Crumbling Britain: roads

Over the Labour years car ownership has proved ever more popular. Thanks to global competition and new technology cars have got better and better, and the cheaper ones more affordable relative to incomes. People value the flexibility and freedom the car brings them. The car is never late for them but they can be late for the car. The car goes from home to where they want to go, rather than from one difficult to reach station to another difficult to reach station in the centre of a congested town. The car can take all their luggage and their friends and family. They can play the music of their choice or listen to the radio programme of their choice whilst travelling. It’s too good a package for the railways to counter for most journeys, and there are so few spare railway slots and seats at peak hours anyway.

Labour set out to get people out of the car. Aggressive policies were designed to limit the amount of effective road space in towns and cities, to control speed, and to remove capacity from highways by new signals and other controls. We were all urged to leave the car at home and take the train or the bus. Livingstone excelled at these brutal anti motorist policies, introducing the policy of only the rich should be allowed to drive in London with his £8 (formerly£5) a day charge for anyone determined to use the car. Despite all the exhortation, despite the restriction of road space and capacity, and despite record subsidies to the railways, the use of cars and roads went up and up.

After a few years of building no new roads, the government relented. They at last began to grasp the simple arithmetic. As only 6% of our journeys are by rail, if you expand rail by 50% (a task they failed to achieve) that only deals with one year’s growth in overall travel demand. The rest of the growth over the ten years goes by road. Every time you have the wrong kind of snow or engineering works on the line, the good old road system just has to take the strain of extra demand.

The truth is that after a decade of underinvestment the UK is short of transport capacity of all kinds. Yesterday we looked at ways of stimulating much more rail investment. Let us assume government does this and let us assume it works – two big ifs. Even so we will need much more road capacity.

In the Economic Policy Report we proposed a short term and a longer term programme to create more road capacity. The short term programme can be easy and relatively cheap. It means reversing the worst of the clumsy restrictions imposed on the existing highway network that are getting in the way of the smooth flow of traffic at busy times of day. Out should go the all red traffic light sequences for traffic introduced at some crucial junctions (e.g. Victoria Street in London), and the ultra short green light phases (Trafalgar Square London). Where possible junctions should be widened to allow the segregation of slow moving right turning traffic form traffic going straight on or turning left. Artificial chicanes should be taken out and two lane running restored on wider main routes where this has been cut back to one. Bridges and tunnels should be introduced at larger city junctions where main route traffic could be allowed to flow unimpeded across the junction on a continuous basis by such investment.

For the longer term we need to improve the main routes, removing bottlenecks and increasing the number of lanes. The government has done a little of this on the M25 western sections with some success. We need to complete the dualling of the A303 to the west country, of the A3 to the channel ports of Portsmouth and Southampton, and the A27 south cost highway. We need more capacity on the M25, the A12, The A14, and the main M ways 1-6. Where there are competing routes we recommended offering a franchise on one of the routes to the private sector. In return for charging a toll for using the route the private contractor would be required to increase the capacity by road widening. If tolls are introduced on any scale other road charges and taxes would be reduced proportionately. Indeed the government could in the short term generate cash for the taxpayer by selling franchises for specified routes and time periods. The proceeds could be sued to repay public sector debt, and motoring taxes reduced by the amount of the interest on the debt saved.

We are in great need of more capacity on our highway networks. It is putting business off the UK, and putting more hassle into our lives as the daily inadequacies of the network hold us up. It is also the opposite of green as more and more hours are spent by more and more vehicles in traffic jams with engines running.


  1. Johnny Norfolk
    August 4, 2008

    Its good to see a realastic policy rather than Canute thinking.

    It is generally spot on and deals with life as it is, not as it once was.

    Something you can make sense of.

    Please keep all your policies like this in the real world and not labours Eutopia.

  2. Neil Craig
    August 4, 2008

    You are right about chicanes. They are merely a way by which anti-car politicos turn 2 lanes into 1, with unsurprising results.

    I think tolls are a very inefficient way of financing things because collection is expensive & produces its own congestion. Measuring traffic flow is easy. It would be possible to divide the vehicle excise duty proportionately to journeys & give a legal right to companies that want to build new roads to receive the proportionate amount of that duty. That would also mean roadbuilding decisions ceased to be a political football.

    1. mikestallard
      August 4, 2008

      A really good thing about toll roads is that people are so mean they use the local roads rather than pay the toll. I noticed this in Spain at Torrevieja – for a couple of quid, you got a really fast, excellent road for some forty miles. And, it was empty! My son, who has just come back from France, tells me exactly the same (sad?) fact about human nature in France.

