When Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring back in 1962, there was little concern about how traffic and the effects accompanying it could damage the environment. Roadside spraying gets a mention in her seminal work, but not traffic or transport nor the widespread effects which they have. Subsequent works echoing her theme, Roger Lovegrove’s Silent Fields (2007) and Marla Cone’s Silent Snow (2005), were similarly limited, despite both being excellent works otherwise.
However, ‘Traffication’, as a new term in a new book by Paul F. Donald, places human transport activities as a substantial source of problems to our environment in many respects. He draws upon research, particularly in the UK, and upon work from elsewhere, sometimes covered by the term ‘road ecology’. But the latter term has had a focus upon road kill, notably of animals, whereas Traffication recognises a far larger range of effects, including upon a comprehensive range of species. What follows is in part a book review but also some consideration of the wider policy implications of recognising and responding to the manifest environmental problems of traffication.
Donald indicates that the study of ‘road ecology’ has been prospering globally, although it is less in evidence in the UK. Whilst the study of road kill began with the efforts of Dayton and Lilian Stoner, a zoologist and an ornithologist, in the USA in 1924, awareness of overall traffic effects on the environment does not appear to have been synthesised other than in Donald’s new book, he suggests. The subdivisions of both environmental and transport-related campaigns in the UK have not favoured a genuinely comprehensive investigation of all the effects transport has on our overall environment, with appropriately broad campaigns. Indeed, the history of transportation is one of missed opportunities: Henry Ford and Thomas Edison not achieving mass production of electric vehicles; an obsession with personally-controlled motorised transport instead of walking, cycling and public transport; human and species casualties of ‘traffication’ being set aside as if of no consequence as motor vehicles spread across the planet. Donald outlines the historical stages in transport change in the UK, including the apparently limitless expansion of surface vehicles. This has led to about 40 million vehicles in the UK currently. The Department for Transport (DfT) core scenario in its traffic projections suggests 22% more vehicles being added 2025-2060. How villages, towns and cities could accommodate such an increase is unimaginable. Take Oxford, with all its junctions being at capacity or over-capacity usage in rush hour and school run times since at least 2017. Since UK’s new roads and rail are costing eight times more than the typical European country averages, this seems to offer a future of radically diminishing new infrastructure to meet the traffic expansion projected. Bearing in mind that many households have no car or van, 32.1% in Oxford from the 2021 census, considerable justification for attending to the needs of those who are not part of ‘traffication’ would seem apposite.
Traffic is not usually compared to so-called ‘natural disasters’, but as Donald points out it does kill about 1.5 million people a year and the World Health Organisation estimates this is accompanied by about 20-50 million other people being injured. But if we are going to absorb and make use of a novel term like ‘traffication’, we need to examine what Donald suggests it includes.
The aspects of traffication are many and include
- the numbers of vehicles, how this is increasing, and the spaces they occupy both on roads when in movement and when parked;
- the speed of movement of vehicles as source of risk to humans and other species;
- the creation and expansion of the road network;
- air pollution particulates and gases from tailpipes and non-exhaust emissions such as those from brake pad erosion, tyre abrasion on road surfaces and the dispersal of toxic particulates by the movement of traffic;
- globally, traffic produces about 15% of carbon dioxide pollution, and 10% of overall greenhouse gas emissions;
- the frequency in the use of each vehicle and the distances it is driven;
- the planetary loss of species killed by vehicles each year – from such creatures as tiny frogs and newts, to birds, foxes, badgers and deer on UK roads alone;
- the habitat implications for living things from birds to mammals as they make choices about whether to cross or avoid crossing roads;
- the impact of traffication in all its aspects upon designated protected sites when proximate to roads indicates reasonable concern about what real protection would involve;
- noise, both for people and other species, is a major environmental impact influencing sleep;
- light pollution at night is an unwanted gift for many species;
- the implications of road expanse, speeds and driver behaviour on human beings who are walking or cycling;
- the implications of traffic levels for the movement of buses and their timing;
- community severance where particularly busy road sections have few if any means of crossing for humans or other creatures;
- implications for species of vital pollinating insects in terms of their movements;
- roads as conduits for the spread of non-native species, including as a result of car movements shifting seeds large distances; roads as hazards to land-based species that may continue to move northward in some cases in response to a changing climate;
- death and injury in accidents;
- the stress implications of noise for blood pressure, heart disease, concentration and productivity;
- about 20% of world salt production is added to roads in the colder parts of the world annually, with negative effects on water and wetlands.
