Air pollution crisis means so-called 'smart M4' is a foolish misstep

Chris Grayling tried to sneak out his approval for the deadly and destructive so-called 'smart M4' scheme last week. 

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The M4 in Reading. Credit: Andrew Smith.

So shameful is the plan that the Transport Secretary seemed to hope that nobody would notice that he'd committed to spending the best part of a billion pounds of taxpayers money on it.

The scheme is motorway widening on the cheap - believe it or not - and involves removing the entirety of the hard shoulder along the Junction 3 - 12 stretch. Drivers that have ever had the misfortune to break down on the motorway and the emergency services that rely on life-saving hard shoulder access can explain in great detail the road safety dangers of 'all lane running'. 

Permanent ‘all lane running’ is neither necessary or desirable and should have been rejected to make the motorway safer and reduce environmental impacts. We could have taken inspiration from our European neighbours; managed motorway systems have been in place in Germany and the Netherlands for decades. In both countries, safety and congestion benefits have been achieved by keeping the scheme dynamic. A 'controlled motorway' would have been a safer option.

The premise of motorway expansion, however, is wrong-headed; it is preposterous to spend hundreds of millions of pounds on rebuilding eleven bridges to accommodate more traffic when the urgent need to tackle a deadly air pollution crisis demands that we reduce traffic - not encourage it.

Every year 4,000 preventable deaths in the South East are linked to air pollution - driven by the ever increasing numbers of cars on our roads. Scientists have also just discovered a worrying potential link between air pollution and Alzheimer's. 

David Reynolds of Alzheimer's Research UK rightly points out the links between exposure to air pollution and developing Alzheimer's need further research.

There is, however, already consensus on the need to treat the poor quality of our air as a public health crisis despite, as a recent study by Bristol academics exposed, the problem having been ignored by successive governments. 

It is a national disgrace that the quality of the air we all breathe has improved so little in the last two decades. Air pollution from vehicle exhaust is causing tens of thousands of preventable deaths related to respiratory conditions every year. If pollution from vehicles and catalytic converters is also getting into our brains and leaving metal particle deposits that may lead to Alzheimer's disease then Government action on reducing the use of polluting cars, lorries and vans needs to be all the more urgent.

We need to do transport differently; the writing has been on the wall for car travel for a long time and we should all be prompted to cut our car usage and support investments in public transport, walking and cycling rather than road-widening.

If the government was to spend the best part of a billion pounds wisely and in the interests of the health of the British public, it could focus on reclaiming the M4 for long-distance travel and invest in the sustainable public transport alternatives commuters need.


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