Cars and roads in Wales

Overhead picture of the sea and a road with several cars on it


This blog post is a precursor to a NICW opinion piece on the Roads Review, and on the Welsh Government’s response to the Roads Review.

The Roads Review was undertaken under a very tight remit and timeline. There is an inevitable tradeoff between the terms of reference for the review, and the ability to take a holistic and systemic perspective. This blog post therefore uses the upcoming Roads Review as an opportunity to take a wider view about transport in Wales, and the integrations between road transport and other aspects of infrastructure and society.

Our overall perspective is that roads, and the services they enable, are essential to many components of life in Wales. However we believe that the balance of policy is strongly skewed in favour of private car transport, in a way that contradicts the intention of the Well-being of Future Generations Act (WFGA), the Nature Emergency, the Climate Emergency, the Socio-Economic Duty, and our obligations to people being born in 2100 and beyond.

Indeed, research demonstrates that not only is policy highly favourable to facilitating car use, but we have a strong social aversion to considering the negative consequences of car use in the same way as we would the negative consequences of almost anything else (1), so we must be vigilant in holding ‘pro-car’ policy to the same standards as we would other risk-producing sectors.

Many of the negative impacts of road building and private car use arise from legacy decisions on planning and infrastructure. We see signs of significant improvement in transport policies in Wales recently, including Llwybr Newydd (2).

But the legacy of poor policy decisions taken decades ago shapes our society now. As a society we must challenge the orthodoxy that still affords car transport a special place, highly resistant to restrictions or additional costs. In order to successfully make the transition to a ‘car-lite’ society, we cannot only restrict, but we have to plan, develop and implement infrastructure and policies that make the use of active travel and public transport the default option. If peers elsewhere can manage it, there is no reason that we cannot also achieve a more sustainable and equitable outcome for our citizens, current and future.

This blog post focuses on the areas with the biggest negative impacts, namely urban areas. We acknowledge that negative impacts, and alternatives to private transport, are reduced in rural areas of Wales.

The NICW perspective

  • Roads are an integral part of Wales’ infrastructure, and essential for many aspects of life
  • Each one of our guiding policy frameworks requires us to recommend a rebalancing of policy away from enabling private car use and in favour of active travel and public transport, with social justice (via the Socio-Economic Duty) being key amongst them
  • An increase in the number of kilometres of roads in Wales will either require an increase in the maintenance budget to maintain road standards (3), or will result in a degradation of road quality over time, thereby potentially negating the presumed benefits of new road infrastructure
  • Road projects should consider not just active travel as a core part of their ‘remit’, but also far wider infrastructure considerations such as health & well-being, noise and air pollution, benefits to nature, mitigating and reducing flood risk in whole catchments, and good design
  • New road infrastructure, and existing road infrastructure that is targeted for maintenance or upgrade, should seek Design Commission for Wales and ‘Building with Nature’ (or equivalent) accreditation. 
  • Any activity on new or upgraded roads should consider whether it is possible to integrate electricity, gas, hydrogen, telecommunications and water infrastructure as part of delivering a ‘public good’ and to reduce overall costs to society
  • Where discussions around the benefits and dis-benefits of road schemes arise, we urge participants to be aware of, and guard against ‘motornormativity’
  • Car parking is a particularly salient feature of the conflict between a ‘motornormative’ society and sustainability (4); Planning Policy Wales (5) gives local authorities the tools to re-evaluate current levels of parking provision and to increase charges to support modal shift
  • Any real or perceived restriction on car use has to be accompanied by vigorous work, investment and accompanying communication activity on the alternatives. Public consent will be easier to achieve if the public bodies communicate with humility, true involvement and honesty

The political challenge of tackling car use

In discussing the negative impacts of car use, we explicitly recognise the many positive outcomes of flexible, ‘on-demand’ transport that is currently best represented by private car transport for many people in Wales.

Our aim is to support policies that provide greater certainty to people wanting travel that replicate the convenience of car travel as closely as possible by healthier and more socially just active travel and public transport options. We note that some personal circumstances may make active travel or public transport impossible, but we have the ambition for most people in society to be able to make transport choices that do not include the private car.

This requires us to also consider perceived and actual risk of using active travel and public transport. These routes need to have safety and accessibility as core components of their infrastructure; how they are perceived and experienced by people from different demographics and backgrounds is as important as how they perform in the transport functions. 

The political challenges in tackling car use are significant. Once bought, a car represents a ‘sunk cost’ that makes the marginal, and therefore the perceived, cost of using it relatively low compared to alternatives. Policies that increase the marginal cost of using cars will likely prove unattractive for many households and businesses.

