There have been rumours for months. Now the announcement has been made - “all new Smart Motorways scrapped”. What does this mean for the Smart Motorway project and for the roads programme?
Smart Motorways have been the subject of controversy for years, and a thorn in the side of successive transport ministers who have found it difficult to handle the increasingly vocal campaign against them. Last year, Rishi Sunak pledged he’d scrap them if he became Prime Minister, and now he’s done just that. Sort of.
In this blog post - which is very long, because there’s a lot to talk about, so you may want to find a comfortable seat - we’ll try to cover the Smart Motorway story to date and figure out where we are now. But before we get to what has happened, and whether it will please anyone, we should have a quick recap.
What’s a Smart Motorway?
We have a whole article describing Smart Motorways and the things you’ll find if you travel on one, but this is the simple answer: a Smart Motorway is one that has been rebuilt to provide more running lanes, uses technology to manage traffic flow, and in almost all cases, has occasional lay-bys instead of a continuous hard shoulder. Some older ones have a part-time hard shoulder that is used as a running lane only when it’s busy.
They are the product of a policy for the English trunk road network that has been evolving since the 1990s. Roadbuilding is politically difficult, so it’s rarely possible to relieve a congested motorway by building another nearby. That usually makes widening the only workable solution, but widening an existing motorway is the slowest, most difficult, most expensive and most inefficient way to provide extra capacity: bridges have to be rebuilt and carriageways relaid with new profiles, all while live traffic continues to run.
A cheaper way of doing the job was needed, and it arrived in the early 2000s, when many of England’s dual three-lane motorways were reaching saturation point and money for widening was scarce. A fourth lane could be added quickly and cheaply if the hard shoulder was sacrificed, with the advantage that no bridges had to be rebuilt, the carriageway didn’t have to be modified and - since no new land had to be acquired - no public inquiry or planning permission were needed.
Today long lengths of the English motorway network have been converted.
From Solihull with love
The controversy started years ago. In 2006 the Highways Agency (as it was then called) inaugurated a prototype called Active Traffic Management (ATM) on the M42 near Solihull, east of Birmingham, opening the hard shoulder to traffic when the road was congested. Emergency lay-bys provided a place to stop when the hard shoulder was unavailable.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) was unconvinced on day one, telling the press that "using the hard shoulder as a running lane may make it more difficult for drivers to find somewhere safe to stop if they break down as the emergency refuges are only spaced at intervals along the motorway.” Back then refuges were about 500m apart, roughly three in every mile.
The Highways Agency’s promise in September 2006 was that the road was monitored by CCTV, and the new electronic signs would let them close the lane if a vehicle came to a stop. They told the BBC that “it won't be a case of waiting for someone to contact us, we'll see straight away.” That original scheme had CCTV cameras every few hundred metres.
The ATM trial was considered a success, reducing congestion for a fraction of the cost of widening the M42. More projects were then rolled out, initially under the name Managed Motorways, and later as Smart Motorways.
Over time, the concept evolved. Many Smart projects grew to involve new earthworks and extensive carriageway reconstruction, and took years to complete - bringing the timescale and cost closer to traditional widening. Meanwhile, camera coverage and technology were considered too lavish on early schemes and were scaled back, and emergency refuges were placed further apart.
The original concept of Dynamic Hard Shoulder Running (DHSR), opening the hard shoulder to traffic some of the time, when the road is busiest, gave way to All Lane Running (ALR), which replaces the hard shoulder with a permanent running lane, meaning the road always has the same number of lanes, but never has a hard shoulder.
The cold shoulder
In the seventeen years since the first ATM trial, optimism has been tempered by reality. Stranded vehicles being seen “straight away” proved to be simply untrue: National Highways control centres don’t have the staffing to watch all the cameras all the time (how could they?), so breakdowns usually have to be reported by phone before the signals are activated.
In March 2016, official statistics showed the average time between an incident occurring and signals being activated was a worrying 17 minutes. Since then, automatic Stopped Vehicle Detection (SVD) has been rolled out to all Smart Motorways, but too late to reverse the horrifying impression that had already been made.
Response times are one reason to be angry. Another is that people have died after becoming stranded in live lanes on Smart Motorways, in situations where the presence of a hard shoulder might have saved them. In every case, there had once been a hard shoulder and it had been removed. Refuges on newer Smart Motorways can be up to a mile and a half apart.
Opposition to the concept of Smart Motorways is now well organised, led from the front by the starkly-named Smart Motorways Kill campaign. The press is actively hostile. Questions are raised in Parliament. Coroners issue damning verdicts. Shot through all of this is the same overarching fear: that these roads are not safe, because the hard shoulder has been taken away.
Then, in 2022, Rishi Sunak saw his opportunity to enter 10 Downing Street, and issued a campaign pledge that he knew would be popular. No more Smart Motorways!
That one simple phrase leaves a lot open to question. Time for some answers. They might not be the answers you expect.
What does this announcement change?
Not much. In 2019, transport secretary Grant Shapps paused the Smart Motorway programme and ordered a “stocktake”, which was a safety review of sorts that made recommendations for improving safety and public confidence.
Among its proposals were the installation of more emergency refuges; a large-scale public information campaign; automatic Stopped Vehicle Detection that would trigger “report of obstruction” messages on signs; updates to the Highway Code; and camera enforcement for lanes that were closed with red X signals.
