When is a motorway not a motorway?

Published on 15 October 2018

When it's an expressway, of course - the DfT's new category of high speed road. Except that an expressway is now, actually, a motorway too. Confused? Let us explain.

For a long time there were roads and there were motorways, and we all knew where we were. Except that some roads were upgraded until they looked an awful lot like motorways. Sections of the A1, A30 and A12, for example: uninterrupted dual carriageways with grade-separated junctions and multiple lanes. Some had hard shoulders. Some even had bans on pedestrians and cyclists. Motorways with green signs instead of blue ones, effectively, smudging the clean distinction between ordinary roads and proper motorways.

If you thought about it, that never really made sense. The purpose of a motorway was to restrict the fastest roads so they were only used by motor traffic capable of sustained travel at high speed. Designing a road for fast motor traffic, but not designating it a motorway, so that cyclists and horses could potter along it, was a decidedly odd thing to do. There's no especially good reason, for example, why cyclists should be allowed to use the A2 near Ebbsfleet when they are banned on safety grounds from the physically identical M2 just a few miles away. Surely if we decide that high speed roads are safer without non-motorised traffic then we should treat them all the same. And yet, even as the first motorways were being built and opened, high-speed non-motorway roads were also being built and opened, and a weird double standard became embedded in transport policy over the decades.

The brand new A556 between Bowdon and Knutsford: linking two motorways, designed for motorway traffic, but not a motorway - and that's perfectly normal. Click to enlarge
The brand new A556 between Bowdon and Knutsford: linking two motorways, designed for motorway traffic, but not a motorway - and that's perfectly normal. Click to enlarge

What's more, that jumbled collection of motorway-like A-roads were built to no particular design spec and had a whole range of restrictions applied to them - from no special restrictions at all to something functionally equivalent to motorway regulations. And there was no way to distinguish them from ordinary dual carriageways on most maps. It was a mess, really, and still is - but a mess that, for half a century, nobody seemed to really mind.

Enter the expressway

In 2013, somebody at the Department for Transport must have finally decided that they did mind. In a new policy document, “Action for Roads”, an intriguing new idea was quietly introduced. The Highways Agency, as it was then, would “upgrade key roads to a new ‘expressway’ standard”.

“The exact pattern of investment will need to follow the priorities set down by the Agency’s route based strategies, but following a programme of widespread interventions, expressways should be as visibly distinct from the rest of the road network as motorways are today.”

Action for Roads, July 2013

Over the next couple of years, the concept popped up again in other policy documents, and then when Highways England were created they were handed the development of “expressways” as one of their new responsibilities.

Then it went quiet for a bit, and it looked a little bit like it might all blow over, as these things sometimes do. Chances were that HE would come back with a proposal to increase maintenance budgets on busy A-roads and perhaps fit them with more Smart Motorway-type technology, something like that.

A bit of a surprise

In December 2017, Highways England published their Strategic Road Network Initial Report - their first bit of official paperwork setting out what they were going to do, now the DfT had created them and handed over all these new jobs and responsibilities. It turned out that, given four years of thinking time, HE had come up with far more than might have been expected.

At the beginning of the report there’s a lot of talk about creating a “motorway like” experience on expressways. Ho hum, yes. Later, on page 59, there’s a diagram of what they expect an expressway to look like. It’s got grade-separated junctions, and orange emergency lay-bys. It’s got variable message signs and other unspecified “technology”. It’s got a Traffic Officer patrol. That's more or less expected. And then there's a label, pointing to a road sign, that says “Designation: A(M). Sign colour: blue.”

Wait a minute. That’s a motorway, isn’t it?

Highways England's diagram showing the key features of an expressway. Click to enlarge
Highways England's diagram showing the key features of an expressway. Click to enlarge

Well, yes, it is. If it’s got blue signs, and if it’s got an M in awkward brackets at the end of its road number, then it must be. You can call it an expressway if that makes you happier, but what you’ve done is applied motorway regulations to it, and that makes it, you know... a motorway.