The cultural challenges of reducing the use of private cars is also a psychological issue. For decades, driving has come to symbolise a sense of independence, a passage into adulthood, and the freedom to be able to travel to places and times not well served in other ways. These issues will need to be addressed by the hard (infrastructure) and soft (behaviour change) elements of policy

Nonetheless, the negative impacts of widespread car use are such that provision of good quality, accessible, affordable, safe and attractive public transport and active travel infrastructure must be prioritised, and car use should become less attractive than it currently appears.

The impacts of private car use

The increasing use of private cars has a multitude of impacts. Generally speaking, policy-makers are most interested in those that impact directly on people such as health impacts and inequality, as people are able to campaign, vote and generally make life challenging for politicians if they are sufficiently motivated.

However, we must also consider wider impacts of a car-friendly society, which includes implicitly subsidising the richest in society, continuing degradation of habitats and biodiversity, and a disregard for those who will inhabit Wales long into the future.

The associated infrastructure reserved solely for car users, especially car parking, is another ‘hidden’ impact of a pro-car policy environment. Street scenes for much of Wales are defined by the ‘need’ for car owners to park outside, or close to, their house. Nature and well-being would be improved by retiring on-street car-parking, and replacing parking spaces with street furniture and ‘pocket parks’.

Health impacts

We note the opinion of academics investigating ‘motornormativity’, that there are three health epidemics arising from ‘hypermobility’ provided by private motor vehicle use (6):

  • Deaths and injuries arising from car collisions (1752 deaths and 25,945 serious injuries in 2019 in the UK)
  • Physical inactivity leading to an increase in coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes, strokes (7) and breast cancer
  • Air pollution, leading to similar health problems as physical inactivity

Health impacts from private vehicle use are experienced more by people from more deprived backgrounds, whereas there is a strong inverse relationship between poverty and emissions generation (8).

Although new electric vehicle registrations continue to rise rapidly, a complete replacement of the existing car fleet – itself decades away – would partially solve only one of the three health epidemics described.

Any policy which does not attempt to reduce the distance travelled by private car will not help tackle increasing societal costs associated with the costs of dealing with morbidity or mortality associated with motor transport.

Policy approaches

The Well-being of Future Generations Act requires public bodies to work together in five specific ways. Several of these are particularly relevant to a discussion about transport, including long-term, integrated and preventative.

The costs loaded upon society from car use – particularly for health and well-being, and seen in practical terms in large costs to the NHS and associated services – mean that a reduction in car use will support at least the three ways of working. For example, reduced levels of morbidity arising from physical inactivity and transport air pollution will reduce the future cost burden on the NHS. 

We support measures such as ‘real time’ road charging, speed reduction in high pollution areas, and congestion zones, that aim to reduce road use, reduce pollution through speed limits, and spread the use of the road networks outside peak times. We also support increasing car parking permit fees, and implementing workplace parking levies (9), as long as people with no alternative, such as people with disabilities, are considered and involved in decision-making.

We endorse the Welsh Government’s approach to a default 20mph limit in residential areas of Wales (10) on the grounds of well-being, health, carbon emissions, sound pollution and reducing issues arising from vehicle collisions. We encourage local authorities and Corporate Joint Committees (11) to consider implementing congestion charging in urban areas that suffer from congestion, and to ring-fence any revenue arising for active travel and public transport.

We would like to see pilot schemes to evaluate whether subsiding bus transport to very low or zero cost at the point of use could reduce congestion and car use in Wales’ urban centres.

We would like to encourage debate around roads to include ‘retiring’ those that do not contribute in a reasonable way to local well-being beyond their core function, to provide new functions of local connectivity, active travel and green infrastructure. Although it seems counterintuitive, in certain circumstances it is possible to reduce congestion by reducing the number of road lanes available for car use.

One of the few benefits of the Covid pandemic was the possibility to reimagine how public spaces were used. In some cases the innovative changes to public spaces and transport routes were retained, improving local outcomes for non-car use, but in many other places the changes were reversed when society ‘reopened’. If we truly believe that nature and climate are in crisis, we should be using every opportunity to retain and strengthen infrastructure that facilitates low-carbon and active ways of moving. 

Our framework perspectives

We are interested in how different policies are seen from the perspectives of:

  • The nature emergency
  • The climate emergency
  • The long term
  • The socio-economic duty
  • The Well-being of Future Generations
What’s the nature emergency perspective?

The encroachment of paved roads in the environment reduces the amount of space available for nature. The use of roads by private cars is a major contributor to pollution. Particulate matter, and oil and fuel leaks and spills pollute the air and our waterways. Gases in exhaust fumes change the chemical makeup of the environment, damaging plants and animals across the ecosystem.

What’s the climate emergency perspective?

