Friday, 14 January 2011

Road Investment Set to Slow

In 2009, over 4,500 people died in car accidents in Poland, the highest number in any country in the whole of the EU. This figure is just the tragic tip of the iceberg, with drivers and pedestrians having to survive in an infrastructure which, amongst others, lacks decent motorways and ring-roads and where the city streets are pitted with pot-holes and jammed full of fuming vehicles and drivers.

The drastic situation on Poland's roads is the result of the transport policy pursued over the past two decades. During Communism car-ownership was a luxury, there was little traffic and the road system was underdeveloped. Those who were able to obtain a car would usually have to make do with a poor quality one (such as the infamous mały Fiat) and struggle to obtain petrol to run it. Following the collapse of Communism the car became available to a far wider section of society. It was now not just a vehicle for transport but a symbol of status and wealth. It was a signal that one was no longer reliant upon the state and its public transport system. Individual ownership of the car was equated with freedom.

This change in system meant that while in 1990 41.3% of passenger transport was on the road, by 2009 this had risen to 85.5% (the EU average is 83.5%). Likewise freight transport on the roads grew from 32.8% to 75.9% (EU average 76.4%) over the same period. This shift to the car led to a decline in the use of trains, with the share of passenger travel on the railways falling from 30.6% to 6.2% (EU average 7.3%).

Now it could be stated that this was an example of Poland catching up with the West and modernising its economy. There is of course a wider question about whether cars should be the main source of transport in any country, particularly due to the environmental damage and loss of human life. However, this is a matter that affects all countries in the world and is hardly specific to Poland. What is particularly concerning about the situation in Poland, is how the rise in the ownership and use of cars has not been matched by a subsequent investment in the infrastructure upon which these cars have to drive. Someone may buy themselves the shiniest, most expensive car and drive it out of their private garage inside their gated community on their way to drop their child off at their private school; but they will still have to drive on a public road to do so. In jargonic terms the authorities allowed a huge rise in private goods, while under-investing in the public goods which they are dependent on.

The result of this policy has been that in 2008 Poland only had 765km of motorways nationwide. As a comparison, much smaller countries such as Belgium had 1763km and Holland 8450. Even Poland's neighbouring countries such as the Czech Republic (691km), Hungary (858km) and Slovakia (384km) fare much better than Poland when land-mass is taken into account. This has led to a situation where any journey across the country involves driving along single lane roads that pass directly through villages and towns, polluting the inhabitants that live there. Add into the mix the presence of transit lorries and an element of irresponsible drivers and one has a lethal cocktail.

Nevertheless in recent years there has been a significant increase in road building in Poland. This has been instigated by gaining access to EU funds for investment in the country's infrastructure and the impetus given to developing the transport system after becoming joint hosts of the Euro 2012 football championship. Therefore, between 2008 and 2010 51.8m zł was invested in the country's roads and motorways, 2m zł more than the total spent during the previous 13 years. This investment programme is not confined to Poland, although it is the major beneficiary. A programme of investment in roads, partly funded by EU money, is occurring throughout Central Eastern Europe with a planned 1,717km of motorways (41% in Poland) and 1,231km of express-roads (66% in Poland) planned to be built in the region between 2010 and 2013.

It is of course highly questionable whether such investment should be going into the roads, while the railways have been continually underfunded. The point to be made here is that both of these infrastructures have been neglected - at a high human, social, economic and environmental cost. If the government is going to allow an explosion of car ownership to occur then it must provide decent and safe roads, whilst also offering an alternative public transport system to lure people away from their cars. With the government failing to so-far invest significantly in the railways, it has prioritised the development of the road system. However, it seems that even the future of this investment is now in question.
In order for the Polish government to receive EU funds must also commit at least 15% of the cost of any investment project itself. In 2010 around 20m zł was spent on road development, with about 12m of this sum coming from the EU. Simply put, the more a national government is able to invest itself, the more it will be able to gain from the EU (within the confines of the set budget) and the further the whole investment project will go. For Poland it is essential that it takes advantage of the situation it finds itself in now, with the largest sum of structural and cohesion funds in the 2007-2013 budget allocated to it. Thereafter, it is totally unclear what money will be available in the 2014-22 EU budget, with many of the richer countries trying to tighten the purse strings.

One of the successes of the PO government had been its ability to gain EU funds and begin a number of investment projects. However, the government is now beginning to rein in the amount of money that it is prepared to spend on investment in the roads, as part of its general attempt to curb public spending. So while an impressive 20m zł was spent in 2010 this was down from the 30m previously planned. Also, the 38.6 and 33.3m zł ear-marked for road building in 2011-12 has now been cut by 19m zł. A number of projects have been shelved and delayed till after 2013, although, as explained above, no one can be clear as to what money will be available after 2013. Government investments, partly funded by the EU, have kept the Polish economy growing throughout the global economic slowdown as private investment has slumped. It is only by increasing its efforts to further this investment that the Polish economy will be able to continue to grow. This is not just an immediate economic imperative but is necessary for the country to make full use of the funds that are only temporarily available from the EU in order to help the country take a developmental step forward. This really is more important than self-imposed restrictions on the size of public debt.


  1. Dear Gavin,

    thanks for your thoughts. I'm a regular follower.

    I agree, Polish roads are not exactly safe. But I think your focus on road construction takes a wrong perspective.

    In my opinion, one of the main reasons for the accident prone situation is the irresponsibility of car drivers, combined with a widespread implicit assumption that the space between buildings (or trees and fields) belongs to cars.

    Take Warsaw for example: the average speed on roads here is much higher than what's allowed and (more or less) safe. Many car drivers seem increasingly impatient when pedestrians or cyclists cross their way - on a traffic light. (No generalisation intended here. But my experience is it gets worse.)

    But the more fundamental problem is the second one, the reign of automobiles in people's and authorities' heads: even now with more and more discussions about making the city bike friendly, newly renovated roads more often than not lack a bike path - although there'd be by far enough space for it (e.g. ul. Francuska to name but one).

    To come back to your argumentation, I'd say road investments should be made mostly into renovation and safety improvements of current roads, including improvements of pedestrians' and cyclists' safety. (This also applies for non-urban areas, where zebra crossings over express ways for example don't have a traffic light.)

    If you ask me, instead of building new or upgrading old roads and highways, the focus of Polish infrastructure would ideally be on rails and other public transport. As you mention here and have pointed out in another post, there's enough to do on that front too.

    Given the damage that roads inevitably have on nature and climate, and taking into account that adding capacity doesn't always ease traffic congestion but can even increase it (let alone increasing the dominance of automobiles over other traffic participants), more or wider roads isn't a solution. Car traffic needs to be reduced and shifted to other means of transport to reach a long-term solution.

  2. I agree with you Sven and thanks for your comments. I was trying to make the point that the authorities have allowed an explosion of car ownership without providing the infrastructure for it. This has been combined with an idea of the right to use a car where and when one wishes. Priority should be given to public transport to encourage its development and pull people away from cars. In the cities like warsaw there should also be some policies such as increasing non-car areas, introducing a congestion charge, etc. Problem is we have the worst of both worlds at the moment - loads of cars and terrible roads.

  3. agreed. thanks for clarifying.


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