As the government promises faster broadband for schools and an estimated 4 million work from home, should the government invest in faster broadband rather than faster roads?
That's the question being posed by Chris Stark, head of the Climate Change Committee. He argues it would be better for the environment and the economy to expand fast fibre optic networks throughout the UK.
The government's current plans for the UK's road network depend on a 1% growth year on year for travel. But with over twice as many remote workers as ever before, travel demands may shrink rather than grow, making expanding the full-fibre network the cheaper choice.
The government has already committed £5bn to ultra high-speed broadband to cover every home in the UK in the next 4 years.
The new normal
The AA has already predicted that the change in our travel habits will prove permanent and that the pandemic will alter forever the way we work and travel. Stark agrees, citing advice from psychologists who believe the longer the lockdown lasts, the more willing people will be to accept lasting change and a shift towards a 'new normal'.
In his coronavirus budget, chancellor Rishi Sunak promised a number of showpiece infrastructure projects to help Britain build its way to a recovery. So should broadband take precedence over roads?
A fundamental shift?
What is not yet clear is whether a fundamental shift in the way we live, work and travel has actually taken place. And it's equally unclear what benefit additional funding would deliver to the gigabyte scheme when the original funding has yet to be deployed and the network remains currently unbuilt.
While the quiet digital revolution may see more of us working from home than ever before, it remains to be seen whether that transformation will have a long-lasting impact. What is certain is that the road network will still be needed in the UK, whatever the long term impact of the coronavirus pandemic on our work and commuting habits.
There remain any number of jobs that can't be done remotely. And in the event of a future lockdown, the road network will once again prove a lifeline for essential deliveries. The Covid-19 pandemic may have given society pause to reconsider its priorities, but should we confuse a reduction in congestion with a shift away from prioritising the building and maintenance of our roads?
Long road to recovery
As the latest PMI figures make clear, there's a long road to recovery ahead. And the government's large scale infrastructure projects will be critical, especially in a post-pandemic 'new normal'. Many construction firms have used the big pause to re-assess and enhance their strategy and will be focusing on the requirements for new homes and regeneration supported by large scale infrastructure projects such as HS2, Gigabit broadband and a better road system.
Driven by state investment and a commitment from the government to such large scale projects, the question shouldn't be fast roads or fast internet? The question should be why should we need to choose?