Since then all Smart Motorway projects yet to start have been on hold. This week’s announcement is basically to say that the temporary halt has become a permanent end. Two projects that are mostly done (M56 J6-8 and M6 J21A-26) will be finished. It also mentions that the number of new emergency refuges to be retro-fitted to existing Smart Motorways is 150.
The Smart Motorway programme has been grinding to a halt for almost four years now, and official use of the term was abandoned long ago. Some projects, like the M4 Smart Motorway between London and Reading, had the phrase “digital roads” on project information signs through the roadworks, where previously “Smart Motorway” would have been used. On other projects in the pipeline for 2025-2030, vague titles like “M1 North Leicestershire Extra Capacity” had started to appear, in a deliberate attempt to avoid a name that had become toxic.
The wheels had already come off the bus. It’s just official now.
Is this the end of Smart Motorways?
No. There had been speculation in recent weeks (including from the RAC, who might have known better) that existing Smart Motorways would be re-painted back to three lanes and a hard shoulder. That is not going to happen. It would, for a start, cause huge traffic problems. Smart Motorways exist to increase capacity, and demand has increased in many places because that capacity has been provided. Removing it again would make the traffic worse than ever before, and that’s not a recipe for safer roads.
What’s actually happening is that the current situation is being frozen. We will still have Smart Motorways, though official use of that term is probably going to be abandoned. We’re just not going to convert any more.
There are something like 240 miles of Smart Motorway in England - not as much as you might think, once you add it up - made up of both DHSR and ALR sections. They will all stay as they are, though the safety improvements already announced will continue.
Is this a return of motorway widening?
No. There is no promise here to replace the abandoned Smart Motorway projects with something else. That leaves some overloaded motorways without a plan.
However, many that were due to start in recent years have seen roadworks beginning - not for widening, not for capacity improvements, and certainly not for Smart Motorway works, but to build all the elements of the project that weren’t a Smart Motorway. That usually means carriageway reconstruction, drainage works, communications upgrades, and replacement of the central reservation with a reinforced concrete barrier.
This is happening in part because those things were needed whether or not the road was converted to Smart Motorway - major roads need this sort of periodic renewal every couple of decades and many Smart schemes included all that stuff. It’s also happening because of the way public infrastructure projects work: the money had been allocated, the contracts had been signed, and if the entire scheme was cancelled National Highways had nowhere else to spend money that they had to spend before the end of a particular financial year.
So there are now projects happening that were supposed to deliver extra capacity in return for years of disruption, but which will now just deliver the same road as before with a new central reservation.
Here’s a summary of where we are today.
|M1 North Leicestershire Extra Capacity||Not started, due 2025-2030||Cancelled|
|M1 J35A-39 Extra Capacity||Not started, due 2025-2030||Cancelled|
|M3 J9-14 Smart Motorway||Work started 2021, due for completion 2024||Smart Motorway elements cancelled, will deliver no new capacity|
|M6 J19-21A||Not started, due 2025-2030||Cancelled|
|M6 J21a-26 Smart Motorway||Work started 2021, due for completion 2024||Going ahead as planned, will deliver four lanes each way with ALR|
|M25 J10-16 Smart Motorway||Paused since 2019||Cancelled|
|M40/M42 Interchange Smart Motorway||Paused since 2019||Cancelled|
|M56 J6-8 Smart Motorway||Work started 2021, due for completion 2024||Going ahead as planned, will deliver four lanes each way with ALR|
|M62 J20-25 Smart Motorway||Paused since 2019||Cancelled|
|A1(M) J6-8 Smart Motorway||Deferred in 2019, funds diverted to provide recommendations from the stocktake||Cancelled|
There is no replacement for these cancelled schemes - at least, none that has been announced. And that makes perfect sense: we can’t build new motorways to relieve the old ones, we can’t easily or affordably widen them, and now we can’t convert them to Smart Motorways either. There isn’t another option. So, in the absence of other ideas, that’s it.
Does this prove the campaigners were right?
No. Which is not to say the people campaigning against Smart Motorways are wrong - it’s just that this announcement isn't here to give them what they want. If anything it is designed to take the heat out of their campaign and get Smart Motorways out of the headlines.
Claire Mercer, who leads the Smart Motorways Kill campaign group, summarised it nicely on Sunday. While she welcomed the news, she said that “it's the existing ones that are killing us”. The existing Smart Motorways are not going anywhere. So, for the people who want them gone, this is hardly the fulfilment of their goals.
All of which brings us to the vexed question of safety.
Will this make motorways safer?
No. It doesn’t matter which way you slice it or what your opinions are. The answer is no.
We should start by putting the emotion to one side and asking how safe Smart Motorways actually are.
The stocktake gave us useful statistics to work with. The result may be surprising: Smart Motorways are, statistically, among the safest roads we have. But while the overall balance of risk may be lower on average, the risk of specific things happening could still be higher than on other roads - and that’s the problem.
Many risks are reduced because speeds are lower and there is more enforcement. Tailgating, loss of control, unsafe lane changes, drifting off the carriageway and speed-related incidents are all reduced. As a result, the overall hazard to motorists on Smart Motorways is calculated as being 20% lower than on a conventional motorway. But one risk increases significantly - “vehicle stops in running lane”, which is many times worse on ALR than on a motorway with a hard shoulder.