  3. Freeborn John
    August 4, 2008

    If anyone designed a data network or telecommunications network the way the motorway network has been designed they would likely be fired. Communications networks all include alternative routes that both increase capacity (by sharing the load) and provide alternate routes when any one link is broken. When an incident blocks a motorway, as for example last Monday on the M4, there are no real alternatives for the traffic to use so we see massive tailbacks. There should be an outer M25 which would allow traffic to route around major incidents on the motorways that converge on London. One or more of the existing lesser roads, such as the A404(M) or A309(M) could be upgraded and extended to form a true outer orbital.

    The planning process seems dysfunctional in that it appears to be more politically acceptable to add lanes to the M25 (which will then likely all be blocked by a single incident) than either to build new 2-lane alternative motorways or upgrade A(M) roads to full motorway status.

  4. Freeborn John
    August 4, 2008

    Edit: Should have said A329(M) rather than A309(M).

  5. Derek W. Buxton
    August 4, 2008

    Another excellent article but, I fear, doomed to failure. For every John Redwood there are thousand of little Hitlers running town halls all over the country. Many of them are Lib-Dems who hate motorists, apart of course from themselves, just as much as the socialists do. I know, we have them. Having deliberately caused congestion they now want to charge us to cross the M60. The A6 road into Manchester was a four lane road for most of the way and traffic flowed, now it is two lanes and there is congestion. Not surprising really, but try telling our local nabobs that. It is the money they want, ever more of it, end of story.

  6. mikestallard
    August 4, 2008

    This is an obviously true article and how can I disagree?
    Yet I do have a niggling doubt. When i stayed in Texas, at San Antonio, you had a lovely historic town (the Alamo?) which was deserted except for a few drunks. Round the ring road, you had the Malls and Shopping Centers. You could drive, on a raised motorway, through the town center too. It killed off any form of urban pride.
    Dubai, I find, is a bit the same. You drive through it rather than to it.
    My own dear little Wisbech is now stringing out along the feeder road and the centre is full of second hand/charity shops.
    Handing over to the car seems to me to present problems.
    Now Amsterdam has been handed over to the cyclist – and that is a really lively little place. So is Cambridge.

  7. Acorn
    August 4, 2008

    Those Redwoodians who have travelled sur la Continent, will have noticed the "E-Route" designation numbers on these roads. You may be aware that the UK has never recognised this international routing system. Mainly because we have embarrassingly few roads that meet the E-Route specification.

    One reason for this is the fact that we do not construct our roads as a collection of "lanes". You will rarely see a sign that says "left lane must turn left". UK road designers still insist on merging lanes far to often at motorway junctions. On a three lane motorway the inside lane should become the "off ramp" and the two outer lanes should continue until thay are joined by the "on ramp", after the junction, to make three lanes again till the next junction. This way you reduce the "brake wave" of the new traffic merging onto the motorway, by far the greatest cause of traffic coming to a stop, a mile back from the junction, for no apparent reason.

  8. no one
    August 5, 2008

    i would just adopt all the british association of drivers policies, hook, like and sinker

  9. wrinkled weasel
    August 5, 2008

    We need to look into molecular transporters, a la Star Trek.

    Seriously, for a moment, both local and national government see cars as first a source of easy revenue. Railways are just not taken seriously anymore, which is a shame because we sort of invented them.

    There is one thing that could be done in order to change the way we consume transport and that is to subsidise or give tax breaks to one type. If you remember, diesel used to be cheap and people bought diesels, then it was biofuels, and probably marsh gas after that. Until governments actually invest in transport for the good of the country, rather than merely using it as a source of revenue, consumers will opt for the cheapest thing. Until someone taxes it.

  10. William B.
    August 5, 2008

    We have very few tolls in this country and I would guess the vast majority of drivers have never encountered one. Their apparent success in providing new roads without draining the public purse, as in many parts of Europe and the US, certainly makes them worth experimenting with here. But there is a problem. The cost will fall only on those who use the new toll road whereas off-setting the anticipated receipts against general motoring taxes will be spread among all drivers. I can see many commuters and delivery firms having legitimate cause for complaint that they are paying a disproportionate amount for their journeys, particularly when they can see a non-toll road being built elsewhere. This is a particular problem in these days of drivers feeling they are already a cash cow for the empty governmental purse.

