25 years of the M25: A reminder of what not to do with transport policy

Stephen Joseph of the Campaign for Better Transport writes about the lessons we can learn from the 25-year history of the M25 - and how we can do better in the future.

The M25 has always been a bit of a symbol, so as we ‘celebrate’ the 25th anniversary of its opening this week, it is worth seeing what lessons it has for us now, writes Stephen Joseph, chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport


When it was opened by Margaret Thatcher in 1986, it was a symbol of what she called the “great car economy”.

The government then believed in road building, and public transport was seen as an also ran; 1986 also saw the deregulation of buses outside London and the abolition of the Greater London Council and Metropolitan County Councils for, among other crimes, promoting low fares and less road building.

Only three years before, the government had produced the Serpell Report (pdf) which had suggested closing most of the rail network. While that option was rejected, rail closures were still on the cards. By contrast, roads were seen as the future, and the completion of the M25 was a symbol of modernity. It was followed three years later by the Roads for Prosperity white paper, proposing “the biggest road programme since the Romans”.

By the 1990s however, the M25 had come to symbolise something else – the impossibility of providing enough space on the roads to keep traffic flowing. Even within a few months of opening, the M25 became a byword for jams and unpredictability. Extra lanes were added in places, but traffic grew faster.

By 2000, a government study concluded that no amount of widening would deal with congestion – even a big widening to 14 lanes would only slow down the rate at which journeys would take longer. One consultant described widening the motorway as “like digging a ditch in a bog”.

The last government ignored this and entered into a massive PFI deal to add an extra lane on key congested sections, and this is currently under construction.

This may make the M25 a symbol of something else – the last big motorway widening. Elsewhere, the government has concluded that better value comes from managing existing motorways better, through combinations of measures such as using the hard shoulder, varying speed limits and controlling the entry ramps at junctions.

Future improvements in connections across London will come not from roads but from the Thameslink and Crossrail projects. It could therefore be said that the M25 has dug its own grave, by showing that road building can’t keep up with demand and that rail can be better and cheaper in terms of meeting the needs of a city-region.

There is one other very contemporary lesson from the M25. It was opened at a time when the government was also deregulating the planning system, authorising lots of commercial and housing development despite opposition from local councils. The result was that parts of the M25 were quickly surrounded by new car-based development such as the Lakeside Shopping Centre in Thurrock.

This was one of the contributors to the M25 filling up, and was quite unforeseen by its planners, who were using traffic models which did not allow for changes in journey patterns and new developments. Fast forward 25 years, and the current government is attempting to repeat the deregulation of the planning system with the new National Planning Policy Framework (pdf).

So the M25 is mainly a lesson in what not to do in transport policy. Whether governments will learn from this, as the motorway’s silver jubilee approaches, is another matter.

See also:

Pickles and co are barking up the road to nowhereSian Berry, October 1st 2011

Pickles’s new national planning policy threatens motorway chaosSian Berry, August 30th 2011

Vote 2011: The sustainable transport challenges in NI, Scotland & WalesEleanor Besley, May 6th 2011

Policies which prioritise car transport will increase inequalityEleanor Besley, January 4th 2011

Green challenges on transport policyRupert Read, November 15th 2010

23 Responses to “25 years of the M25: A reminder of what not to do with transport policy”

  1. Jamie Graham

    25 years of the M25: A reminder of what not to do with transport policy: http://t.co/OAMDb00G by @Roads2Nowhere’s Stephen Joseph

  2. Boris Watch

    25 years of the M25: A reminder of what not to do with transport policy: http://t.co/OAMDb00G by @Roads2Nowhere’s Stephen Joseph

  3. Steve Chambers

    Ah, 1986, that progressive year in British politics… | 25 years of the M25 http://t.co/ybAX98gm

  4. bohaynowell

    25 years of the M25: A reminder of what not to do with transport policy: http://t.co/OAMDb00G by @Roads2Nowhere’s Stephen Joseph

  5. Christine Burns

    25 years of the M25: A reminder of what not to do with transport policy http://t.co/pjsKRAak

  6. Political Planet

    25 years of the M25: A reminder of what not to do with transport policy: Stephen Joseph of the Campaign for Bett… http://t.co/qWTjVqJx

  7. CllrAsifK

    25 years of the M25: A reminder of what not to do with transport policy: http://t.co/OAMDb00G by @Roads2Nowhere’s Stephen Joseph

  8. jenny bates

    25 years of the M25: A reminder of what not to do with transport policy: http://t.co/OAMDb00G by @Roads2Nowhere’s Stephen Joseph

  9. Iain Donaldson

    25 years of the M25: A reminder of what not to do with transport policy: http://t.co/OAMDb00G by @Roads2Nowhere’s Stephen Joseph

  10. Mr. Sensible

    All parties need to start moving away from the obsession with road widening.

  11. Better Transport

    25 years of the M25: A reminder of what not to do with transport policy: http://t.co/OAMDb00G by @Roads2Nowhere’s Stephen Joseph

  12. Richard George

    Stephen Joseph writes: 25 years of the M25: A reminder of what not to do with transport policy http://t.co/aDJlRwwo via @leftfootfwd

  13. sianberry

    25 years of the M25: A reminder of what not to do with transport policy: http://t.co/OAMDb00G by @Roads2Nowhere’s Stephen Joseph

  14. CycleBath

    25 years of the M25: A reminder of what not to do with transport policy: http://t.co/OAMDb00G by @Roads2Nowhere’s Stephen Joseph

  15. Alissa Trommer

    http://t.co/CkPgDTp4 25 years of the M25: A reminder of what not to do with transport policy – Left Foot Forward

  16. TransportWorks

    25 years of the M25: A reminder of what not to do with transport policy: http://t.co/OAMDb00G by @Roads2Nowhere’s Stephen Joseph