Smart Motorways see double the number of vehicles stopped in live traffic lanes due to breakdowns - 40% on ALR motorways, compared to 20% on conventional motorways. Interestingly, though, fast A-roads are much worse, with 52% of breakdowns in live traffic lanes and no sophisticated technology to mitigate the risk.
Meanwhile, collisions on the hard shoulder are often overlooked. 8% of motorway fatalities occur on the hard shoulder; 27 people died while stopped there between 2014 and 2017. It is not the safe haven many people imagine. Worse, many stops aren’t for emergencies at all: they’re to make a phone call or because someone needs the toilet. Every one is a needless risk to life, and if the road didn’t have a hard shoulder, in many cases the driver would have carried on and found somewhere else to stop. In other words, stopping on a hard shoulder carries a significant risk in itself; removing the hard shoulder not only removes that risk, but it actually reduces the number of vehicles that stop at all.
An average of 9,206 breakdowns and stoppages in live lanes are recorded every year, but only 19 result in collisions. That’s not to say 19 horrible rear-end smashes a year is acceptable, but it puts in to context the likelihood that a stranded vehicle on an ALR motorway will actually suffer a horrifying rear-end collision of the type that is so vividly imagined by some.
The other conclusion of the stocktake was that DHSR is less safe, and less well understood, than ALR. For all its faults, ALR provides a completely clear and unambiguous environment: there are four lanes, there are always four lanes, and there is never a hard shoulder. DHSR, by contrast, provides a road with a hard shoulder marking that you can sometimes cross and sometimes not; a place you can sometimes stop in safety and sometimes not; and lanes that may be open through a junction, or only up to the exit, or not at all. It’s common to see people driving in the hard shoulder when it’s closed and avoiding it when it’s open.
One major improvement to public safety would be to reduce the scope for confusion and misunderstanding by having just one type of Smart Motorway that operated the same way everywhere. That is why all DHSR motorways were due to be converted to ALR in coming years, providing a level of clarity and simplicity that Smart Motorways have been sorely lacking.
This week’s announcement has scrapped all those projects, because they count as Smart Motorway work, and all Smart Motorway work must stop.
So, to return to the question “will this make motorways safer?”, here is the answer from every perspective.
|Position||Does this announcement help?|
|"I believe all Smart Motorways should be scrapped and hard shoulders should be reintroduced."||No. All existing Smart Motorways will remain. Hard shoulders will not be reintroduced.|
|"I believe part-time hard shoulder running is safer because at least there’s a hard shoulder sometimes."||No. ALR motorways will not be converted to part-time hard shoulder running.|
|"The statistics show that ALR is safer than almost all other types of road. I believe we should follow the evidence."||No. Projects to convert DHSR to ALR have all been cancelled. We will retain the current confusing mix of types.|
|"We are stuck with Smart Motorways now but I believe they should be made safer."||No. Work is ongoing to add extra safety features to existing Smart Motorways but this announcement doesn’t change that.|
|"I believe Smart Motorways are the least bad way to add new capacity to the motorway network and deal with overloaded, dangerous roads."||No. All future Smart Motorway projects have been cancelled.|
By halting all progress and preserving the current jumbled situation in aspic, this announcement does very little for anyone - it is not a decisive commitment to anything, but rather a retreat from reason.
Not the road building industry, certainly, and not the campaigners against Smart Motorways. The AA and RAC, perversely campaigning for motorways to be narrowed back to three lanes, don’t get what they want. Motorists will continue to suffer multiple confusing types of Smart Motorway and, in many places, years of roadworks that will no longer produce capacity improvements; elsewhere they will no longer get improvement works at all.
The official press release is full of bluster about giving drivers confidence that the roads they drive on are safe - despite the fact that work to convert some existing Smart Motorways to a proven safer standard have been scrapped, and that Smart Motorways in general will remain. It also re-promises all the work that was already planned to install new refuges and improve the reliability of the brand-new Stopped Vehicle Detection.
There’s another reason mentioned in the announcement, though - one it’s quite happy to skip over quickly in order to get to all the good news. It’s there fleetingly in the first sentence and then barely mentioned again. The very first reason it gives for the announcement is “due to financial pressures”.
Inflation is high, and construction inflation higher still. The cost of infrastructure projects is spiralling, but the roads budget - set in five-year Road Periods - is inelastic. National Highways were already in the situation where it was going to be extremely difficult to deliver everything they had promised between 2020 and 2025, because the fixed budget needed to cover ever-rising costs. They had already started pushing some projects into the next period to save money.
Dropping billions of pounds of spending commitments is a great way to free up funds for the other things you have to do. It ensures some projects can still go ahead while kicking others into the long grass - long grass that is, now, on the far side of a general election. What happens to the road programme after 2025 might end up being someone else’s problem anyway.
If you really want to know who wins from an announcement like this, there is only ever one winner in government. It’s always the Treasury. The rest of us, no matter what we think of Smart Motorways or how we think the future ought to look, are left searching for fragments of good news in amongst this absence of a policy.
Note: this is an emotive subject. We'll be particularly cautious with comment moderation.
Some of you have been having a dig at the present government. Dont give them all the blame, smart motorways didnt suddenly appear in 2010. If anyone is to blame then it must be John Prescott as he was in overall charge of transport policy for most of the time that New Labour was in power. And lets not forget that one Transport Secretary (Stephen Byers) didnt have a driving licence.
