Rt Hon Ruth Kelly, MP, Secretary of State for Transport celebrates the anniversary of what was a major step forward into the modern era of travel
Much has changed over the 50 years since Prime Minister Harold Macmillan opened the UK’s first 8-mile long stretch of motorway in December 1958 – the Preston Bypass, which is now part of the M6.
For anyone who has seen photos or film from that period, the main difference is obvious: the first motorways were practically empty compared to the high traffic volumes of today's network.
In England today we have over 4,350 miles of motorway and major 'A' roads. Motorways account for approximately one per cent of the total road length in England, but carry 20 per cent of all road traffic and 40 per cent of all heavy goods vehicle traffic.
There have been many other changes over the years that we now take for granted – not least the introduction of the 70 mph speed limit, safety barriers in the central reservation, and a whole host of other features that have helped make motorways the safest roads to use on a per vehicle mile basis.
The UK has been a world leader in making motorways as safe as possible, but the advanced engineering that lies behind modern highway design did not develop overnight.
Indeed, some of the original motorways would not even meet the standards of many modern ‘A’ roads. Advances in junction design, hazard warning signage, barriers and even the asphalt and concrete used in the road structure have all helped drive down casualty figures over the years.
The rise of the motorway has also proved to be a great boon for the country’s economy - heralding easy access for high volume goods, lowering costs for producers and prices for consumers. Just as importantly, it has enabled more and more people to enjoy greater mobility as the motorway network developed across the country bringing families and communities closer together.
The tremendous success of our motorways in enabling greater mobility also presents us with some fundamental challenges. The idea of concreting over the countryside to meet ever-rising traffic volumes is today a non starter. It is now generally accepted that we cannot just build our way out of congestion and that we must find more creative solutions to the problem.
In part, that is why the government commissioned Sir Rod Eddington to review how we could best balance our need to deliver a globally competitive transport network with our obligations to the environment.
Of course, the Eddington Study covered all transport modes rather than just the road network, but the lessons we’ve drawn from its findings have helped us formulate a more sophisticated view of how we can move toward a more effective – and lower carbon – transport future.
Choice and reliability
In terms of the road network, much of that thinking is reflected in our recent policy document ‘Roads: Delivering Choice and Reliability’.
Our proposals are backed up by a £6 billion investment package that is designed to get the most out of the existing road network, as well as cutting congestion and enhancing safety.
This includes much-needed investment to complete important works at pinch points in the system, including widening schemes on the M25 in Kent and the M1 in Hertfordshire and Nottinghamshire, as well as a series of other important upgrades across the country.
Extending the current motorway network is only part of the story. We are also proposing to extend the innovative - and successful - M42 hard shoulder running pilot, which is designed to give drivers more reliable journey times and reduce congestion.
Active Traffic Management
This approach of ‘Active Traffic Management’ which combines the opening up of the existing hard shoulder at busy times of day together with the provision of tailored information for road users, will be a great help to drivers at peak travel times.
We are already examining how the concept might be applied to sections of the motorway network previously planned for widening, and at some new locations including the M3 and M4 approaches to London, the M4 and M5 around Bristol and the M3 and M27 around Southampton.
At the same time, we are considering how to make best use of the extra capacity, including looking at successful examples of car share and tolled lanes in America and Europe.
This is an exciting step forward for motorways in the UK and should go some way to maximising the efficiency of the network so that people can enjoy more reliable journey times.
Development for the future
It's also an interesting time for the traffic that will be using motorways in the future. Here, for example, the government is determined to encourage the development of new technology to bring low carbon vehicles to the fore. This is particularly important at a time when high global fuel prices are creating even stronger incentives to innovate in terms of electric cars, hybrids, hydrogen fuel cells and sustainable biofuels.
Embracing such advances will be vital as we look toward a lower carbon future that is more sustainable, more cost-effective, and one that offers greater travel choices for everyone.
Given the tremendous contribution that motorways have made to our lives over the past five decades, it is right that we take this opportunity to celebrate the anniversary of what was a major step forward into the modern era of travel - and I am sure that the motorway will continue to play a key part in our lives for many years to come.