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Dual politics: Why calls to dual Scotland's killer roads are not as straightforward as they seem

Dual politics: Why calls to dual Scotland's killer roads are not as straightforward as they seem

Back in the 1950s American urban planner Lewis Mumford noted that adding highway lanes to deal with traffic congestion is tantamount to loosening your belt to prevent obesity. In Scotland, in 2022, the Scottish Greens agree.

Campaigners have long been calling for key trunk roads the A9 and A96, which link Inverness with Perth and Aberdeen respectively, to be fully dualled, with the significant rise in traffic in recent years being seen as the key reason that both have become notorious for high levels of fatalities. This year has been the deadliest on the A9 to date, with 15 people killed in 10 separate collisions, while on the A96, 13 people have lost their lives and close to 200 have been injured in crashes over the past three years. 

Yet while the SNP government promised 10 years ago that the A96 would be expanded by 2030, work has yet to begin. Dualling of the A9, meanwhile, has been in the works since 2007 and was expected to finish by 2025, but just two of 11 sections have been completed since first going out to tender in 2014 with eight yet to reach the procurement stage.

Conservative MSPs Murdo Fraser and Liam Kerr, both of whose constituencies are served by the roads, are pushing the Scottish Government to come good on its promises, stressing that the only way to ensure both are safe to travel on is to widen them out to a total of four lanes each. North East Scotland Green MSP Maggie Chapman begs to differ.

“I do not think that dualling a road – something that will inevitably see increased traffic and increased congestion – is the best use of limited resources,” she told the Press and Journal newspaper last month. “Spending billions of pounds on road expansions that will only drive up traffic and increase the risk of accidents is not the answer. 

“It is high time we shift focus to clean, green and affordable public transport infrastructure and improve the rail network across the north east. This will be safer for commuters and communities, and better for people’s health both now and in the future. It will also be good for the planet.”

Green MSP Maggie Chapman says dualling roads is not the "best use of limited resources"

Her position is unsurprising. The Greens have long been opposed to the expansion of either road, demanding that dualling work on both the A9 and A96 be scrapped in exchange for their support of the SNP’s 2020 budget. When the parties signed their power-sharing agreement in August last year they remained at odds on the issue, but agreed to subject the A96 plan – which is considerably less advanced than the A9 one – to a large-scale review with a climate compatibility assessment at its heart. That review was carried out earlier this year, with the outcome expected to be made public in the coming weeks. Regardless of what is reported, that the Greens remain opposed to the plan is clear.

Adrian Davis, professor of transport and health at Edinburgh Napier University, says the stance being taken by the Greens is the correct one, not just from a road safety point of view but also in terms of the Scottish Government’s commitment to reduce car kilometres by 20 per cent by 2030 as part of its wider aim of achieving net zero by 2045.

“The big issue when you think about Scottish Government policy, which is very strong on climate change, is that [the dualling plans are] out on a limb given what we know about road building – that road building induces demand,” he says. “If they are encouraging growth in car traffic at a time when they desperately need to reduce carbon emissions they won’t be able to do it fast enough. Adding to the number of vehicles on a dualled road will outweigh anything else they are doing.”

Davis dismisses the argument that dual carriageways increase safety because they lessen the risk of head-on collisions, noting that the higher speed limit on such roads puts “more kinetic energy into the system and that means more deaths”.

“When you put that into the equation, speed is a killer,” he says. “If we’re trying to reduce fatalities as well as reduce carbon emissions and not affect the habitat any more than we already have done then making more land available for roads is going in the wrong direction.”

It is not an issue on which there is consensus, though. Fraser and Kerr both made their feelings known during a session of portfolio questions held in the parliament last month, with the former quizzing transport secretary Jenny Gilruth on when the eight confirmed sections of the A9 would come to fruition while the latter told her that if the government does not follow through on “more than a decade of promises” to dual the A96 then “people across the north east will regard it as an outright abdication of responsibility”. It “owes it to the 13 people who have been killed and the 180 injured in just the last three years,” he said. 

Veteran SNP politician Fergus Ewing, who served in government until the election last May, has also made his support of dualling known from the backbenches, arguing that he and many of his constituents in Inverness and Nairn have lost friends and loved ones on the roads and that “it is our turn, frankly, for a major slice of the investment cake”.

Speaking to Holyrood, Fraser says he has been campaigning for an upgrade to the A9 for more than 20 years, adding that over that time the arguments in favour of the move have developed from being solely focused on safety to include the economic case for expansion too.