And as for Canada, well I suppose thats the problem of a Federal Government.
You’re right that this is not a party political issue, both main parties had a hand in getting us to this point. But I think pointing the finger at specific named politicians is naive. No one person came up with this, it was - as the article points out - a policy that evolved over a 30 year period and it came largely from engineers and civil servants who were trying to find a way forward between the constraints of demands for increased transport capacity in parallel with hostility to road building and a limited roads budget.
This is not the result of one or two malicious, Machiavellian figures creating a devious plot. It took hundreds of people all acting in what they thought were the best ways to get us here. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
My point as regards to John Prescott was that he was the minister in charge. Ernest Marples when he was transport minister let Dr Beeching take all the blame for the rail closures, despite the fact that only the transport minister can authorise the closure of a rail line. As JFK said "victory has many fathers defeat is an orphan".
Prescott had the transport brief for four years and moved on in 2001, so he left two years before the ATM trial started. He would undoubtedly be the presiding minister for some of the project’s development, but he was hardly the only minister in charge of ATM’s development and he was long gone before any of the subsequent changes that led us from that trial to Smart Motorways.
Nor did Alistair Darling Transport Secretary, have a driving licence. He was the man who authorised speed camera revenue to be retained by the police. Fortunately that was soon abolished.
So the police switched to offering speed awareness courses where they are paid an "admin fee" which coincidentally brings the cost to almost exactly the same as a fixed penalty. Also means the courses are are among the highest revenue per hour of any in the UK.
I had the misfortune to break down on a SMART motorway a couple of years ago. The electronics on the vehicle had completely failed. The vehicle came to a grinding halt in lane 1 . Engine stopped, steering locked, in fact everything on the car had stopped working. Smart Vehicle Detection and advising drivers who were piling up behind me of a vehicle stopped in lane 1, would not have helped at all.
After grinding to a halt, miraculously the car started up after a few seconds stopped in that inside lane and I was able to drive on without suffering any injury. A very frightening experience
Speaking to an AA patrolman after the event, he advised me that complete failure of the electronics was the most common reason to scrap cars. Defects in bodywork, engine or gearbox were no longer the reasons why cars ended up on the scrap heap. Failure of the electronics would usually require their complete replacement and a £2,000 plus bill. This could affect any vehicle particularly those over 8 years old.
Needless to say, I scrapped my 10 year old Audi A6 even though it looked to be excellent condition. Failure of a vehicle's electronics can happen to any vehicle at any time and leave the vehicle sitting in a live line without any chance of reaching an emergency refuge, even if only 100m away.
Electric cars running out of power, will just add to this problem.
That's the price you pay for people thinking EVs are the answer to all of their problems, I suppose...
Let’s not forget ‘technology infill’ projects in the list of smart motorways by any other name. :-)
I don’t have a problem with the concept of smart motorways. It makes perfect sense to make the best use of the existing hard shoulders, which often go unused for the majority of the time and are expensive to provide in the first place. However, what I do object to is how short the new lay-bys are and how few there are on new schemes. They are so short that they don’t really have enough room to accelerate back into the traffic stream safely, particularly for long vehicles. Come on, one lay-by every mile just isn’t enough. Neither is three.
I understand the complications and cost of adding an extra lane. It involves the expensive rebuilding of all the bridges and extra disruption to traffic. Point taken. However, what I don’t understand is why hard shoulders can’t be reintroduced between the bridges. This has to be safer than what Smart Motorways currently provide. Yes, in some cases, it still involves purchasing adjacent land but at the end of the day, why is building another motorway a better option.
Traffic Engineers are already aware that building new roads rarely provide a proper solution to the problem of increasing traffic levels. They merely move the problem somewhere else and create additional local demand. Traffic management is about making the best use of the road space that we already have, hence the introduction of Smart Motorways.
The cost of replacing a hard shoulder should not be used as an excuse to save money when the safety of drivers who beak down is being compromised, or when emergency services need to get to incidents quickly.
If you want to make Smart Motorways more palatable to the public, reinstate the hard shoulders where this can be done without having to rebuild bridges along the routes. Where you can’t provide the hard shoulder, use the signing technology to close the near side lane when there is an incident.
When you stop in a layby there is a notice saying do not rejoin without using the phone, when you do so they will close lane 1 so you can accelerate to rejoin safely. Of course you are still going to be rearended by an audi undertaking everybody at 90 with scant regard for the red crosses......
I think that your comment is somewhat similar to mine, which is near the bottom of page 1.
Totally agree with Jemarkos.
Construct hard shoulders wherever possible but not at over and underbridges. The cost would be too high to justify widening and reconstructing the bridges. The cost of reconstructing bridges was always used to justify hard shoulder running versus a fourth lane with a full hardshoulder. Just curtail the hardshoulder for say 100m before each over or underbridge. There are only one or two over or underbridges per km of motorway, so you could construct a hard shoulder for at least 80% of the length of a motorway, without affecting structures.
It's disappointing that new signs, gantries and other roadside equipment is being constructed on Smart motorways immediately behind the the VRS. This will make it prohibitively expensive to provide any sort of hardshoulder past these obstructions in the future, as they will require reconstruction or re-siting. It almost seems a ploy to prevent any amendments to Smart motorways in future.