    So far as traffic in towns and cities is concerned, I doubt that there is any way of improving matters in the long term, especially in London.

    It is necessary to balance volume of traffic (we don't want too much), against free-flow (we want that), against safety for pedestrians (so we can't have too much speed).

    The more cars in the city (bad for quality of life of residents) the slower traffic flows (good for safety of pedestrians, bad for drivers). We can remove chicanes and change traffic light sequences (good for flow of traffic, bad for safety of pedestrians), but in doing so we will free-up capacity and lead to more people travelling by car rather than bus (bad for flow, good for safety of pedestrians).

    Road use in busy cities must be rationed. It can be rationed by price (as with the congestion charge) or by comfort (if you can't get around conveniently by car because it is too slow you will look for a better alternative). It is necessary, in my view, for some brutal honesty on this issue because it simply is not possible to accommodate all the people who would like to drive into and around our busy cities. For every irritatingly long red light there are drivers waiting to get back into their cars once that light has been shortened, the free-flow of the 1960s will never be achieved again.

    I would suggest leaving towns and cities to decide on their own policies and that central government should only have policies for the national network.

  11. David
    August 10, 2008

    Congestion in London could be reduced by mimicking `the big dig` in Boston where lengthy tunnels were built. Some toll road tunnels joining the different motorways which terminate in London (with the occasional exit ) could take a lot of traffic off the roads in London.

    Those who wanted to get across significant chunks of London without 100 sets of traffic lights would be prepared to pay for the convenience (and speed).

    Capacity needs to be increased in other areas also. I have experience of the Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham areas and extra capacity would be popular in those areas.

  12. f.f. Mitchell
    August 28, 2008

    Having just come back from a holiday in Germany, it was doubly shaming to see yet again the dreadful state of our roads compared to theirs. Yet this is a state that has a marvellous railway system with heavy freight and passenge traffic, and wonderful urban transport systems with trams and metros galore.

    How can we call ourselves a successful economy when our roads and transport networks are so awful. The Germans, and the French seem to be able to build things, yet all we do is pay millions to useless consultants to find excuses for doing nothing !

    We can't even build an A303 tunnel near Stonehenge, yet in Italy, the motorways pass through mountain ranges with ease with twin 2-lane and in some cases 3-LANE tunnels ! (look on the map near Genoa, if you don't believe it)

    1. Peter Roberts
      April 2, 2009

      Everything said in John's report is spot on except the selling of the roads to investment companies and the issue of tolls.

      Drivers already pay £50 Billion every year in motoring related taxes and government spends just £5.88 billion on the roads. We are seeing £44 Billion in motoring taxes spent elsewhere and nobody will accept tolls on the roads we already own when £44 Billion is being wasted.

      Roads are the arteries of the nation and a provider of economic viability. Without good roads; towns, cities and businesses wither and die. We cannot run our nation from bus stops or railway stations.

      Roads are required and the freedom to use them without tolls or road pricing is a basic human freedom which should never be compromised. The toll roads on the continent are mostly in socialist countries.

      John Redwood is not a socialist.

  13. Judi Dalton
    April 16, 2009

    I get depressed when I see the sea of posts, fences, and garish posters in my neighbourhood, especially at the Winnersh crossroads at Sainsbury's. It feels as if I live in a prison camp. This is repeated accross the county and the country.

    Instead of fences, why can't we insist on 'defensive hedging' i.e prickly hedges that would be more of a deterent than a fence? The ecological advantages of hedges barely need pointing out these days, except, it would seem to the council planners. Thorns, berries, purfume, oxygen etc etc. I defy any burgler to scramble through Rosa Rugosa.

    It's so easy to put up fences and posts, but why do I feel so hemmed in all the time?

    Instead of traffic lights at complicated junctions, why can't we have a police or traffic constables to stand on a podium and judge which is the most needy stream to let through? I have waited at a red light often when there is no traffic for the other streams. They would also be able to note traffic regulation violations in place of cameras, and be a police presence.

    I would be happy to go to any meeting where a fence is proposed to argue the case for a hedge.

    We could lead the way with a pilot scheme, to reduce 'forests of posts', with 'forests of growth'.

    Reply: Hedges can be better than fences, but it is a matter of personal taste. I favour lights with traffic sensors to improve flows at light controlled junctions. Having a police person at every jucntion 24 hours a day would be very expensive.

Comments are closed.