Now, why would you do a thing like that?

Get past the initial reaction that it sounds a bit odd, and there are several compelling reasons.

First, Highways England are now making a lot of noise about segregating vulnerable non-motorised road users from fast trunk road traffic. Part of the expressway standard will be parallel, separate provision for walking, cycling and even horse riding if necessary. Once those road users are off the main carriageway, it makes perfect sense to introduce restrictions to ensure the segregation is properly observed, and applying motorway regulations would be the most consistent and best-understood way to do that.

Second, one policy objective for expressways is to make the network of high-speed A-road dual carriageways "as visibly distinct from the rest of the road network as motorways". You could, theoretically, introduce a whole new category of road, and wait for cartographers to develop new colour conventions and symbols. Or you could simply reclassify them as actual motorways, turning them blue, and maps would very quickly catch up. (Route planning algorithms would also automatically favour them over other roads, and assume a higher average speed.)

Third, part of the criteria for converting a boring old dual carriageway into a thrilling new space-age expressway is the installation of some vaguely-defined “technology”. The smart money says that is a reference to the introduction of Smart Motorway signs, signals and cameras. However, the legislation that allows the use of mandatory variable speed limits was written with motorways in mind and can’t (currently) be applied to A-roads in England. You could get the DfT to introduce new primary legislation to Parliament, and change the law, or - and this is much quicker - you could just take each road where you want Smart Motorway-style variable speed limits and reclassify it as a motorway.

And finally, the physical standard of a motorway is quite different to what it used to be. Mile after mile of the English motorway network now operates without hard shoulders, for example. So what’s to stop, say, the A14 - which also has no hard shoulders - from also being a motorway?

The new A14 under construction near Huntingdon. Not a motorway... yet. Click to enlarge
The new A14 under construction near Huntingdon. Not a motorway... yet. Click to enlarge

The first expressway arrives

Yes, the A14: a long-distance strategic dual carriageway with a jumble of engineering standards. Part of it is being replaced wholesale at the moment, between the A1 and M11, in one of the biggest road projects in the UK in recent years.

In September 2018, Highways England made a sudden announcement that the upgraded A14 would be a motorway, not an A-road, and announced plans to run a short consultation before formally asking the Planning Inspectorate to amend the scheme’s planning consent. The new road, when it opens, would be the A14(M), and constitute the first link in the planned expressway network. It would also, happily, join the M11 and A1(M) with a motorway, rather than an A-road.

We can reasonably expect similar announcements to follow for other major A-road schemes, as well as upgrade works on existing A-road dual carriageways to bring them to expressway standard and reclassify them as motorways.

As if that didn’t fully confirm that the definition of “motorway” now includes all sorts of things that wouldn’t have constituted a motorway before, there was a further announcement earlier this week concerning a different road scheme.

The ever-growing tunnel

Highways England are planning a new crossing of the Thames Estuary, east of Dartford, to relieve the M25/A282 across the river and better link the Channel Ports with the rest of the UK. It’s called the Lower Thames Crossing, and it keeps getting bigger.

Artist's impression of the Lower Thames Crossing south portal, looking rather a lot like a Smart Motorway
Artist's impression of the Lower Thames Crossing south portal, looking rather a lot like a Smart Motorway

Not so long ago it was going to be an A-road with two tunnel bores side by side, each carrying two lanes of traffic and a hard shoulder. Then someone evidently got a calculator out, looked at the potential demand for cross-river journeys, and asked why expensive, tunnelled space was being proposed for use as a hard shoulder when it could be carrying traffic. It’s now going to be the same size tunnel but with three lanes each way and no hard shoulder.

On 10 October, Highways England opened the statutory consultation for the new crossing, which is one of the normal steps towards getting it built. That much was entirely expected, but what was surprising was the opening statement on the consultation website.

“We would like to hear your views on the Lower Thames Crossing, a proposed new motorway connecting Kent, Thurrock and Essex through a tunnel beneath the River Thames.”

