The shoes of Cinderella – why motorway construction is against rural development?

   Why Cinderella is mentioned in the title? Because the shoe doesn't fits the lady at all: the environmental impacts of motorways are much more harmful, while the economic and social benefits are significantly smaller, than policy-making supported by the mass media suggests us. What is the rationale of spending immense amount of public money on transport infrastructure development instead of the wise use of local resources? Why decision-makers seem to ignore that the shoes simply do not fit???

‘Large scale public infrastructure investment, despite providing a short-term demand boost, has frequently failed to stimulate long term regional economic growth’

HM Treasury, Productivity in the UK: (3) The Regional Dimension

   So the shoes do not fit the feet: the environmental impacts of road infrastructure are not proportionate to the physical area covered by roads; the impacts are significantly greater than the area occupied would justify. Road networks and other infrastructure covers about 2% of the Earth's surface, but the impacts are expanding considerably over the physical area of roads. And while environmental damage is larger than usually recognized, social and economical benefits are much smaller than public opinion thinks – because public is made to think that motorways are the key to economic development, employment opportunities and social betterment. We have to be aware that most of these arguments are false and ungrounded. Studies and scientific findings of the last 30 years in this field have been neglected, by almost all European governments.

   The ecological damage caused by roads is wide-scale and multiple; the following list only includes some of the negative environmental aspects. Infrastructure development affects the hydrological regime and modifies the microclimate, changes the chemical composition of the soil, significantly contributes to air pollution; and noise disturbance also affects wildlife in a negative way. Roads mean direct loss of habitat and destruction of flora and fauna, but also trigger the fragmentation of habitats and the reduction of the quality of the surrounding habitats. Populations can become completely isolated, because roads mean an impenetrable obstacle for most elements of wildlife (lot of plants, reptiles, amphibians etc.). The resulting changes in the dynamics of the affected populations increase the risk of local extinctions, and impoverish genetic diversity. Landscapes are spoiled, losing cultural, recreational and aesthetical value, and giving way to invasive alien species. The impacts of road infrastructure are so complex and far-reaching, that we cannot predict or even describe them to full extent.
Nevertheless, huge amounts of public money are spent on building motorways all across our landscapes, justifying this enormous destruction by the social and economic benefits they bring to rural communities. Several studies, for example the "Transport and the Economy" report of the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment (SACTRA) in 1991 already underlined that this is not necessarily true: there is no appropriate evidence that road constructions provide high social returns. This report explicitly states, that "the claims of national economic benefits from new roads are exaggerated". The cost-benefit analysis, which is a mandatory part of the construction documentation, usually includes extremely overestimated economic benefits, mainly in terms of GDP and job creation without sufficient proof and missing baseline data, while the costs – both environmental and social – are underrated.
Foreign examples clearly show that excessive infrastructure development is not a heal-all for economy: a well known case study is about Portugal and Ireland. After EU accession, Portugal spent large amounts (22,8 billion EUR from EU funds) on constructing road infrastructure with a view to boost rural development. Nevertheless the Portuguese GDP growth was quite modest for years, then turned negative in 2003. On the other hand, Ireland invested in education, social partnership, human resources, research and development. The Irish GDP growth was over an annual 10% for years, and the country deserved the label of "the economic wonder of the Western world". Although the Irish economic model also gained certain criticism, this comparison should ring the alarm bell in those who decide to invest public money in infrastructure development.
While not realizing the expected favourable results, not appropriately planned and implemented road networks can directly aggravate the problems of already disadvantaged, peripheral regions: roads are two-way, and they can easily take instead of bringing. They take natural and human resources, leaving the affected community just as poor, or even poorer than before. Tourism is another industry often cited as a winner of road construction, but evidence shows that easy access rather supports transit traffic and short stays; therefore hardly any local income is generated by the passing visitors. Motorways in several cases led to net loss of jobs and the destruction of local enterprises because services and products are brought from other regions at a lower price. Qualified workforce left the region, contributing to the ageing of the population, and local markets crashed because of the "more competitive" central markets – this is one of the findings of the "Economic Impact of Motorways in the Peripheral Regions of the EU" EURES study from 1996. Other development alternatives are never examined, although in most of the cases better rural development results could be achieved by more cost-effective solutions, with significantly less financial investment and less environmental damage.
"It is important that regeneration programmes start from a firm understanding of the needs of an area. While a new road may be a key issue in some locations, frequently the answers to effective regeneration lie in improvements elsewhere. Skills training, more demand responsive public transport services, lower business rates, improved child care facilities or the development of niche markets may all have more of an impact on economic prosperity, depending upon the circumstances of the area. In the rural environment this should also mean more discerning development which is designed to meet specific needs and recognises the importance of a high quality natural environment for future economic success." – states the before-mentioned SACTRA report.

   This kind of negligence of local needs directly conflicts with the principle of subsidiarity, local autonomy and self-governance, because local governments do not have any choice on how to spend the money dedicated to road construction, and they are not asked whether they could make better and more effective use of the given resources. Local citizens, NGOs and certain authorities (such as nature conservation authorities) are often not informed timely or they don't have a voice in influencing the decision. This approach is against all principles and policies of public participation and contributes to the serious democracy deficit of the European Union. In several cases these investments involve the direct violation of the law, for example with reference to the Aarhus Convention about the accessibility of environmental information.
Road constructions violate other principles formulated in the Treaty of the European Union: the principle of free economic competition is distorted by the subsidies provided to road transportation. Even the Sustainable mobility 2000-2004 action program lays down that the current pricing schemes give unfair and unjust advantage, environmentally harmful subsidies to certain transportation modalities, while others (railways, ports) are clearly disfavoured. The "polluter pays principle" (also a basic principle of EU environmental policy) would mean that the users of roads should pay the environmental and health damages they cause. The EU transport policy adopted in 2001 also states that each actor of the transportation market should pay for the damages caused. Nevertheless, the real beneficiaries of road infrastructure are not taking their fair share of the burdens.
What could be a feasible alternative to excessive road construction? The solution could be the overall reduction of mobility and a decrease in the number of vehicles, the maintenance of already existing microregional road networks instead of new motorways, the development of public transportation – and first of all wise rural development creating local employment, based on local needs and local resources.

Further reading

The Cinderella principle:

Principles of road ecology:

Transport and Ecology conference:

Highway Mitigation Research:

Campaign to Protect Rural England:

Blueprints for Sustainable Transportation in Central and Eastern Europe

Roads, Jobs and the Economy

This article has been published in the CEEWEB Diversity Newsletter

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