Make any future hard shoulders inhospitable places to stop. Reduce their width (say 2.5m) contrasting colour, cross hatching, steepen the crossfall (say 1:20), splay kerbs (75mm face) between lane 1 and the hard shoulder. Make it clear that these areas are to be used only for real emergencies . They should not be constructed to similar standards as lay-bys on dual carriageways which are used for rest breaks. Unfortunately hard shoulders on motorways appear to encourage temporary stops and non-emergencies.
A 2.5m hard shoulder is going to make swopping a truck wheel on the driver side a little more exciting than is it even now. And by exciting I mean lethal. There are a few recovery companies who already refuse calls to do this work.
I still believe these cuts will lead to more safety. Causing more congestion and reducing throughout on roads means some people will decide to take the train instead, which is a much safer option. IMO if we put more money into improving our public transit infrastructure and less into motorways, we'd be much better off as a country, in terms of safety, environmental impact, financially, and honestly, stress levels.
I see your point about trains, but there are major complaints about over crowding on trains. Thats because people have recently discovered that the railways exist, and theres the problem that the railway infrastructure is running at approx 98% of its capacity. So for some people the car is the best option. But 60 years ago there was the famous Beeching report and it said people werent using the railways, now look whats happened!
Referring to the Beeching Report is - with regard to the majority of lines it closed - erroneous. Because it's such an emotive subject (thanks in no small part to the human mind's predilection towards nostalgically hankering for a past that never actually existed in the warm, fuzzy, soft-focus way they imagine), people habitually tend to look at Beeching from the wrong end.
They say "these lines should never have been closed", whereas the more pertinent question is often "should these lines have ever been built in the first place?"
Of course there are examples which - if Beeching *had the benefit of a crystal ball* (spoiler: he didn't) - he probably wouldn't have recommended for closure. But there are many more which never had a snowball in hell's chance of ever turning a profit from the day they were built. The 'railway mania' was so called for a reason!
Once all these failing assets of competing commercial railway companies were nationalised and the taxpayer got to pay for it all, something had to happen. The UK railway system was in a hopelessly poor state and, at any given point in time, you can only react to what's in front of you. Nobody knows the future.
Also of note is that the so-called Beeching Report was actually called The Reshaping Of British's Railways and it proposed a great deal of desperately-needed modernisation. It wasn't called Let's Close A Load Of Lines Just To Irritate The Future Population.
Those who pillory him while hankering for a wet three mile cycle to Lesser Grumbling station, sitting in a freezing cold waiting room (no money for a fire in the grate) for the late-running 10.15 to Upper Snortington, sitting in a damp, leaky carriage as they trundle along at 10mph while looking forward to the four mile walk through the sleet at the other end (providing the 75 year old locomotive inherited by BR actually makes it) would sometimes do well to remember that.
Beeching wasn't the simplistic panto villain that so many fondly imagine he was.
I agree entirely with what youve said about Beechings report. As Ive said Ernest Marples was the transport minister and he shouldnt have been. He founded a civil engineering firm and in 1960 his firm (in which he was the major shareholder despite being transport minister!) got the contract for one of the flyovers in London. He had to stand up in the commons and apologise for the conflict of interest, and he had to sell his shares. The appointment of Beeching was seen as being skewed towards the roads lobby, and they were right. The Labour party during the 64 election had a manifesto commitment to stopping the closures of the railway lines. And of course they ended up closing railway lines that werent listed for closure. Here in Lancashire they closed the Colne to Skipton line, which has lead to a major campaign for the line to be put back. But Lancashire County Council are trying to upgrade the A59.
I think we're talking at cross-purposes but, as it's drifting off topic, let's leave it.
What I was trying to say was that basically this countrys transport policy is in a mess, and I dont think it will ever be sorted out. There is no real political will to actually sort it out.
TLDR: Don't put more lanes on roads, instead focus on alternatives to driving.
This is what I have to say about smart motorways:
The problem with putting more lanes in a road is that it doesn't really do anything in the grand scheme of things.
Think about it this way: You're stuck in traffic on a 3-lane motorway. As you're stuck in traffic, you think about a solution to traffic. Quickly, you come up with the idea to add another lane. Seems logical, doesn't it.
However, roads don't follow what you'd expect them to do. Instead, although traffic improves for a little bit (maybe 6 months - 1 year), eventually traffic returns to the same levels as it was. So, what ends up happening is £5 million+ gets wasted on putting a little bit of extra asphalt on the side of a road, that could've been spent on something more important, like finally switching our roads over to the metric system. It's like trying to put out a forest fire with a bucket of water. You might do a little short-term damage, but in the long-term, the problem will continue.
Then, how do you fix traffic? Simple. The only way to fix traffic is to provide viable alternatives to driving, and to make driving less convenient than those alternatives.
That's just my opinion. If you have a different opinion, that's good on you. Thanks for reading.
In the main, I agree with you.
I think there is a place for road upgrades in some circumstances, and I also think a lot of the modern road network's problems can be traced back to uncompleted plans meaning that some roads are carrying traffic levels far in excess of what they were designed for. But on the whole, yes, it would be better for everyone if pressure was taken off the roads instead of fighting a never ending war to keep the roads moving under ever more traffic.
The problem is that in this country, outside of large conurbations, public transport is an absolute joke and things are too far away to realistically walk or cycle. Its all good and well politicians bleeting about using public transport more, but for most things it is not a viable alternative. Its slow, inconvenient, unreliable and expensive. It doesn't matter how much you punish drivers, public transport is never going to be the better option until they actually invest in public transport.
