Enter the nimby

17 February 2016

A public consultation has opened for a new road crossing of London's River Thames. The idea is for a new tunnel to the east of the city to relieve the enormous traffic strain on the existing Dartford Crossing.

For over 50 years, the Dartford Crossing has provided the only road crossing of the Thames east of London. This spectacular choke point, partly caused by tollbooths, consists of two bored tunnels and a bridge. Highways England claims 50 million crossings per year, of which 25 per cent are freight vehicles. The freight proportion is predicted to increase to 34 per cent by 2041.

Amazingly the crossing is closed (partially or fully) over 300 times per year due to 'incidents'. It can take three to five hours to blockages to clear to normal levels following a typical closure. Motorists have the option to cancel their journey, wait in traffic, travel to the Blackwall Tunnel (add 50km), or travel around the western side of London's ring road, the M25 (add 160km).

Another eastern road crossing of the river is really good news for motorists. And so a proposal for a new dual carriageway has been issued. Costs are not yet known, although GBP 3.4bn (USD 4.93bn) is mooted, and the government has invited public feedback on a few variations of the route.

Local residents are not happy. Local residents are not expected to be happy. Multiple petitions have been launched to stop the project. Their issues are mostly understandable. Some people could lose their homes, albeit with compensation. Others will complain about years of construction. Yet more will fear damage to the environment, or local communities.

But comments from a Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) movement can be fascinating to read, despite their negativity. Any argument is seized upon. In the case of the Lower Thames Crossing, a popular opinion seems to be that investing in new infrastructure actually increases congestion.

Leaving aside that Transport for London would have been thrilled to learn that they could have relieved congestion on London's Central Line simply by cancelling the Crossrail project and running a reduced service on the Piccadilly Line, the notion that infrastructure investment causes congestion has been rubbished in a more serious fashion on several occasions.

For example, in 'Misconceptions and Exaggerations about Roads and Road Building in Great Britain' a 2008 paper by David Bayliss for the RAC Foundation (a UK transport policy and research organisation) Bayliss argues that although traffic indeed moves to the new infrastructure, congestion is in fact eased on existing and overtaxed routes. Or even in the worst case for congestion statistics, existing but as yet unrealised demand is met.

Then there is the fact that, in 2008, some 70% of journeys by distance took place on the road. Although as a society, green solutions and mass transit are desirable solutions to moving the population around, it is simply not always possible. So anything that makes these journeys more efficient is a green and sustainable result for society.

A vital project such as the crossing should not be at risk from the objections of a few NIMBYS, but fortunately these decisions are rarely theirs.