UK needs to get over its ‘motorway-phobia’

I wrote eighteen months ago about the need for England to build thousands of miles of new motorway. Other than a few extensions in Scotland, new no stretches of motorway have been built in the UK for over a decade. Neighbouring Ireland has built hundreds of miles (in a country with a twelfth of the population); comparable European countries such as France and Germany typically add hundreds each year.

It is a bizarre thing that the very notion of constructing a “motorway” has been cleaned off the political agenda entirely, including in Northern Ireland. While over the border 53km of motorway are being constructed in the rural west of Ireland, the notion of building an actual motorway anywhere in Northern Ireland (or probably of any length anywhere in the UK) is simply beyond debate.

The easy reaction is to suggest that this is for “environmental reasons”. If it is, it is nonsense. Not building “motorways” does not mean not building “roads”. In Northern Ireland alone, the A1 Newry Bypass, the A4 Dungannon-Ballygawley and the A8 Newtownabbey-Larne have all been constructed to expressway standard (with grade-separated junctions) and 70mph limits – so have the precise same environmental impact. Now the A26 Glarryford-Armoy and A6 Randalstown-Castledawson are under construction to the same standard. Lots of other such roads are currently planned (not least the infamous A5 Derry-Aughnacloy upgrade).

In Northern Ireland (as in England and Wales), “motorway” status, formally, is simply conferred upon a road (in theory almost any road, but in practice those built to at least 70mph design standards with grade-separated junctions) to designate its special status, notably restricting its use to vehicles over a certain power (i.e. not bicycles, tractors and such like). This is potentially quite important, as it clearly designates a high-speed road for cars and lorries in opposition to a general all-purpose road available to all users (including pedestrians). It is clear, when you see blue on the map, that the standard you are getting is a 70mph multi-lane road with grade separation throughout. Green, on the other hand, can be anything, from an urban thoroughfare with bicycles, pedestrian lights, school crossings and 30mph zones, to a full multi-lane expressway with a “hard shoulder”, stopping restrictions, prohibitions for certain vehicles and a 70mph limit.

It is helpful to road users to clarify the distinction – which is why almost every country does! Most notably, given their design standards (in practice) almost invariably include an emergency lane, long slip roads, wide lanes and variable speed limits, “motorways” are by far the safest roads.

To be clear, there is a case for not formally designating at least some of the aforementioned new roads “motorway” (for example, it is not so easily done if the road is built “online”, i.e. is an upgrade of an existing road, not least because there is generally no clear alternative route for bicycles and tractors). However, it hard to believe none of these could be constructed to motorway standard and so designated. For example, almost the entirety of the A5 proposal is “offline” with plenty of room to construct long slip roads and graduate bends as required – given that the old road would exist as an adequate and relatively traffic-free, all-purpose route for cyclists and tractors (compare the old N1 between Belfast and Dublin), “motorway” status for the new A5 would make clear sense.

Removing “motorway” from our vocabulary when it comes to new infrastructure is not in fact helping any cause. We build the roads anyway – just not quite as safely. We should re-introduce it… maybe alongside the word “toll”…


5 thoughts on “UK needs to get over its ‘motorway-phobia’

  1. bangordub says:

    I was on the M1 / A1 yesterday as it happens and guess what, on the stretch between Dundalk and Jonesboro I met a good old tractor straddling the hard shoulder and inside lane at 25 MPH. ( That’s my morning rant over)

  2. Most obvious candidate for motorway status is the new A6 to be built from Randalstown to Toome – almost dead straight, direct continuation of the M22 and no intermediate junctions.

    • The problem is, that one is already decided. Unfortunately!

      I’d have thought Derry-Dungiven (though not the bypass) and Omagh-Strabane are far enough away that plans could be altered accordingly?

  3. […] No sooner had the CEO of Belfast International Airport tweeted that a crash on the main A57 road from the M2 to the airport demonstrated his case for a dual carriageway, Assembly candidates were lining up to agree – indeed, one first-time candidate for the local constituency instantly called for a motorway. […]

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