Lower Thames Crossing Statutory Consultation

Well, fancy that! It’s the M-word again.

The LTC is still, physically, the same proposal as before: it’s going to have three lanes each way and no hard shoulder, even in the open air sections. But then, of course, lots of motorways have no hard shoulder now, and it’s going to connect the M25 to the M2, and lots of A-roads are now planned to become motorways, so… well, why not?

Three new standards

For a long time there were roads and there were motorways, and we all knew where we were. Except that some roads looked like motorways, but weren’t, and it was a bit of a mess. By 2040, which is their stated target date for the completion of a Smart Motorway and expressway backbone for the trunk road network, Highways England are hoping to have something much clearer and more consistent.

If the M25 can be a motorway without a hard shoulder, why can't the A30? Click to enlarge
If the M25 can be a motorway without a hard shoulder, why can't the A30? Click to enlarge

Their new hierarchy of roads looks like this:

  • Smart Motorways, for the busiest roads, offering the highest standard of service
  • Motorways, for all other present motorway routes that don’t justify a Smart upgrade
  • Expressways, which have fewer lanes but will effectively be smaller-scale Smart Motorways
  • A-Roads, for everything else Highways England look after

Simplicity, clear rules and country-wide standardisation are not things the UK road network has traditionally been good at, so we should wish Highways England luck with their grand plans. But if they get their way, the proposed expressway network will not result in expressways at all, at least from the point of view of the motoring public. It’ll result in motorways, and more new motorways appearing on the map than ever before.

When is a motorway not a motorway? When it’s an expressway.


Will M 15 October 2018

There was much online discussion at the weekend, after a tragic accident on the A1(NI), how this road could be improved.

Initially grade seperation and LILO junctions, but there aren't the funds for a motorway. An expressway designation might have solved this, except it looks like a motorway and quacks like a motorway....

Matt Goode 15 October 2018

I went on a site visit to the Godmanchester site in March and asked about Expressways. I was told that they had not yet been given clear guidance about what this was, but it seems now it is becoming more clear!

Scott Turner-Preece 15 October 2018

I feel we should also mention Scotland in this article. What about the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route? That road meets expressway standards, is even a special road(!) but has no (M) at all when by all means it should.

It sounds like it does meet this standard. Perhaps they'll stick (M) on the end of A90 when they replace all the signs before it opens. I don't suppose HE's 2040 deadline applies in Scotland. ?

AWPR is not connected to the existing motorway network so I'm thinking it might not get the definition. I recall being told many years ago that the A55 restricted length at Colwyn Bay was essentially a motorway but it was not shown as a blue road because it was isolated and not connected to the M53 / M56. Ditto the old Tring bypass which I seem to recall was marked as A41M until it became part of the Berko bypass.

The A90 AWPR is also in Scotland, where none of this applies. Expressways are something Highways England are doing, and the other three home nations have not announced any equivalent changes.

The Tring Bypass was a motorway when it opened and was shown in blue on maps until it was downgraded to an A-road circa 1987.

Gabriel 15 October 2018

I think what makes the A90 different is that it's a very long way away from any other motorways.

Actually when the LTC opens, there will only be one trunk* motorway in the whole of Britain that doesn't meet the rest of the motorway network, and that'll be the A3(M)... what are the chances of a similar reclassification happening to the A27?

*the urban motorways in Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle are not trunk roads

Gabriel's not quite correct - M90 is a trunk motorway, and there's a mile or so of A90 that separates it from the rest of the Scottish network (between Scotstoun and Queensferry junctions). However, that section does prohibit non-motorised users, so the only big give-away is the green signage.

Legally speaking, it seems the AWPR will actually be a motorway (being a Special Road open to only Class I and II traffic, which in Scotland is the legal definition of a motorway), until such time as the Motorway Traffic (Scotland) Regulations 1995 are amended, as per this example: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/1996/2664/regulation/3/made. Presumably the Scottish Government will do this before the Special Road order goes into effect.

