2 December 2020

UK Road History: How Motorways Helped Change The Way We Live And Travel

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes, 50 seconds. Contains 1967 words

For many people in the 21st century, we take fast-speed roads for granted. They’ve become such a staple of life that we really don’t think of how much they’ve impacted our country. Merely 60 years ago, the concept of travelling across the country on high speed roads was a new, exciting concept. It opened up the nation to new visitors.

Part 1: The Early Stages

Back in the very early 20th century, roads weren’t numbered like they are now. As the motor car started to gain popularity, the government at the time were forced to acknowledge the then-poorly maintained road network. Thus set up the government body known as the Road Board in 1914. The Road Board went on to tax motor car users. This was with the intention of using the taxes to fix and improve the country’s roadways.

At roughly the same time, other countries such as the USA were drawing up plans for their own motorway-like roads. Something the UK government was becoming increasingly aware of.

Through the taxes, the Road Board found themselves with more than enough money to begin fixing the network. There was one looming question however, that would hinder the board’s plans for some time – which roads should be prioritised first? The group tried to answer this by aiming to classify roads across the country in a manner similar to today. Additionally, surveying traffic to determine which roads should be prioritised first.

One major delay affected the Road Board’s plans for our road network – a little something that you may have heard of – was World War 1. With the country’s focus on war, the thought of reorganising the road network had to be shelved for some time.

Part 2: Introduction Of The A-Road Network

After the war, and with almost little to no progress on fixing the country’s road network, the government realised a reshuffle was needed. The Road Board was then replaced by the Ministry of Transport, who quickly got the job done. In 1922, they announced the network of A and B roads we’re all familiar with today. The A roads 1 to 6 would each stem from London, with 7 to 9 stemming from Edinburgh. Between each of the primary roads would be designated zones, and each following A road would be named after the zone they begin in (for example, the A40 begins in the 4 zone.)

The story was far from over, however. With an ever growing number of cars, more space would be needed to accommodate all the extra traffic. A few dual carriageways were built here and there (many around London), but nothing extraordinary to alleviate traffic.

One of the first inner-city motorways was proposed in 1922 by politician Lord Montagu. He suggested that as it was almost impossible to widen roads at street level in London. A new motorway should be built on viaducts, with supporting structures that could contain flats and offices.

Of course, the idea of working in an office or living in a flat that supported a major motorway probably didn’t sound too appealing, and the idea was quickly dropped. That didn’t stop Lord Montagu from proposing an even more ambitious idea – a motorway that would connect London and Liverpool. This motorway would pass through Coventry, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Stoke-On-Trent, and Manchester. It could technically be considered as a predecessor to the M1 and M6.

The road was largely supported, especially by Newcastle-Under-Lyme. But there was some disinterest from the government at the time. One of its most surprising opponents was the President of the Commercial Motor Users Association. They did not believe that motorways would be of any interest to trade vehicles.

Meanwhile, much of Europe was already beginning to build their own highways. Italy opened the first motorway-like Road in 1924, known as the autostrade. Germany, meanwhile, opened their first autobahn in 1932.

Part 3: Post-Second War Progress

Unsurprisingly, the outbreak of World War 2 put a hold on major road projects once again. However, the first real sign that the government was dedicated to building high speed roads came in 1949, when the Special Roads Act was approved. This act allowed the construction of roads that could prohibit the likes of pedestrians and non-motor vehicles.

Work began on what would become the first motorway in the UK in 1956. A dual 2-lane road to the east of Preston, which would eventually be known as the Preston Bypass. Preston was chosen as its location in the North frequently became a bottleneck for long distance traffic. This was the meeting point for those wishing to travel towards Scotland, and those wanting to holiday in Blackpool. Building the UK’s first motorway here would help to alleviate the heavily congested roads.

Other motorways in the pipeline included the Stevenage bypass (now A1(M)), the Newport bypass (M4), both sides of the severn bridge (Now M48, originally M4), and the Port Talbot bypass (M4).

There was a lot of internal debating going on as to how to number these new roads. Should they follow the current A road numbering scheme, adopt the E-road system used in mainland Europe, or use their own unique number scheme? It was only in September 1959, almost a year after the opening of the Preston Bypass and only 33 days before the opening of the M1, when a national numbering system for motorways had been decided and agreed upon.

Part 4: The First Motorway – Falling In Love

The Preston Bypass opened on 5th December 1958, and was immediately popular with travellers and those who just wanted to try out this new piece of road. Not only was this road the first of its kind in the UK, it was also used as a guinea pig to test features that would later be featured elsewhere on the motorway network.

