The Silvertown Tunnel – which is due to be constructed under the Thames – is a remarkably good example of the political preference in transport policy and spending for large scale, ‘business as usual’ infrastructure projects. In spite of the rhetoric around climate change and decarbonisation, there is a lack of interest in zero carbon alternatives to big infrastructure. Large and expensive carbon generating projects are contrary to the purpose of declaring a climate emergency.
The Silvertown Tunnel is a failure of public policy in London supported by a lack of vision about what kind of transport and mobility future gives the best fit with the declaration of a climate emergency and the need to improve the public health of Londoners. There are many examples globally of how we can transform the totality of transport and mobility so that it supports the delivery of multiple public policy objectives. Germany has led the way with new thinking about a transport and mobility transformation that supports decarbonisation, public health and local economic gains (Heinrich Boell Stiftung, 2021)1. Building a new road, bridge or tunnel is a continuation of the same things we have done since the 1960s and locks us even more deeply into a future that is dominated by traffic, pollution, noise, additional carbon and defective living environments.
The Silvertown tunnel is a failure to deal with climate change and a failure to engage with new ways of thinking about transport and mobility.
The case against the Silvertown Tunnel is well documented (Transport Action Network, 2020)2. The tunnel project is not compatible with what must be done to deal with the climate emergency - it will add to air pollution problems and will add to congestion problems in that area of east/south-east London. The project fails to address the need to improve conditions for walking, cycling and public transport in that area of London and fails to deliver transport outcomes that clearly benefit all income and social groups.
There is an urgent need to switch all transport infrastructure spending into projects that actually reduce carbon and promote zero carbon alternatives. Rather than building a tunnel, we need projects that deliver on a much wider range of social, environmental, health and local economy objectives. This kind of thinking is absent in London but is already emerging in Wales and Herefordshire. The Welsh Government has paused most new road building schemes and Herefordshire Council has cancelled the Hereford bypass3.
There is an urgent need to switch all transport infrastructure spending into projects that actually reduce carbon and promote zero carbon alternatives
The Silvertown tunnel will add 754,600 tonnes of carbon (CO2e). This is so-called embodied carbon, (construction only and does not include vehicles using the tunnel or the operation of the tunnel). The calculation utilises the top-down environmentally extended input-output analysis (Scott et al, 2015)4.
Like most road building and highway capacity projects, the Silvertown Tunnel has not scoped the alternatives to the adopted scheme and has not assessed the degree to which the alternatives can contribute to achieving clearly defined objectives.
Table 1 sets out Transport for London’s objectives for the Silvertown Tunnel and the availability of alternatives to the tunnel that, based on evidence, can achieve the same objectives and deliver a wider range of social, economic, environmental and carbon reduction outcomes than is possible with the tunnel project
The Silvertown Tunnel should be cancelled and TfL and the Mayor of London should switch all available resources and project definition to the alternatives to big infrastructure. The task is now clear and is well-defined in Germany. We urgently need a ‘mobility transformation’ (Verkehrswende) and London can lead and set the pace. The ‘Verkehrswende’ brings transport decarbonisation and the transition to sustainable mobility together as a core policy principle (Agora 2021)5.
John Whitelegg is visiting professor, School of the Built Environment, Liverpool John Moores University and an associate of the German transport research organisation Zentrum fuer Mobilitätskultur in Kassel in Germany. He is a former member of the International Advisory Board of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy in Germany and an adviser on road safety and promoting ‘active travel’ to reduce obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease to the World Health Organisation in Geneva. He is a board member of the Californian organisation ‘Transport Choices for Sustainable Communities’. In September 2020 he was appointed to the position of fellow in transport and climate change by the (UK) Foundation for Integrated Transport.
Note 1 https://tinyurl.com/3xenkfwj
Note 2 https://tinyurl.com/7eauwwrk
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