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

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