  17. Grayson Kirn

    25 years of the M25: A reminder of what not to do with transport policy – Left Foot Forward http://t.co/QQNkKFWv

  18. Nigel Shoosmith

    25 years of the M25: A reminder of what not to do with transport policy: http://t.co/OAMDb00G by @Roads2Nowhere’s Stephen Joseph

  19. Cab Davidson

    25 years of the M25: A reminder of what not to do with transport policy: http://t.co/OAMDb00G by @Roads2Nowhere’s Stephen Joseph

  20. Mark X BS Detector

    As even a recent article in the Independent acknowledges, despite thinking:

    “Thatcherite as it is, the M25 has its roots in Edwardian England. Conceived as long ago as 1905 as an almost HG Wellsian project, it took until 1973 for work on the great orbital road to begin in earnest. The original intention, set out in grand plans (notably one part authored by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1937) was for there to be at least two large ring roads belting round the capital, that is with the north and south circulars – an M16 and an M25.”

    “As usual in Britain, the cash ran out long before they could all be completed, so the various random bits of outer and inner rings that had been constructed were stapled together to make one orbital instead. The then Minister for Transport, Dr John (now Lord) Gilbert, told the Commons in 1975: “The two roads will be subsumed into a single motorway ring, the London orbital motorway (M25)”. Such understatement. But admit it, if you didn’t know that, you’d never have guessed, would you?”

    Yes, cobbled together from, if I recall correctly, rings three and four.

    Indicating that rings one and two are completely missing, just like five (actually a diamond linking North, South, East and West routes).

    And, as they say, first proposed in Edwardian times, yes, before the war:

    The FIRST WORLD war!

    Yes, to cope with HORSE AND CART congestion!

    Pepys and Dickens, among many others, wrote about a gridlocked London centuries ago (walking across the roofs of the Hansom Cabs!), as well as Wells, I think, but not in one of his futuristic works.

    So, imagine what traffic would have been like (and the pollution – killer of millions in the horse drawn days) if the motor car hadn’t saved us? The population is, what, 50% bigger, we commute and travel much further and more often, there is vastly more haulage of goods, and yet we cope, just, with a one ring ringroad system for London (doesn’t even command and control mass public transit Moscow have four rings?).

    The reason why new roads always fill up is because they are designed for a fraction of the traffic which will use them: they are effectively DESIGNED to BECOME congested. It’s nothing to do with cars appearing from thin air, complete with drivers circling each roundabout they encounter 20 times for the fun of it, as the anti-car lobby seem to think!

  21. Mark X BS Detector

    As for motorway widening in general, of course widening isn’t the answer, and can’t solve the problem.

    That’s because we don’t even have the beginnings of a 20th, never mind 21st, Century motorway SYSTEM.

    Look at our competitors, other first, and even second, world countries: they had two, three, four, even five times as much motorway (and high class national roads too) as we did. Per head, per car, per acre, per you name it. And they were building more, we stopped building any!

    You can’t upgrade a couple of main Victorian North South routes for part of their length, and a (small) random assortment of other Victorian roads, most not properly interconnected, or linked into the rest of the road system, and expect your “system” to cope with a society which has double the population, hardly any of whom work within walking distance, most of whom commute ridiculous distances, and all of whome are voracious consumers of masses of goods which are hauled across the country.

    Tarting up a few roads that couldn’t even cope with horse and cart traffic (see other post) couldn’t possibly cope with modern traffic.

    Nor would widening the few tarted up roads solve the problem.

    How could it?

    But that doesn’t mean that an ADEQUATE SYSTEM couldn’t!

    And, no, it doesn’t mean 14 lane superhighways through city centres.

    In the olden days people walked, or if they were lucky, rode, to the nearest hamlet or village. Sometimes they’d go on to the nearest town. Rarely further to the big city.

    Now people typically go, not to the next town, or the one after, but the one after that. But they still use the same roads that go through (and narrow as they do) every town, village, hamlet on the way. One traffic survey I saw showed that the traffic on a road driving into a city centre was mainly going to other parts of that city, its county and the rest of the country. Only 6%, yes, SIX PER CENT, were actually going into that city centre (and they had come from not just other parts of that city, but the rest of the county, and other counties!

    If that’s the case, you don’t need a 14 lane highway through the centre to cope with even future growth in traffic: you need a by-pass.

    And, no, traffic doesn’t grow to clog it unless you design it that way. And that’s exactly what they did!

    In the past only congested roads were considered for upgrades or replacement. And the new roads were designed on the expected traffic growth of the old road.

    Which would be zero then!

    But as it was congested, much, if not most, traffic would be avoiding it, rat running past it, diverting to other main roads, perhaps going miles out of the way to a motorway or dual carriageway.

    Obviously, once you build the by-pass, all that traffic comes back to the direct route, because it’s upgraded. But it’s only upgraded to cope with the traffic on the old road, so it gets congested.

    Worse, many councils, once they get their new by-pass, decide to close off their city centres to traffic, and so local traffc heads out of town, round the by-pass, and back in again to get to the other side of the centre. More congestion!

    Mind you, New Labour brough in a new policy:

    Now roads are built to take ALL the traffic that could be expected to use them.

    But only on the assumption that most drivers will have been driven out of their cars and onto public transport first!

    But that’s something the public transport industry funded Campaign For “Better” Transport won’t be telling you anytime soon!

    And if you want proof that a new road with an adequate design, even one that DOES attract drivers who drive it “just for the sake of it”, doesn’t get congested:

    How often does the Humber bridge and its approach roads get congested?!

  22. The human tragedies of the M5 crash | Left Foot Forward

    […] also: • 25 years of the M25: A reminder of what not to do with transport policy – Stephen Joseph, October 24th […]

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