Shortly after, the M1 (along with the M10 and M45) opened from North London to Rugby. Back then, motorway driving was very different today. There were no speed limits, just 60 miles of uninterrupted roads. People were going out just to experience what the motorway was like, with the road becoming a tourist destination in its own right. Tour buses would even take passengers across the entire road, and Watford Gap, the first service station in the country, became a must-see destination for travellers. Soon, as more long-distance motorways sprang up across the country, people were travelling to all sorts of new destinations that were once almost impossible on the very-congested A road network.

The 1960s was the biggest era in motorway development. Different road projects were being constructed all across the United Kingdom. The government also pledged to build 1000 miles of motorway by 1970. This notion was fulfilled by 1969, one year earlier than expected, and only 11 years after the first motorway was built. Large urban roads were connecting major cities together, and travelling long distances was becoming easier than ever. By 1970, it was possible to drive between London and Leeds. The M6 was also nearing completion, whilst the M5 and M4 were beginning to take shape.

As the country was beginning to build long-distance rural roads, there was this sudden realisation that these motorways could potentially help alleviate traffic issues in city centres too. Many cities were starting to draft proposals for their own inner city highways, including Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, and perhaps most famously, London.

Part 5: Falling Out Of Love

It goes without saying, that whenever there is excitement, that excitement eventually fades away. As cities were planning their own highways to plow through the streets, many people had an idealistic vision of futuristic roads flying above the city. However, when the A40(M) Westway opened in Central London in the early 1970s, it showed the country the true reality of inner-city highways.

London had massive plans, the likes of which will probably never be seen again in this country. This included 4 separate ring roads all around the city to help cope with the ever worsening traffic situation. This plan was known as the “ringways”, with ringways 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Ringway 1, the closest to central London, was deemed to be the most necessary road to build first. It would have most likely been the most intrusive of all the ring roads. Parts of this road were built, such as the M41 and A40(M). These gave Londoners a sight of the harsh reality of these roads. They destroyed neighbourhoods and were placed at second-floor level, meaning they were a huge eyesore and noise pollutant for all the houses unfortunate enough to be within close proximity of the road. Londoners subsequently protested against these intrusive roads, forcing the city to eventually cancel whatever hadn’t already been built at the time.

The government set to looking towards building more rural motorways, which were seen to be much less intrusive. Many new roads were planned out, but had to be cancelled as a result of the 1970s oil crisis.

Part 6: Environment Issues

The 1980s saw very little road improvement, aside from patching up road gaps and the full opening of the M25. As well as the economic impact of the oil crisis, people were starting to realise the effect motorways were beginning to have on the environment. Progress was finally starting to return again with the full opening of the M40 from Oxford to Birmingham in 1991. However, it wasn’t long until the final nail in the coffin was hit.

The M3 from London to Southampton had a large gap around Winchester. This led traffic to head onto the 1920s A33 dual carriageway, which was not built to cope with heavy loads of motorway traffic. Plans were made to fill the gap, but this involved demolishing an Iron Age hill fort (St Catherine’s Hill). Another plan was proposed to construct the motorway to the west of the city. Both of these plans were cancelled after public inquiries. The only options left were to either to construct to the east of St Catherine’s Hill and plow through Twyford Down (an area of natural beauty), or build a tunnel under the hill. As the government deemed building the tunnel to be too expensive, plowing through Twyford Down and cutting a gouge through the side of the hill was chosen instead.

Naturally, this proved to be extremely unpopular with environmentalists who did not want to see Twyford Down torn apart by a motorway. As a result, there were protests in the tens of thousands as the motorway was constructed. Such protests even included permanent encampment and standing in the way of vehicles. It’s rumoured that the cost of the  police to move the protesters away eventually cost more than it would have done to just build the tunnel.

Though the M3 was eventually completed, road construction was never the same again. Almost every major road project following in the 1990s gained protests inspired by the events of the M3. Various motorway and A road projects had been cancelled in the following years. The word “motorway” almost became taboo instead, with many future projects essentially being motorway in everything but the name. The M60’s completion in 2000 was the last public funded motorway project for a long time. The M6 Toll only survived cancellation through privatisation.

Part 7: Acceptance and Change?

Ever since the beginning of the new millennium, road build has slowed down massively. Instead of finding ways of alleviating traffic, we’re trying to find more ways to get people off the road instead.

However, since the 2000s, numerous major road projects have still gone ahead. On December 5th 2008, the M6 was finally completed with the extension to the Scottish border. The A1(M) extended to connect Newcastle Upon Tyne with the rest of the motorway network. The A14 finally had its long needed expressway built around Huntingdon. Scotland has also been building more roads to complete its network. This has included the completion of the M74 into Glasgow, the extension of the M80, and the extension of the M90 to the rest of the motorway network.


M1 Motorway under construction
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Ben Brooksbankgeograph.org.uk/p/1725911

Knighton: Pre-Worboys road sign
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Nigel Coxgeograph.org.uk/p/1527986

Motorway Sign M6 Lancashire” by robert wade, used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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