Roads have a strong salience with the climate emergency. The construction of roads requires the use of fossil fuels and other carbon-intensive products. The construction of roads also results in the displacement of what was previously there, in many cases some sort of natural environment that acts as a carbon sink.

Once constructed, roads typically contribute to greater greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by facilitating private motor vehicle transport. However the increasing prevalence of electric vehicles means that the average CO2 emission factor for new vehicles in the EU has started to drop sharply despite an increase in average vehicle weight. EV registrations more than tripled from 3.5% in 2019 to 11.6% in 2020 (12). Whilst this means that future GHG emissions from road transport are likely to steadily decrease, the fleet of cars in the UK is ageing, with the average vehicle being more than 8 years old in 2020 (13)

Given the supply problems during the pandemic, and the continuing lack of supply of new vehicles, fossil fuel vehicles are going to be the dominant class of vehicle on Welsh roads for years to come.

What’s the long term (eighty year) perspective?

On an 80-year perspective, modest time savings on trips make little sense, particularly if we assume a relatively ‘fixed’ pot for total road maintenance budget, that means less well maintained roads the more you have of them, which will act to increase travel times in the long term.

The people of 2103 won’t particularly care about the ‘benefits’ of minor time-saving on trips by car. In this regard we are glad to see that the consultation on updated Welsh Transport Appraisal Guidance (WelTAG) (14) reduces the emphasis on economic dimensions and renames it the ‘well-being dimension’. 

The same consultation also reduces the ‘cost to benefit’ ratio requirements for smaller projects. This is critical in avoiding metrics that prioritise GVA type outcomes at the potential expense of well-being and environmental outcomes.

What’s the socio-economic duty perspective?

In general, poorer people take the hit from benefits ‘enjoyed’ by the better off in society, so we need to redress the balance if social and intergenerational justice is to be upheld

Socio-economic duty requires that we consider equality of outcome (not just opportunity). The highest levels of NO2 and other pollutants occur in the Lower Super Output Areas (LSOAs) containing the poorest households – exactly the same households that contribute least towards air pollution. In other words, the costs of (car) transport are borne most by those that have done least to cause it, that can least avoid its impacts, and that are at greater risk of other health and socio-economic impacts due to poverty.

In Wales, the mean household income for car-owning households is £33,650. For non-car-owning households the mean income is £19,950 (15). 19% of Welsh households do not own a car (16).

What’s the Future Generations Act perspective?

Existing pro-car policy is contrary to the following Future Generations Goals:

  • A healthier Wales (severe health impacts from car use)
  • A more equal Wales (subsidises the richest in society)
  • A Wales of cohesive communities (complicates and makes more difficult sustainable forms of moving within and between different places)
  • A globally responsible Wales (significant GHG emissions associated with road construction and maintenance, and vehicle use)

The Ways of Working (WoW) also require public bodies to take a particular perspective when making decisions. For example, a preventative would recognise that increasing the amount of active travel undertaken would likely reduce the future need for health interventions. Likewise, a long-term perspective would reduce the perceived value of infrastructure for current citizens, and also consider the needs and rights of people born many decades into the future.

  • Note: This is a Commission opinion piece, not a recommendation to Welsh Government. As such, it does not require a formal response


  1. ‘Motornormativity’: Britons more accepting of driving-related risk, The Guardian, January 2023
  2. Llwybr Newydd: the Wales transport strategy 2021, Welsh Government
  3. Roads and transport revenue outturn expenditure, by service (£ thousand)
  4. ACSP Distinguished Educator, 2017: Donald Shoup
  5. Planning Policy Wales, Welsh Government, February 2021
  6. Motornomativity: How Social Norms Hide a Major Public Health Hazard, PsyArXiv, December 2022
  7. Stroke Mortality Associated With Living Near Main Roads in England and Wales, Stroke, December 2003
  8. Emissions vs exposure: Increasing injustice from road traffic-related air pollution in the United Kingdom, Transport and Environment, August 2019
  9. Workplace Parking Levy, Nottingham City Council
  10. Introducing default 20mph speed limits, Welsh Government, 2022
  11. Written Statement: The role of Corporate Joint Committees, Welsh Government, July 2022
  12. CO2 performance of new passenger cars in Europe, European Environment Agency, September 2022
  13. Drivers are keeping cars for longer: Almost a quarter now have more than 100,000 miles on the clock and average vehicle age is up, This is Money, May 2022
  14. Welsh transport appraisal guidance (WelTAG), Welsh Government, November 2022
  15. Average household income of individuals by whether household has access to a car or van for private use, Wales and the UK, ONS, October 2021
  16. Accommodation type, tenure, rooms and bedrooms, central heating and car or van availability in England and Wales, Census 2021 data

Photo: Dean Ward