Either way it makes no practical difference on the ground, as the road has no blue signs and has large 'NO' signs up instead. It also led to "outrage" in the local press when farmers discovered they wouldn't be able to drive their tractors along the new road, which would no doubt have been avoided had the road been numbered A90(M) from the start!

James Kerslake 16 October 2018

So where does this leave the so-called A38 Devon Expressway? Is that called an expressway by name but is not actually an expressway, or are Highways England going to replace the signage or upgrade the road?

The Devon Expressway is just one of many roads in the UK that have “expressway” in their name, chosen decades before the present “expressways” concept had been thought of. HE manage at least one more, the A38(M) Aston Expressway, and there are others in local authority control, like the Runcorn Expressways.

I don’t see why there would be any change to the road’s name or to signs. The “expressways” HE are planning to create won’t be referred to as expressways on signs and to the motorist they will look and feel a lot like motorways, and indeed will be classified as motorways. The term “expressways” is really the name of a policy HE and the DfT are pursuing and won’t be used anywhere “customer facing”.

Robert G 16 October 2018

It's about time something like this happened. Compare a map of Britain's motorway network with that of most other Western European countries and Britain appears to be far behind. Add in the expressways, current and proposed, and suddenly Britain appears much more up to the standard of its European neighbours. Blue lines on a map mean a lot to logistics managers and make Britain look more open for trade. Perhaps our current political upheavals are playing a role behind the scenes here? The old Michelin maps of the UK used to have a symbol for "dual carriageways with motorway standards" and the result was really rather pleasing. But I'm not aware of any British map makers that ever did the same. Does a map of all the expressways exist by the way? A few questions remain. Firstly, many A road expressways have lay-bys which allow "a quick rest", and service areas which are more frequent than those on motorways, yet to a far lower standard: will these remain? And secondly, the numbering of these roads may start to look awkward or even inconsistent. Fancy a motorway from London to Dover numbered A2(M), M2, A2(M), for instance, as it plies its way across the map of Kent.

Gareth Hill 16 October 2018

Then there is the A55 North Wales expressway, an pretty amazing road considering, complete with tunnels.
Unfortunately it has a couple of roundabouts thrown in for good measure at Penmaenmawr and Llanfairfechan!

Pavel Shevchuk 16 October 2018

Hmm, it seems that this new 'expressways' will, for all intents and purposes, be proper motorways. Why not just call them 'motorways'? A sexier name? An attempt to avoid controversy of building new mwys? An irrational love for American terms?

Motorways were originally going to be called Motorroads or was it Motor Roads? And is it Motorway or Motor Way? Any way why not go the whole hog and rename Motorways as Expressways? It might stop some of the confusion, but to be safe make all roads such the Devon expressway subject to the same rules and regs as current Motorways.

AndyB 17 October 2018

I would argue that subsection 84(1)(c) of RTRA 1984 does permit variable speed limits on AP roads - it's mainly used for road works where a blanket restriction is applied to x miles of motorway by a TRO specifying that the restriction only applies for those parts of the road where the signs are in place.

NI used Article 38 of RTRO 1997 for Westlink - the wording is identical.

Stu531 17 October 2018

Interesting how this is a general reversal of where we were a few years ago: motorways and blue-lines-on-maps were considered dirty words and as a result, any new builds of a certain standard were A-roads by default. Now it seems that there's a bit more of a grown-up attitude in that there's something inherently safer about motorway class roads. I'll be interested to see which roads actually get re-designated as Expressways.

Fraser Mitchell 17 October 2018

"Humphrey, we really must get on with building more motorways, the traffic is just horrendous !" "Please, please, Minister, don't say the word Motorway or you'll have all the croakers and the Blob wake up and make a nuisance of themselves ! Why not call the new motorways "Expressways", then nobody can protest because they won't know what they're protesting about." "Exellent, Humphrey, I always knew you'd come up trumps!