Personally, I think the single biggest thing they could do is stop trying to pretend that buses and trains can be inherently profitable. They should exist as a public service, and whilst I do agree it is right for those that use it to contribute directly via fares, I see no reason why they shouldn't be subsidied by the state for the benefit of all.
As a concrete example, my commute by car costs about £4 (all in) per day and an hour of driving time (including the daily traffic jams at M2 J5). The same commute by local train & bus would cost in excess of £10 per day and takes 3 times as long. It really is a no-brainer.
Ever hear of Parkinsons Law? That law states the work increases to fill the time available. I think the same applies to roads, make a three lane motorway in to a four lane motorway then the traffic will increase to fill the fourth lane. As for the roads going metric, I wouldnt hold your breath!
This is true as far as it goes, but it really depends on what you think the point of widening roads is. From the perspective of an individual road user stuck in traffic, widening a road may result in induced demand that overwhelms the new capacity and leaves that individual road user still stuck in traffic on a wider road.
However, even if that does happen, there are other effects that ought to be included in the calculation. One is total throughput of vehicles. Your widened motorway with four lanes of heavy traffic is still carrying about 33% more traffic than it did when it had three lanes. It is also enabling 33% more economic activity since additional journeys are being made. It may also be reducing rat-running on other roads nearby or otherwise re-casting the routes that people choose, which might produce safety and environmental benefits and may enable other roads (potentially local ones with footpaths and direct frontages) to be re-engineered to provide better facilities for active travel.
Also, while induced demand certainly does happen, it doesn't automatically happen to such an extent that every widened road is as badly congested as before within a few years of opening. Most Smart Motorways flow much better now, while carrying higher volumes of traffic, than before they were widened, and do not suffer the sort of endemic stop-start congestion that we used to see 10-15 years ago on, for example, the M25 or the southern parts of the M1. Those levels of congestion may return one day in the future, but by the time that happens we will have had years of better vehicle throughput, higher average speeds and increased economic activity in the meantime.
Finally, metrication has its merits (and on a personal level I would support it), but to describe it as more important is very subjective: spending the money on that would not have provided the economic returns, nor would it have, politically speaking, pleased as many voters, as road widening does.
This ended up being a lot longer than I expected, but the TLDR is that we aren't in the 60's anymore, public transport improves as people move away from cars and metrication can become mainstream.
DISCLAIMER: I am not saying that I either support or do not support Brexit. It is used here as an example of a once radical political movement that became mainstream.
Sorry I'm replying late, but I've been a bit busy the last few weeks, and I just can't let this one slide.
Your first paragraph was really just a non-argument. The point of widening a road is to increase the capacity, trying to say it is anything else is absurd.
You then give the example that the total throughput of vehicles in increased. While this may be true, it doesn't address the fundamental problem at hand, induced travel demand. You've now got more people that are commuting by car, which worsens the problem of car dependency by making public transport less efficient, destroying city centres with parking spaces, et cetera, in addition to the air and noise pollution problems cars are so infamous for causing. You then mention that this will reduce rat-running, but the problem with that argument is that there are other ways to stop rat-running. It's not the 1960's anymore.
I sort of addressed your third paragraph above, so I'm not going to repeat myself. However, I will mention that cars are the worst possible transport for the economy. Although people say taking a car is cheaper, they need to remember that petrol is not the only expense, you also need to take into account MOT, maintenance, road tax, et cetera. You don't have to think about that with public transport, even though it is terrible outside cities, but remember, as more people use it, more routes will open, making public transport better in the grand scheme of things.
And for your last paragraph, this was a minor point of mine, but for me it's a hill to die on, so I'll still address it. While we are under the surface a metric country, the problem is that we still haven't changed the display of our road signs over. I reckon this could be done for less than £10 million, over the course of 5 years. At the end, all speed limits will change from mph to km/h.
There are indeed economic returns to doing this. There is quite a large chunk of evidence that the current state of affairs with metrication is causing problems with our numeracy, and ultimately dragging us back as a nation.
And finally, the problem with your argument about politics is that, if you shout loud enough, people will listen. This has happened before with Brexit. In terms of support, metrication now is at about the same place Brexit was in the 1990's.
Again, that's just my take on this. You're free to disagree, as that's a fundamental part of civilised discussion and our democracy (or what's left of it anyway). Thank you Chris, for maintaining this site for the last 20+ years as well, and thank you for reading this.
I appreciate that this is a response to Chris' post not mine, but I just wanted to address a couple of points:
Firstly you state "people say taking a car is cheaper, they need to remember that petrol is not the only expense". In my concrete example I gave above, I stated the cost was "£4 (all-in)", the all-in was intended to convey that I had included a rough approximation of splitting maintenance and upkeep costs across the year in that number as well as the cost of the petrol. The car is still cheaper and quicker. As another example, taking the train to visit my parents would take three hours by train and cost upwards of £40 return. The same journey by car takes less than an hour and costs £31 (return, all-in).
