When it was recently announced that the council had agreed to commit more than £6 million to ‘essential’ ring road repairs, there was little in the way of public outcry.

Perhaps not surprising given the strange emotional attachment many in the city have for this infamous 2.5 mile stretch of dual carriageway.

Ring RoadThe repairs are considered ‘essential’ too, so it’s difficult to find reason to object to repairs that will address potentially serious structural issues.  There will also be cosmetic improvements, including new parapets along the grade-separated sections and slip-roads, so anything that makes it even slightly less visually off-putting will probably get a grudging nod of approval from most.

That is how I suspect most reacted to the news, an indifferent shrug, and acceptance that needs must.  A reaction tinged perhaps with slight irritation that journey times may lengthen by a few minutes while the work is carried out. Getting home in time for the first round of Pointless might prove difficult for a time, but then there’s always Sky+.

What was notably absent from the reports that followed the announcement were any dissenting voices.  Nobody seemed willing to question the huge financial commitment required to repair and maintain a stretch of road that is underused, aesthetically offensive and essentially pointless.

This hasn’t always been the case.  The programme of repairs will cover a section of the ring road that stretches from junction one (Foleshill Road) to junction four (London Road), a grade-separated section that a decade or so ago was earmarked for demolition as part of the wider Swanswell redevelopment.

Swanswell Boulevard
Proposed Swanswell Boulevard

Announced with considerable fanfare, this was at the forefront of the council’s plans for city centre regeneration and was marketed as a game changer that would reinvigorate a run-down part of the city and open up large swathes of land for development.  For a short time there was the will, if not the money.  A change in political control of the city, followed by a financial crisis and recession, and the idea fell from favour, eventually disappearing from the agenda completely, never to return.

A pity, because while not without fault, the idea was an entirely sensible one.  It would have been expensive, the overall cost would have eclipsed to £12 million budget required for the upgrade and repairs we are now told are ‘essential’ and for which no alternative has been given. The disruption would too have been considerable, but worth it? Unquestionably.

The objection when any proposal to alter the ring-road layout is muted is always the same.  The ring road ‘works’ precisely because it is grade-separated and it allows the free flow of traffic around the city centre without obstacle and obstruction. But this is not true of course, because junction one is an at-grade intersection with a traffic light controlled island – an intersection not regarded as a bottleneck where traffic is known to build up.  This surely raises the question as to why the elevated section between this junction and junction four is needed – and judging by the low volume of traffic seen trundling along this particular stretch on any given day, the answer is that it isn’t.

Swanswell InterchangeJunction two is chronically underused, to the extent that there are regular reports of tumbleweed seen rolling down the slip-road.  The traffic that runs under the elevated section along Cox Street is light to non-existent even during rush hour.

Junction three, a hideous collection of slip-roads and flyovers which has inspired and influenced any number of dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels (I’ve made that up, but it’s probably true) is also eerily quiet most of the time.  The bottlenecks actually occur most frequently on the approaches to the ring road, particularly along the A444 and some way out from the junction itself.  The evidence is clear – this could all go, it just needs somebody of influence to stand up and say it.

But is it worth it?  The cost and disruption would be considerable, but any more costly long term than the costs of maintenance and upkeep?  If we take the long-term view, the benefits would be substantial, and yet we’re at the whim of politicians who tend not to think in the long-term.  They think in four year cycles, and anything beyond that isn’t really their problem.Flyover and slip-roads

The benefits are not just limited lower long-term costs of maintenance.  The amount of land that would be released for development would be enormous.  It is perhaps not apparent to those who drive along the grade-separated sections the amount of land the ring road swallows up, but this is not limited just to the footprint of the road and intersections, because large amounts of land either side are rendered unsuitable for most uses.

There are exceptions, Severn Trent and the proposed Bishopgate scheme will build right up to the ring road itself – but these are both sited adjacent to at-grade sections.  Even Friargate could not begin in earnest until the completion of the junction 6 ‘bridge deck’, considered very much an essential prerequisite such was the physical barrier the ring road created.

The recent proposals for a student block on Fairfax Street are perhaps the only real exception, but one suspects there won’t be too many developers rushing to follow this lead.  Perhaps this is the best we can hope for – yet curiously the same people who defend the ring road most passionately often seem to be the very same people who object when ‘yet another’ student residential building is proposed.  It is difficult to work out what it is they actually want.

The city council seemed to have dodged a bullet.  By labelling the works as ‘essential’, they seem to have sidestepped any criticism; there has been no dissent from within the council house, in the local media or from the public at large.

The truth is, while the issue might be a pressing one, these proposals are not essential.  They are an option, and they are the wrong one.

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