Almost exactly 60 years ago Dr Beeching announced the reshaping of the railways. Hooray said the public we want motorways to replace the dirty smelly railways that are always late. So the transport minister Mr Marples gave them motorways, and as he was a non executive director of a civil engineering firm that got a lot of motorway contracts he was laughing all the way to the bank. But a few years later people started to say "wheres my railway station gone? I liked the train". And approximately 30 years ago people started to protest about the building of the motorways. So is it any wonder the government policy of both Conservative and Labour on transport is such a muddle?

YNM 21 October 2018

I'd like to see them just comes up with new motorways.

At least housing developers won't flock onto them like they do on public highway bypasses...

Christopher Williams 3 November 2018

If you look more closely at the example picture taken from p 59 of the HE's Initial Report on Strategic Roads, you'll see there are E.O.M. signs at the end of the exit–slips in both direction, altho' I can't see any S.O.M./number signs at the entry slips for some reason!

H.E. don't appear to be advocating the "Happy Car" symbol in common use on the Continent as of yet tho', in my opinion an A(M) designation with blue motorway–standard signage covers the new rules and standards adequately!

Given what they're planning to do - apply motorway regulations - a different symbol would be pointless and I think we can assume the lack of a "chopsticks" sign in the diagram is an oversight.

The reason for the continental "happy car" is it implies not only a road standard that is less than a motorway (narrower hard shoulder, sharper curves, less likely to be dual-carriageway etc), but also restrictions on use that are short of a full-blown motorway. They also (usually) have a lower top speed limit (100/110 km/h rather than 120/130).

A problem will come if there are any of H.E.'s planned "expressways" where they need to permit use by any type of traffic which is banned from the motorways. If Wales adopted the expressway concept (for example) on the A55 near Conwy, it could not be put under motorway restrictions without banning HGV learner drivers, who are currently permitted.

Mikey C 8 November 2018

Are smart Motorways better than "conventional" Motorways? Surely conventional Motorways with a hard shoulder are the peak, especially widened ones like the non smart D4M sections of the M25 or M1 for example.

Indeed there are current "A" roads, e,g, the D4 hard shoulder A2 between Ebbsfleet and the M2 which have higher standards than many Motorways! That could be a Motorway even with current criteria!

It depends how you define "better". The terms by which Highways England judge it means they consider Smart Motorways the "better" type, because they have the ability to monitor and control traffic flow more closely, meaning more reliable journey times, and because they are statistically safer.

When there are more than three running lanes on the road, I'd say a Smart Motorway works far better when it's painted with a permanent hard shoulder that can be opened for running via VMS, rather than with one extra permanent lane that can be closed by breakdowns via VMS.

The former is an improvement on a normal motorway: its capacity can be increased at peak times by opening the hard shoulder; whereas the latter ends up with the leftmost lane closed half the time anyway due to a single broken down vehicle in a several mile stretch, and the rest of the time, people don't seem to know how to drive when there's 4+ non-congested lanes available!

Case in point: in my personal experience, the M5/M4 D3M Smart Motorway around Bristol works far better than the stretch of M1 D4 between M69 and M18.

But yes: provided it's set up as "openable hard-shoulder" instead of ALR, I'd say a Smart Motorway is better than a regular motorway of otherwise identical standard. The M5/M4 mentioned above has been a huge improvement for me personally compared to before it was upgraded.

I don't think Highways England agree with that - all current and future Smart Motorway projects, as far as I'm aware, will be All Lane Running, and part-time hard shoulder running will not be installed any more. I think there is even a vague aspiration to convert existing hard shoulder running sections to All Lane Running eventually.

Certainly as a driver I personally find All Lane Running sections intuitive to use, while most sections with hard shoulder running that I've used are downright stressful. The idea that lane 1 has something stopped in it every few miles is not something I've experienced on a Smart Motorway or, indeed, on any other kind of road - breakdowns just don't happen that often.

