass transport over the easy mobility of driving’?

Western portal of proposed Stonehenge tunnel. Photo: BBC

In a leader (July 7, 2023) The Guardian concluded that the future of ‘mobility’ must involve much more than private cars. It said that the climate crisis should be a chance ‘to question whether the motorcar itself has become too embedded in our everyday lives. We must prioritise mass transport over easy mobility of driving.’


It’s almost two years (July 2021) since the High Court rejected the then Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’ decision to approve the proposed tunnel and dual carriageway across and under the UNESCO designated World Heritage Site at Stonehenge. A judge ruled that he acted irrationally and unlawfully in sanctioning the project.

Shapps and subsequent transport secretaries have been in the process of “re-determining” the decision on the A303 project’s development consent order ever since.

Much had happened since then to make this even more of an environmentally foolhardy project than it was in 2021.

The fundamental objection to the scheme remains. The tunnel’s two portals and emerging stretches of dual carriageway would be built well within the borders of the World Heritage Site, causing it irreparable damage. 

But even since 2021 the arguments against building any new major road has strengthened. Or maybe they’ve been there for ages – after all, Extinction Rebellion has been campaigning since 2018 – but are now being accepted more widely. 

And in 2017 the The Council for British Archaeology said :’There’s a growing body of research suggesting that more radical approaches to transport policy, including long term strategy to encourage a shift away from car-dependence, may well provide greater long-term sustainability than would any solution based on individual roadbuilding or improvement.’

Meteorological triggers alone should be enough to prompt an immediate halt to the expansion of fossil fuel-driven transport. 2022 was one of the warmest years on record, with extreme heatwaves in the UK. 2024 looks highly likely to match or beat those records. 

We have had a stream of final warning reports, calling for urgent action on climate change, from the IPCC and, last month from the Government’s own climate advisors, the Committee on Climate Change. The CCC’s chairman Lord Deben said new roads inevitably increased traffic and emissions and called for a halt to road building unless there are exceptional circumstances.

The theory, induced demand, that new roads inevitably create more traffic, that a fine new road will entice people to make road journeys they wouldn’t otherwise have made, still holds. As it has done since the last war. 

The Welsh government, which has spending powers on roads, set a brave example when it cancelled all new roads, with a few exceptions, in its policy statement in February 2023, following the findings of an independent roads review panel. It has put climate change at the heart of decision making.

Deputy Climate Change Minister Lee Waters told the Senedd (Parliament): ‘Our approach for the last 70 years is not working…we will not get to Net Zero unless we stop doing the same thing over and over’. Previously Wales had cancelled the M4 bypass at Newport, a scheme of comparable size to the Stonehenge project, for both cost and environmental reasons.

The UK Government pitches its hopes on electric cars as a major force for climate mitigation in transport in the future, so we can all keep driving, cut CO2 and it can carry on with building new roads. ‘We are on track for mass adoption of zero emission vehicles over the course of this decade. This will help deliver carbon reductions, improved air quality and secure a green recovery’ – ‘Transitioning to zero emission cars and vans’, HM Government report,

And now comes the inevitable pushback against electric vehicles, led ironically by the government’s chief cheerleaders in the media. The Daily Mail ran a series of articles in July in which it tried to undermine the environmental case for EVs. But even scientists are questioning whether the government will be able to meet its target to ban the sale of fossil fuel cars by 2030, due to shortages in the supply of raw materials used in batteries, and an inadequate charging infrastructure.

There have been other developments within the past two years, which should make us question the inexorable increase in road transport. Even if the government can deliver on halting the sale of fossil fuel vehicles, there are going to be an awful lot of petrol and diesel cars on the roads for years to come.

The average car in the UK is 10 years old, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association.  And that average age is expected to climb further, following a significant decrease in new-car sales. says a conventional car can be expected to last for around 200,000 miles. 

We know from our own eyes that cars from the early 2000s are still running on our roads. Petrol and diesel cars sold between now and 2030 could be driving through a Stonehenge Tunnel well into the 2040s. Their engines will be cleaner, admittedly, but their exhausts will still be emitting pollutants and contributing, in a small but measurable way, to climate change.

Set this against research from the The Rail Delivery Group showed that, in terms of emissions per passenger, rail travel creates 10 times less per passenger than the equivalent car journey and 13 times less than travelling by plane.

To add to the list of reasons why pursuing a major roadbuilding programme might not be a wise idea are several important side stories. 

In 2020 a coroner concluded that air pollution from road traffic made a significant contribution to the death of 9 year old Ella Adoo Kissi-Debrah, who suffered with asthma. Ella lived near a heavily congested road in south London. 

And last week chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty, giving evidence to Parliament’s environmental audit committee, said that while a complete move to electric vehicles would ‘essentially eliminate’ exhaust pollutants, this would not solve the parallel problem of particulates from tyre and brake wear.

The Guardian (July 7, 2023) concluded that the future of ‘mobility’ must involve much more than private cars. It said that the climate crisis should be a chance ‘to question whether the motorcar itself has become too embedded in our everyday lives. We must prioritise mass transport over easy mobility of driving.’

It is far too early to talk about even the first ripples of a sea change, with the government and councils up and down England, as well as the big civil engineering firms, determined to build new roads and unwilling to look at any other transport solutions. And with Sir Keir Starmer ratcheting down his previous green pledges, declaring Labour as a party of growth and allegedly saying he hates tree huggers, there is little reason to expect a radical change in direction from an incoming Labour government.

But perhaps we are at least seeing signs of a diversion ahead on the previously advertised route.