To these we may add road and pavement damage and how these absorb public funds when actually repaired.
The UK is distinguished by having an average length of road per square km of land (road density) twice that of the USA. This country has had 60,000 miles of road added since 1950 and many roads have been widened. Half of Britain is less than 500m from a road; about 20% of Britain’s land is more than 1km from a road compared to a European average of 40%. This has major implications for species and habitats. Donald uses maps to outline the environmental impact of roads in Britain at distances including 1 and 2 km from any road. He also outlines the impacts on the numbers of specific species which are estimated to be lost to traffic. Do we need a badger cull when we are losing about 50,000 badgers a year to traffic? Should we be concerned about deer, with no natural predators, expanding in numbers when they are being eliminated at the rate of about 74,000 a year by traffic? But losses are far higher for foxes (c.100,000); hedgehogs at a minimum of about 167,000 a year; and worst of all birds at an estimated 30 million losses even before we consider the role of cats. However, it is possible that the bird losses could be much higher and 70 million has been suggested. These numerical estimates cannot be repeated for insects, invertebrates, frogs, newts, toads or lizards as their losses leave behind little trace. Of course, domesticated animals join this story of road ecology with about 250,000 cats alone killed by vehicles each year. Research in Oxford suggests 200 cats could be saved by introducing Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs). And animals are subject to stress from vehicles as a source of risk and noise, compromised immune systems, not unlike stress effects noted for humans. And Donald notes research on species reliant upon hunting having their efficiency as hunters significantly damaged even when over 600m from a road. Even more disturbing is that birds subject to traffic noise are ‘prematurely aged.’ The effects of upon wildlife of traffic’s noise bombardment Donald labels as ‘soundscape pollution.’
Stepping back a bit, it is not widely known that a car moving at 70 mph is twice as noisy as one moving at 60 mph, and 25 times noisier than one moving at 30 mph. This makes the transition to EVs important for humans and other species, as a relief from noise stress, if not from many other traffication effects. Does noise from traffic damage plants? Some early research in this area suggests there are physical effects upon plants, with a need to consider how agricultural yields may be influenced in consequence. Research suggests China’s rice and wheat yields are cut by up to a third in the most highly polluted areas; in addition, wheat yields are cut throughout China by about 8%. So, the quiet that human beings value is healthier for plant life too, and it seems for the availability of food generally. But so far, as Donald notes, the realisation that traffic impacts the environment is very limited throughout the UK conservation sector, and in many relevant scientific articles and reports.
What conclusions might we draw from Donald’s account? First, reducing road space is a consideration. We do need it for more bus lanes to ensure bus movements are faster than those journeys people seek to make by car, no matter the congestion. We do need more space for wider pavements for pedestrians and wider cycle tracks for cyclists – and for the expanding UK fleet of cargo and ecargo bikes which offer communities relief from the scourge of delivery vehicles. Do people visit our older churches since their physical structure offers protection against the noise of our trafficated country? Peace and quiet are part of our well-being but are ill-served by the traffication we have had in recent decades. How much, and how soon, this might change with EVs remains to be seen as larger and noisier vehicles such as HGVs may be on our roads for some decades yet. The loss of fuel duties as EVs increase may well force electronic road pricing upon unwilling Governments, with positive implications for limiting traffic and the worst polluting vehicles in the most polluting areas. Pedestrianisation combined with better marked cycle paths could transform car-blighted central business districts. But this may do very little for the impacts of vehicles upon the wider environment.
It appears traffication requires a wide variety of traffic calming and traffic pollution measures. Free buses would cost about £6bn a year pulled from the budget for new trunk roads; cutting rail fares by half could be supported by funds from the same source. As one of the most trafficated countries in the industrialised world, we have to stave off unsustainable expansion in vehicles for our own sakes, and for a long list of other species.
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