Why Glasgow's M74 road extension will increase air pollution

The decision to press ahead with the controversial construction was the worst environmental decision of devolution, says Stan Blackley of Friends of the Earth

At the time of writing this article, a minor member of the royal family is visiting Glasgow to officially open the M74 northern extension – a five-mile, six-lane elevated urban motorway though the south side of Glasgow that Friends of the Earth Scotland has long opposed and that should never have been built.

With a price tag of £692 million (or £2,000 an inch), it is Scotland's most expensive road. This price tag has been met with much media interest, and Scottish Ministers have recently stated, somewhat disingenuously, that the road has been completed under budget and ahead of schedule, yet the project has actually cost around three times its original budget and is opening three years after it was first predicted to do so. The real cost of the road, however, is largely being ignored.

A Public Local Inquiry into the M74 project in 2005 considered the transport, environmental, business and community impacts of the new road and ruled strongly against building it. The Inquiry report stated that building the road would have 'very serious undesirable results' and that the economic and traffic benefits of the project would be 'limited, uncertain and ephemeral'. Scottish Ministers ignored that Inquiry report and approved construction anyway.

We have yet to receive any adequate explanation or reason from Scottish Ministers as to why they disagreed with the reporter's conclusions and pressed on with the new road anyway. At that time, Friends of the Earth Scotland labelled the Ministers’ decision as 'the worst environmental decision of devolution so far' and, despite some tough competition in recent years, we have yet to change our minds on this.

The opening of the new M74 northern extension will increase vehicle trips in a city that is already gridlocked at rush hour. Any benefit through the displacement of traffic from other routes, such as the M8, will be short-term and quickly undone through the new traffic generated by the extra road capacity.

The massive amounts of money spent on the completion of this new road could and should have been better invested in improving Glasgow’s creaking public transport services, such as local buses or cross-Glasgow rail services, particularly given that more than half of all households in Glasgow don’t even have access to a car. The new road does little or nothing for these households, which are largely in the poorer or less well-connected parts of the city.

The new road will increase air pollution levels in a city that is currently breaching European Union safe levels of nitrogen dioxide air pollution and which has been declared one of the UK's worst pollution hot-spots. Nitrogen Dioxide causes respiratory illnesses that result in 9000 hospital admissions every year, and Glasgow provides more than its fair share of these.

Furthermore, the M74 northern extension will lead to an increase in carbon emissions at a time when Scotland has world-leading and ambitious targets to meet in terms of reducing these emissions. The M74 project’s own environmental statement confirms all of the above, and it is still unbelievable to me that successive sets of politicians from all of the four main Scottish political parties have steamrollered this road through, between and over some of Glasgow’s poorest communities.

The building of the new road will do nothing to help Glasgow tackle its considerable traffic congestion and air pollution problems in the run-up to the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Having been touted as a major piece of Games-enabling infrastructure, it would be ironic if the road had to be closed to traffic to enable Glasgow to meet its air quality targets in the run up to the Games. The suggestion isn’t that fanciful, and it has been reported in the local media that it is under consideration by the City of Glasgow Council.

The building of more and bigger roads in an attempt to tackle traffic congestion just doesn’t work. This has been shown time and time again, yet still the Scottish Government and Parliament seem fixated with building more and more roads. The current SNP Government included a substantial list of new roads in its recent 2011 election manifesto and, given its landslide victory at the last Scottish elections, I suspect we’ll see more of the same in the coming years.

The M74 northern extension will fill with traffic like every other road project before it, and will, in just a few short years, prove itself to be a right royal waste of a considerable amount of money that could have been better spent on a myriad of more sustainable projects.

Stan Blackley is Chief Executive of FOE Scotland

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