Secondly, you state "but remember, as more people use it, more routes will open, making public transport better in the grand scheme of things." I absolutely agree in principle; however it is a circular problem. Why would anyone choose, in the short-term, to sacrifice their time and money to use an inferior transporation service in the vague hope that at some point in the future enough other people will do so to prompt investment in that service? It really doesn't make logical sense on an individual level, such is the tragedy of the commons. The solution is to break the cycle - either by convincing lots of individuals to change their habits as you suggest (not impossible, but unlikeky), or by getting government and business to invest in public transporation so that it actually becomes a viable, even preferable option. Many governments in europe have done the latter, very successfully, but in the UK our government prefers to use the stick rather than the carrot, because it is cheaper, but also totally ineffectual.
Finally, on the subject of metricating the road system, I am fairly indifferent myself, but I do think it would cost considerably more than your estimate. In principle, every single sign that has any number measured in miles or yards would need to be replaced or at least over-stickered. This would be an enourmous amount of work by already-stretched road maintenance crews from, I think, about 100 different roads authorities of various sizes and efficienies. I doubt if there's even a complete list of all such signs in existence, so they would literally have to send engineers down every road to document the relevant signs before they can even start. Additionally, various bits of roads legislation would need to be updated, speed cameras would need to be recalibrated, and no doubt a huge amount of whitehall bureaucracy involved too. Given this, I would add a zero to your cost estimate and double your time estimate to £100 million and 10 years, at least. Would that be time and money well spent? Perhaps, but its not a politically savvy move in the current climate to "waste" money on such a thing. Maybe its time will come one day, but I don't think it will be anytime soon.
P.S. I watched the video you linked. Whilst the speaker does make an interesting hypothesis, it is just a hypothesis with no factual evidence offered in support except to say that British children do worse in numeracy than other western european nations, which may be true (I have not checked), but could be caused by any of a huge number of variables and I think that it is madness to pin it on choice of units system without additional data. Speaking personally, my education was almost entirely based in metric - imperial measurements (or "medieval" as the speaker derisively called them) were, to my recollection, used in a single maths lesson on unit conversion. I appreciate my experience may not be universal, but based on that experience it seems unlikely to me that the education system is at fault for confusing children with respect to measurement unit systems, if any such confusion exists at all.
I very much agree with you.
The main problem with anything I say is a) there is a lack of commitment from Westminster for anything I'm advocating for here, and b) 10+ years of austerity has reduced what little money gets to councils.
I definitely think with inflation getting worse that your estimate will probably end up being more accurate in the long run, but remember that this cost increases the further we delay.
So, in short, here's my agenda on car control:
- Demolish the M8 in Glasgow (and other similar motorways)
- Eliminate all parking spots in city centres
- Create reliable, hourly bus services in rural areas that are viable for use.
- Tax the living daylights out of big corporations that have a UK office (to pay for it all)
- Demolish airports (looking at you London City) and retail parks, and build dense, walkable (able to get to most place in under 20 minutes), nearly car-free (some vehicles like buses, emergency services and residents permitted) mini-cities in their place with spacious (100 m²) and affordable (<£100,000) houses, helping the cost of living and house prices take a nosedive. These would be built using robust, prefabbed components built in factories in the deprived North of England, putting thousands of jobseekers into employment, and reducing cost. (and no, these wouldn't be concrete blocks, they would look like brick buildings, along with an entirely brick-paved, pedestrianised street).
Final bill for car control: MINIMUM £40 billion, but it'll be worth it.
For metrication, I would:
- No longer permit supplementary indications on products
- Change most signs gradually, but speed limits in one go (see my response to 'Richard' for details)
- Change the pint. (I would adopt the 'Australia model', where the pint would actually be 570 ml, even though it would still be called a pint. In reality this would be a very minute change). DISCLAIMER: It goes without saying, but don't drink and drive.
That's about everything I wanted to say. I probably won't get around to saying anything extra.
Thanks to all three of you for commenting on what I said, allowing me to correct my mistakes and move forward in life.
We all know any extra road capacity will be filled. The issue is whether the extra capacity will be filled by people doing something economically useful.
Public transport should be encourages by making it cheaper, especially for families. Fact is it is almost always significantly cheaper to do a journey with your family in a car rather than by train or bus because your car costs the same to run whether one or five seats are filled. Many family journeys are not economically useful. There should be subsidies to move them onto rail/buses in areas with highest pressure on roads to free up capacity for those travelling to work or those working who need to use the roads.
The whole lot would be helped by road pricing that would encourage those with non-essential journeys to use roads at off-peak times but that is apparently politically unpopular even if in a revenue-neutral implementation most people would save money.
On road-pricing, I am indifferent to the proposal itself if it were revenue neutral as you suggest. However, I object on the basis that virtually all the suggested implementations inevitably involve mass tracking of individuals' vehicle movements, which I consider a gross and unjustified invasion of privacy. Yes I am aware that in practice virtually everyone is tracked in multiple ways, it is hard to avoid in the modern world, but that doesn't mean we should condone yet more of it.
I have to point out something about metrication. You cant change the road signs to metric over 5 years, what happens about speed limit signs? The Irish Republic did in fact spend 5 years changing over their roads signs(including speed limit signs) and their government said that was a mistake, I believe that in that 5 year period no one was done for speeding. Who will foot the bill for speedos and odometers to be changed? And back in 2007 this was raised at one of Blairs last PMQs and he said it had been costed at £700 million and that governments had better things to spend money on.
I sort of implied this, but if I was in charge, speed limit signs will all be changed, quite literally, overnight. The change would happen over a few stages:
Stage 1 (< 5 years to go): Equipment such as VSL and speed cameras will be made 'metric ready', speed cameras will be able to do mph and km/h, VSL up to 120, etc.