“We know that single carriageway roads are much more dangerous than dual carriageways,” he says. “The fatality rate on single carriageways is 20 times that on dual carriageways and this year so far there have been 12 fatalities on the single carriageway sections of the A9. Every year we see a very high fatality rate and accident rate on the A9 because it’s a road that has a mix of single and dual carriageways and that can be confusing, particularly as it’s a road that’s used a lot by tourist traffic.

“But there’s also an argument around economic development. If we want to see the economy of the Highlands and Perthshire grow, then having a dualled road which makes access easier and prevents hold-ups will improve economic progress.”

Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser has been campaigning for the A9 to be upgraded for 20 years

Neil Greig, policy and research director at road safety charity IAM RoadSmart, agrees that dual roads are safer than single ones, and he stresses that that goes hand in hand with the economic argument: the growth of Inverness in particular has increased congestion on both the A9 and A96 and that in turn has increased safety concerns on the routes.

However, while much of the focus is on vehicles speeding through the countryside, he says another issue with the A96 is that it funnels high levels of traffic through towns and villages, putting cyclists and pedestrians at risk. Though part of the Greens’ argument for not dualling is that Scotland should be encouraging active travel, Greig contends that moving traffic out of towns would enable active travel to flourish within them.

“The facts are quite plain that dual carriageways are safer than single carriageways and the reason for that is that on a single carriageway, if a driver makes a single mistake such as a bad overtake you end up with a head-on collision; if you are turning right or left into a junction you end up with a side-on impact,” he says. “They are the least-survivable accidents, even in a modern car.

“The reason to improve these roads is mainly because of the success of Inverness – it’s grown and grown. It’s a big city now, it’s attracting a lot of investment and it needs transport. The railway from Inverness to Aberdeen isn’t great and there’s no flexibility for freight. Everything that has built up Inverness’s success has probably arrived by road.

“Along the Moray coast places like Nairn and Elgin are expanding fast but there’s no bypass for Nairn or Elgin. Imagine what you could do in Nairn and Elgin if you didn’t have 30-tonne trucks coming through the centre of them. The bypass at Forres has allowed proper improvements to the town centre, which includes cycling and walking.”

Nick Reed, founder of transportation consultancy Reed Mobility and chief road safety adviser to English government agency National Highways, agrees that dualling the roads would make them safer on the sections that are currently particularly dangerous, but he warns that there could be unintended consequences to doing that.

“If you give roads greater capacity then more people will use them and the amount of induced demand is an issue,” he says. “If you have more traffic using the main road you then push that traffic onto smaller roads when they get to their destination. When considering how to address safety issues you need to be really careful of these knock-on effects.”

Cost is a major factor in not pressing ahead with either road project, with the total public expenditure expected to run into billions of pounds. But with demand not easing and safety concerns remaining paramount, the alternative will be costly too. Rail links to Inverness remain insubstantial and, if trunk roads are not going to be dualled, rail lines will have to be instead, not just to enable freight to be transported but to give road users a viable alternative to cars.

It is also clear that the roads themselves cannot simply be left as they are. Gilruth announced improved A9 safety measures last month, with £95,000 being invested in enhanced signage and road markings on two sections of the route. However, Reed and Davis are in agreement that huge amounts would have to be ploughed into everything from central barriers and average-speed cameras to signage along the full length of each route and even large-scale educational campaigns if current safety issues are to stand a chance of being addressed. None of that can be done on the cheap.

Ultimately, given its strenuous commitment to reducing carbon emissions and achieving net zero ahead of other similar nations, the Scottish Government has somewhat backed itself into a corner on road construction. Transportation, which includes aviation and shipping, accounts for well over a third of Scotland’s total carbon emissions, with road transport making up the bulk of that. As increasing the capacity of two major roads would lead to an increase in emissions, and as there are alternative road-safety measures that could be considered but not necessarily other carbon-reduction measures, Davis says there is only one route the government can now go down.

“It needs to say that it made those decisions [about dualling] at a time when it didn’t have all the scientific evidence we now have,” he says. “The scientific evidence makes it very, very clear that we have to go much faster on decarbonisation. Despite the desire to help communities that want these roads to be dualled, it will take us in the wrong direction. It’s not viable any more because the planet is on the line here. This is the part of the UK where we now have the choice to do the right thing by science.”

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