Recent analysis by the Ordnance Survey suggests that those seeking peace and quiet in the British Isles now have a challenge on their hands as, apparently, nowhere in the country is now more than six miles from a road.
The subtext of the story seems to be that because of our demand, and desire, for motorised travel the nation has increasingly been concreted over with roads. Yet official statistics paint a slightly different picture.
In 1998 – according to Department for Transport data – Britain had 241,490 miles of road. Last year there were 246,697 miles.
A large proportion of the additional mileage will be associated with housing developments – the ubiquitous cul-de-sacs. Rarely are we talking about brand new routes.
Indeed, much of the network has been with us for centuries, some of it for millennia – the Romans built about 2,000 miles of paved road after their successful invasion of these lands in AD43. Even the 117-mile long M25 is now decades old, the last section having been opened by Margaret Thatcher in October 1986. Of course, what has changed significantly over time is traffic volume.
Looking at the same time period as above, in 1998 there were 285 billion vehicle miles travelled in Britain. Last year it was 328 billion miles, a record. Fifteen percent growth in traffic compared with a 2% rise in the length of the network; the former driven in large part by a rising population. The traffic is not split evenly between road types. Half of it is on motorways and rural A roads.
The irony is that it is the car – and bus and coach services – that have democratised mobility on such a large scale. The affordability and availability of cars has meant more people than ever can get to the places that were once, literally, beyond reach.
Some of our most stunning and breath-taking areas are actually playing on the fact that they are ‘car friendly’. The Visit Scotland website describes the North Coast 500 route as “the road trip of a lifetime” and says there “is nothing quite like the freedom of the long open road.”
So how should we maintain public accessibility to Britain’s most attractive locations whilst preserving the features – un-sullied natural landscapes, solitude, abundant wildlife – that make them such? And how should we keep the economy moving when, inconvenient as it may be, the business and logistics worlds rely so heavily on road transport? The answer is that this is not a conundrum with a single ‘right’ solution; necessarily it involves political judgement calls.
The current five-year, £15 billion Road Investment Strategy for England mostly commits to on-line capacity-building through the still controversial technique of all-lane running on motorways, though there has been development funding for schemes including the Lower Thames Crossing and the A27 Arundel bypass.
Newly-appointed Roads Minister Michael Ellis has arrived just in time to steer the second Road Investment Strategy through its closing stages. But as he contemplates the inevitable trade-offs that have to be made he will undoubtedly remember that whatever decision he reaches we’re all going to be living with and, it seems relatively near, to the results for a very long time.