Friday, December 05, 2008

Oh No, This Is The Road... To Preston

Never let it be said that the British don't know how to milk an anniversary to within an inch of its life. Between the local authority and the combined forces of the road lobby, much is being made of the fiftieth anniversary of Britain's first motorway; not the M1, but the Preston Bypass (now M6 J29 to M55 J1).

To add to the joy, Britain's newest motorway also opens today. Or to think of it another way, Britain's oldest motorway gets finished today.

Laugh? I nearly cried.

It's a testament to the level of chaos that passes for administration in this country that the best record of how the motorway network got to where it is comes not from government but from the enthusiasts. It's a history that every politician at every level should acquaint themselves with, if only to understand just how ludicrously ambitious politicians can get; you haven't truly understood the political animal until you've considered the possibility of the M13 Southend Southern Bypass (give it a moment, you'll work it out...) or the extent to which the M25 is, in fact, two different motorways hastily cobbled together with the civil engineering equivalent of gaffer tape...

The result, half a century on, is a classic Whitehall bodge job that spent so much of its time and political capital on London that it never managed to develop a coherent strategy for the rest of the country. There are roads that are almost motorways but not quite (A55), roads that were originally meant to be motorways but aren't (A50), roads that are motorways but don't need to be (M180) and the biggest category of the lot, motorways that give up before they get there (M4, M5, M42, M56, M62...)

Perhaps the most surprising element for those of us brought up on the idea that all new roads are evil a la Newbury and Twyford Down is that things are still progressing. With the Cumberland Gap now filled there's a continuous motorway from London to Glasgow and work is due to start soon on the last section of the motorway from London to Newcastle. As ever with these things, the Scottish Parliament is pushing on too (the M77 Kilmarnock extension is already open, soon to be followed by the M74 Central Glasgow extension and the completions of the M80 Glasgow-Stirling and M8 Glasgow-Edinburgh routes) and the Welsh Assembly, erm, well, yeah...

Still, it's not exactly the awe-inspiring future the pioneers of 1958 had in mind and neither is it likely to make much of a difference to the daily jams experienced by so many millions of people. Until the political will exists to actually tackle any mode of transport head on (third runways notwithstanding) the future of the motorways, and indeed everything else, looks increasingly congested.

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