TRAFFICATION: How cars destroy nature and what we can do about it
Paul F Donald
Pelagic Publishing, 2023, 288 pages
Hardback: £20 | ISBN 1784274445
Review by Janet Mackinnon
According to Paul Donald’s Preface, Traffication is “the first attempt at a book (in any country or language) that tries to synthesise in plain language all the many impacts of road traffic on the natural world.” The author continues:
“My initial intention was to focus as much as possible on the situation in my home country, the UK, but for reasons I cannot fathom the new science of road ecology has almost entirely by-passed us here.”
‘Road ecology’ seems to have emerged from the Netherlands and United States during the 1990s. A 2015 (updated) Wiley Online Library Handbook of Road Ecology “offers a comprehensive summary of approximately 30 years of global efforts to quantify the impacts of roads and traffic and implement effective mitigation.”
The book’s title word, traffication, is an expression coined by Donald intended to appeal to both a lay and scientific readership and broaden the reach of road ecology. Published as a hardback in 2023 by the independent Pelagic Publishing, the book is clearly written with an engaging style. It is well-researched and has been positively and widely reviewed.
The author has worked as a leading scientist for the RSPB and Birdlife International. He is an Honorary Research Fellow of the University of Cambridge and a recipient of the Zoological Society of London/Marsh Award for Conservation.
Donald’s aim is to highlight the role of ‘traffication’ in global nature decline, whilst retaining some focus on the UK, and to raise its profile as an existential threat to the natural world, inviting comparison with agricultural intensification and human-induced climate change. He concludes with wide-ranging recommendations for ‘de-traffication.’
These measures include: fundamental changes in land use planning to favour public transport and active travel; policies to reduce new environmental problems associated with private electric vehicles; and ‘ecological’ modifications to the existing roads network.
As someone who has been involved in opposing major road schemes as well as traffication more generally for nearly 40 years, I want to caveat one of the author’s key propositions whilst totally supporting his broader thesis. At the beginning of Traffication, Donald opines:
“…I am still waiting for the conservation movement, along with the general public, to wake up to the reality that road traffic poses threats to wildlife that are every bit as serious… (as agricultural intensification and climate change)”
Both the conservation (as part of wider environmental) movement and general public, through numerous local action groups, have been defending green and built environments from road construction and traffic since the advent of the motor vehicle. Indeed, as Donald notes, this was a key motivation for the creation of National Parks in the US.
In the UK, a vociferous grass-roots anti-roads movement had emerged by the 1970s in response to the development of inter-urban and urban motorways and trunk roads. Unfortunately, government scientists and others working for engineering firms skilfully argued that schemes did not pose a significant threat to the environment and wildlife.
A notorious example of such professional gaslighting, was the appearance of the late Professor Kenneth Mellanby, founder of the Monks Wood Experimental Station, on behalf of the then Department of Transport who proposed to build a dual carriage way through Oxleas Wood, an ancient woodland SSSI in South East London. The scheme, incidentally, was successfully challenged and I shall return to its enduring lessons at the end of this review.
Returning to Traffication, in addition to being an extremely useful reference for contemporary anti-road activists, the wider sustainable transport movement, ecologists and conservationists as well as policy-makers, this book will appeal to citizen scientists involved in road ecology research of the sort being undertaken by Cardiff University.
Donald certainly succeeds in his central mission “to synthesise in plain language all the many impacts of road traffic on the natural world.” Chapter by chapter, he painstakingly navigates the development of ‘traffication’ as manifest in: the modern expansion of road networks and vehicle numbers, together with increasing traffic speeds and pervasiveness; the extent of wildlife roadkill, significant changes in behavioural ecology particularly linked to habitat loss and fragmentation, plus the use of road corridors by invasive plant and animals.
In the latter category, the author includes humans, quoting Brian Appleyard’s description of the car as the “Anthropocene’s battering ram”. Appleyard co-authored James Lovelock’s final 2019 book Novacene in which artificial intelligence is prophesised to become what Boris Johnson called “world king”, a role attributed to the automobile in Appleyard’s own 2022 offering The Car: The Rise and Fall of the Machine that Made the Modern World.
Others have been less enthusiastic about the human-technological ‘footprint’ and Donald also quotes an early 20th century Nobel scientist who prophesised: “the day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and plague.” According to Donald, there is now a “growing consensus among many road ecologists that soundscape pollution is one of the most damaging impacts of traffication, perhaps outstripping even roadkill.”
Donald goes on to detail other widespread and insidious impacts of traffic pollution, emphasising these extend far beyond damaging vehicle emissions. He cites a 2019 UK Government report, noting “abrasion (from tyres), and not combustion, as now the most important producer of particulate pollution from vehicles.” Other problems include, microplastic and salt runoff, as well as prevalent light pollution.
As for Traffication’s contention that the conservation movement and general public need to wake up to the scale of the problem, comparison is unintentionally (but appropriately) invited with the HS2 project when the author points out later in his book:
“The total amount of money spent each year on wildlife conservation by all the world’s governments, private donors, charities and other sources combined, is less than the projected cost of Britain’s HS2 rail scheme, which will destroy acres of ancient woodland to shave 20 minutes off a journey between London and Birmingham.”
This cost projection was before cancellation of HS2’s northern section: a move that should be much welcomed by the many community-based groups together with environmental NGOs, including latterly Extinction Rebellion off-shoots, who have strongly contested the scheme; albeit the ecologically devastating southern route remains under construction.
Similarly, the ‘de-traffication movement’ has won important battles, if not yet the war on traffic, and continues to make significant progress. I mentioned opposition to road proposals through South East London’s built and natural environments co-ordinated through People Against the River Crossing and described in The Campaign to Save Oxleas Wood (re-published in 2021). ECOS 1991 (4/12) covers this and other 1990s anti-road campaigns.
The 1990s protests ultimately helped contain the UK government’s road-building programme and created an era of more sustainable transport planning, albeit not without some highly damaging schemes going ahead. However, the 2021-23 Wales Road Review is testimony to the prevalence of a more progressive approach in some parts of the UK.
Meanwhile, local alliances of community, environmental and conservation groups, like Better Shrewsbury Transport (who helped secure nearly 5,000 planning objections to a proposed ‘relief’ road) continue to oppose the combined problems of traffication and urban sprawl. The latter is widely recognised as one of the existential threats to nature conservation at a global level, and especially in crowded smaller countries.
Traffication is an outstanding contribution to the public discourse which challenges the dominance of the car as a mode of transport (globally, walking remains far more important) and the prospect of ‘Autogeddon.’ Along with a call for shifts to other modes, Donald makes numerous practical recommendations for reducing the impacts of traffic on wildlife. I very much hope his words are read by any conservationists who have not yet woken up to these.
Black, David; with illustrations by Atkinson, Jaqueline (for People Against the River Crossing) The Campaign to Save Oxleas Wood (1991/3 and 2021)
A shorter Campaign to Save Oxleas Wood presentation by Anji Petersen is on YouTube.
Black, David (1991) Oxleas Wood: A Common Inheritance; ECOS 4(2).