In addition, other signs will begin to switch.
Stage 2 (< 2 months to go): Councils will put up the new signs. They will be obscured, however, and have a plate underneath with 'km/h' or something similar written on them.
The public will be given the exact date, through letters via post, social media updates, and VMBs informing road users. The news will be very hard to miss.
Stage 3 (midnight of the changeover): Within a few hours, the councils will remove the obstruction on the km/h signs and add it onto the mph sings. Although they look identical to mph signs (other than the km/h indication), any red ring sign past this point will be interpreted to be in km/h, even if the plate is removed. (e.g. a 30 mph sign will be interpreted to mean 30 km/h). Equipment is switched over at this point as well. VMBs now say the changeover has happened.
Stage 4 (about a year on): Any plates or other metric indicators are removed from signs.
The £700 million figure is also a total lie, just like anything politicians say. There are 3 major cost-cutting measures:
1) Not all signs need to be replaced. There are many signs that carry no units on them, which will be unaffected by the switchover. Millions can be saved by realising this.
2) The signs that will need replacing will wear out. Signs on average only last a few years before they get too old and fade, so they need to be replaced. This gives a golden opportunity to update the sign. This saves money as well.
3) Not all of the sign's surface will need to be replaced. As an example, the '1/2 m' indication for an exit off a motorway can be patched over with '800 m' replacing it. Since you're not replacing the whole sign, you are saving even more money.
That is why it only will cost about £30 million MAXIMUM. That's about 50p per person.
As for Ireland, if you wanted them to go back, or any other country that's switched to go back, to quote what you said to me earlier, I wouldn't hold your breath.
In 1965 the Labour government announced that the UK would go metric. But one rider was that it was to be done with no cost to the government. So how do you make the roads metric with no cost to the government? And only a couple of days after being elected in 79 Maggie Thatcher scrapped the UK metrication board, which is why we have this half and half situation with metrication in this country. And the EUs only policy on the metric system is that it must be used for cross border trade, thats another reason why the roads havent gone metric.
If you are going to metrify, you might want to rethink junction numbering, and go with kilometre based junction numbers (get rid of the x-A, x-B numbered junctions) and make calculating distance all that much easier.
I'm a regular motorway traveller (for a multitude of reasons) - and I have to say I do not feel as safe driving on them with the lack of hard shoulder. An additional problem with all-lane running that if there is an incident and all lanes grind to a halt - there is no hard shoulder for a quick response time for any emergency vehicles.
Hard shoulder running at peak times is a good idea for short and busy stretches - near where I live in Bristol the short distance from the M32 to the M5 benefits from this as it's only about 2 miles long and when it gets busy as often slow so at lower risk - so I think short stretches like this can work.
I think the DHSR type is best as it allows road widening but also safety in hard shoulders. Maybe if people were more educated about it, then it would be nice.
ALR can work, but National Highways need to build more lay-bys for it to be safer, like with the first ALR motorways.
I think if you only want one type, you'll need to make it DHSR.
100% agree that Dynamic Hard Shoulders are the best type of Smart Motorways. For a start, the speed limit reduces to 60mph before they even consider opening the hard shoulder. All-lane running motorways run at 70mph by default with nowhere to go if anything happens. Drivers just need to look at the signs and the controllers need to ensure that the signs are accurate.
While the hard shoulder remains a dangerous place to be (and advice is to get people clear of vehicle and away from the asphalt all together), a vehicle stopping in lane one (breakdown so severe that limping to the refuge are isn't possible (see comment around electronic failure)) becomes a really serious danger to every other vehicle in lane one.
Driving on a motorway, drivers may have an expectation of an obstruction being far less likely than on an ordinary road (history of having things like hard shoulders available to keep lane clear of a broken down vehicle) and an all lane running motorway can deliver a nasty shock.
It all feels like the equivalent cowboy electricians just banging in rcds charging the printer way over the top, and ripping out all the earth wires to weigh them in for the scrap copper.
The really glaring thing for me having lived in the US and coming back to the UK infrequently is that when driving on the smart motorways how people now drive at the speed limit when going significantly over was the norm, now that the cameras are enforcing average speed.
There's certainly a lot more speed cameras on Smart Motorway sections, but to be accurate, they aren't average speed cameras. There is no approved type of average speed camera that can operate in a variable speed limit.
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- Cancellation of all Smart Motorway projects: "All new smart motorways scrapped", Gov.uk, 16/04/2023; "New smart motorway plans being scrapped", BBC News, 16/04/2023.
- Quotes from HA and RoSPA at launch of M42 ATM scheme: “Will hard shoulders ease congestion?”, BBC News, 12/09/2006.
- Statistics on motorway incidents: “Contributory factors for reported road accidents (RAS50)”, Department for Transport, 30/09/2020.
- Smart Motorway Stocktake: “Smart motorway evidence stocktake and action plan”, Department for Transport, 12/03/2020.
- Relative safety of different types of road: "ORR quality assurance of all lane running motorway data report", Gov.uk, 7/09/2021.
- Photograph of M42 near Solihull is taken from an original by J. Hannan-Briggs and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- Photograph of the trial emergency area on the M3 is courtesy National Highways.
- Photograph of DHSR on the M42 is taken from an original by Lewis Clarke and used under this Creative Commons licence.