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Kings of the road


Pressure to build roads has been a unique characteristic of the 20th century. Judith Cruickshank reports.

At the end of the 19th century there were probably no more than 10,000 motor vehicles in existence worldwide. Transport within towns was entirely horsedrawn but for long distance travel the railway reigned supreme. Country roads were used only for journeys between villages or to the nearest market town. The roads themselves were in poor condition - rutted, potholed, often badly repaired, dusty in summer and muddy in winter.

Mass car production began in Detroit in 1901 and five years later worldwide output was running at around 50,000 vehicles a year, 60% of them in Europe. Soon motorists were joining other road users pressing for higher standards of road maintenance.

An answer came in 1901 when the Nottinghamshire County Surveyor noticed that a barrel of tar which had burst and run over a road lightly covered with slag from nearby iron furnaces, resulted in a dust-free hard wearing surface. The result, after some experimentation, was TarMacadam.

Despite the efforts of the emerging roads lobby, no new arterial roads or important bridges were built in Britain before 1919. During the First World War road works were curtailed. Just two years after the end of the war construction of a series of bypasses designed to remove through traffic from town centres began.

The Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s sharply reduced the funds available for roads. Some work was put in hand as part of the effort to reduce unemployment. By 1935 some 800km of bypass had been completed, but this represented less than half the schemes contemplated. A more positive action was the formal establishment in 1933 of the Road Research Laboratory to investigate road materials and design as well as some aspects of road safety.

As early as 1914 a road dedicated to motor vehicles had been built in the US and a further experimental stretch opened in Germany in 1921. The first high speed motorway (100km/h) was built in Italy and opened to traffic in 1925. But it was Germany's autobahn programme which really fired the interest of the County Surveyors Society and the Institution of Highway Engineers. Both put forward ideas for national roads network in the mid- 1930s.

In 1939 a select committee report on road safety finally agreed that Britain's road system was inadequate and out of date. Only 448km of important new roads had been built in that previous seven years and work on trunk roads had declined The Committee suggested that an experimental motorway be built and its effect on road safety and traffic levels studied. But the outbreak of war in September 1939 put an end to this idea and during the war years only roadworks which considered strategically important or near to completion were allowed to progress.

The 1946 Trunk Roads Act brought more roads under the direct control of the Ministry of Transport and extended the powers of the Minister but it was not until the 1950s that there was any sign of Government committment to road construction.

In 1956 the economy was starting to improve again. Harold Watkinson, then Minister of Transport, announced five major road schemes to which 'overriding priority' was to be given. This list included what were to become the M1 and the M4.

By 1962 the Government announced plans complete 1,000 miles of motorway by the early 1970s. The next 20 years saw the basic structure of the motorway network in place and considerable upgrading of other roads.

Much was learned about roadbuilding in those years. Design skills, geotechnical knowledge, construction methods, surfacings and structures all developed with the build up of practical experience, backed by the work being carried out at the Road Research Laboratory.

The RRL also carried out environmental studies into the noise and pollution arising from road traffic, reflecting growing concern about the effects of roads and traffic on the environment.

Opposition to new road construction grew from the 1960s onwards, culminating in the violent protests such as those against the completion of the M11 link in east London and the construction of the M3 across Twyford Down in the 1990s. Nevertheless successive governments pushed ahead with colossal roadbuilding programmes using them to boost or deflate the economy by increasing spend or axing schemes accordingly.

The early 1990s heralded a decade long boom in road construction with the Tory government's Roads For the Future White Paper promising a £10bn spend over 10 years. It never materialised.

Recession in the early 1990s produced repeated rounds of road spending cuts and in 1994, 50 projects were struck off what had become a modest road construction programme at a stroke. It was a sign that road building was going out of style.

Road maintenance budgets suffered too and annual road condition surveys revealed an ever longer backlog of essential work postponed due to lack of funds. Where roadbuilding was deemed essential, Government turned to the private sector with contracts which covered construction, finance and maintenance.

Public opposition to roadbuilding continued to grow, fuelled by Standing Committee on Trunk Road Assessment report which concluded that new roads had the effect of creating extra traffic. Congestion had also slowed traffic in major cities to the point where average speeds were similar to those of a 100 years ago.

Labour swept back into power in May 1997. The following year its New Deal For Transport White Paper and subsequent daughter document on roads dealt a killer blow to the traditional 'predict and provide' philosophy which had always underpinned roads programmes.

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