The monitoring and variable speed limits are clearly a good thing, but these don't require hard shoulder running.

Of course I don't have any numbers to back up my thoughts, but it seems counter intuitive that on the M25 for example, the All Lane running Smart sections (i.e. D4M with no hard shoulder) are safer than the rebuilt and significantly widened D4M sections with hard shoulder (e.g. M11 to A13), as surely a permanent hard shoulder is safer than a running lane which can be closed, as there will always be a slight lag before this happens?

The All lane running D4M Smart might be safer than the previous D3M conventional, but against a proper widened D4M I'm not so sure?

My understanding is that the claim that Smart Motorways are safer is a result of comparisons between the same section of motorway before and after conversion to Smart Motorway, not two separate sections motorway with different technology and engineering standards. That would be comparing apples with oranges and wouldn't stand up to analysis.

Rowan Langley 21 November 2018

Smells like a BackDoor motorway to my cynical mind, building without the bother of going to Statutory Procedures for a "Special Road"and thus not even having to bother with the courtesy of answering objections

The statutory process for building an all-purpose road and a motorway is the same, and building a motorway does not exempt Highways England from responding to objectors. The upgrade of the A14 Cambridge-Huntingdon scheme from all-purpose road to motorway is actually causing an additional consultation period that wouldn't have been necessary otherwise, because it's a change to the work agreed in the original consultation.

Peter 3 December 2018

I think it is partly semantics and partly cost. Expressway suggests getting me somewhere quicker. Motorway is getting other people somewhere quicker (past my house). Therefore Expressways at less lightly to get the same level of objection from local residents.
Also upgrading to expressway standard can be done piecemeal so the most problematic junctions can be tackled first. Finally when the whole route is to expressway standard (and you are feeling politically brave enough) you can just change the green signs to blue and call it a motorway.

Adam F 4 April 2019

Does anyone know if any existing expressway style roads (new A46, A556) be reclassified as (M)’s?

Is there any indication that the A55 will be upgraded to become a motorway? Almost all the A55 is in Wales, where Highways England's "expressways" policy does not apply.

Given that the Welsh government have decided to stop all future new roads building I doubt very much that the A55 will be upgraded. And if it were to be upgraded what number would it get? There is already an M55!

Well that's easy.
Either A55(M) or, if the whole thing were upgraded, it could just be an extension of the M53 which it meets end-on.

Only problem with A55(M) is that its not even in the same country as the M55! M53 as someone has suggested would be a much better and indeed more logical.

That shouldn’t matter. Countries don’t enter into road numbering, there’s one system for the whole of Great Britain. M55 and A55(M) would be two entirely separate roads; in similar vein the M3 and A3(M) have no relation to each other. 

I still think it would be daft to have an M55 and a completely separate A55(M). I can well imagine the confusion when people join the A55(M) and discover that when they get to the end that theyve reached Holyhead and not Blackpool!

Fair enough. The way I see it, there’s a separate A6 and M6, a separate M53 and A53, a separate A57(M) and M57… I don’t think it’s that big a deal!

Richard Cook 10 March 2023

Another A road with a hard shoulder looks like a motorway the A2 from M25 to M2.

Add new comment

About text formats

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
All comments posted to Roads.org.uk are moderated before appearing online. Your comment won't be visible immediately.


Picture credits


What's new

Sorry, wrong number

Road numbering is a system with clear rules. What happens when the people responsible for numbering roads don't follow them?

We need to talk about Wisley

National Highways are spending a third of a billion pounds rebuilding one of the most congested junctions on the M25. Is it money well spent?

Oxford's Ground Zero

Oxford's Zero Emission Zone is just a trial, but transport policy in Oxford has become the catalyst for pitched battles and drawn in protestors from across the UK. What's happening to this genteel university town?

Share this page

Have you seen...

Alley by gaslight

Some of Central London's quieter streets are still, surprisingly, lit by old and rather beautiful gas lanterns. Here are a few, by day and by night.

About this page


Last updated