Written evidence submitted by Mr David Gregg (RSM0062)


A discursive contribution submitted by David J Gregg,  BSc MSc CEng MICE.  My reason for participating in this way is that I believe that the planning, design and, when appropriate, widening of motorways should be approached in a more integrative way than is implied by the terms of the call for evidence.


My local motorway is the A1(M), accessible about three miles from home.  In normal circumstances I am a familiar user of it and parts of M25, M3, M4, M5 and M11, occasionally also M1, M6 and others.  I have experienced a memorable ‘near miss’ in ALR, within a 50mph speed constraint!


I approach the controversy from a more discursive and generalised design concern than is usually associated with the detailing of motorways.  I do not have close knowledge of whatever public surveys may have been undertaken into public attitudes, but I consider the ALR carriageway, whether full or part-time, to be a bad design, and it is entirely understandable that some members of the public will shun such motorways, perhaps to the detriment of both safety and level of service elsewhere.  The eventual answers to the controversy must be sought by asking fundamental questions, in particular about the future of the demand to be made on long-distance roads, with attention probably being given to road-pricing principles, and about the implications of the arrival of fully autonomous vehicles for long journeys, presumably at first on our most standardised roads, i.e. motorways.  As to the broader cognate design principles and inputs, I am thinking particularly of the writing of Furneaux Jordan and Ralph Nader (both in the 1960s) and more recent contributions, notably by Sir John Hayes.   We must surely also be interested in the potential collaboration between transport planning and the large-scale concepts outlined by Sir John Lawton, in Making Space for Nature, Defra 2010.


By professional background I am a retired Chartered Civil Engineer.  I had twenty-one years as an educator, with a particular academic interest in the geometry of roads, junctions and networks.  My writing on the origins and philosophy of parkways has been cited by the eminent geographer Professor Peter Hall in one of his books.  In 1988/89 I gave individual written and oral evidence to the Transport Committee’s inquiry into Roads for the Future.  That inquiry noted in its published report that a frequent theme among the witnesses related to the narrow central reserve of most motorways.  (What happened?!)


Very much earlier, as a young engineer and an ‘enthusiast’ of motorways, I was one of those who, in the early years of their development (and mine), expressed regret that the standard geometry provided a narrow central reserve apparently ignoring some excellent pre-war arterial roads such as the A12 Margaretting to Widford (Chelmsford), a trunk road dualling scheme very deliberately formed in a spacious parkway style.  I mention this exemplar because it was illustrated in a booklet on Roads in the landscape produced in 1967, during Barbara Castle’s time as Minister of Transport.  This was long after such undoubtedly American-inspired layouts had fallen out of the road designer’s inspirational toolkit.  The newer, nearby, Chelmsford by-pass ignores the exemplar entirely.


Fast forward to the 21st century, and Sir John Hayes MP has re-ignited the debate about Beauty in Transport.  I welcome his intervention, which is greatly needed, but forgive me for pointing out that as far as roads are concerned, he is re-stating arguments which were attempted in the 1960s by, for example, R.F. Jordan, landscape architect, and (separately) Sir Max Nicholson the eminent conservationist and enthusiast of parkways. (The Minister has also had the benefit of an Advisory Committee on landscape treatment since 1956.)


Compared with what might now be termed the traditional motorway design, I observe that the new 4-lane, barrier-lined, ALR carriageways may even be perceived to possess an impressive brutalism of sculptured geometry, if considered as large-scale art form by an external observer.  A typical road user, however, may not admire the ultimate functional ugliness of parallelism, perhaps, at a time when according to John Hayes “We must not resign ourselves to being miserable as we get from place to place.”


The main motorway routes are being transformed to a new standard and character which is generating disquiet among the motoring public, their organisations, some engineers, some police chiefs and some coroners.  Removal of the hardshoulder on either a peak period or permanent basis is evidently seen by many users as an erosion of the familiar pattern of safe operation, and for some users there is no amount of unseen technical wizardry that can save them from “being miserable as we get from place to place.”  For some road users the advertising campaign given prominence during March 2021 will surely serve to emphasise how frighteningly different the new design is, compared to motorways familiar for decades. On “the motorway” depicted on TV, it seems dead easy to “go left” almost immediately a problem has been detected.  But in reality you might need to be able to roll a mile or more surrounded by Eurocamions at night before you find one of those steroidal orange bus stops.  Has this campaign been expertly tested or just rushed into production?  It utterly ignores, and thus trivialises, the reality of the stress and high-energy danger surrounding the occupants of a vehicle stranded in a live lane.  “We have worked closely with the recovery industry to develop guidance on safe recovery . . . . of different recovery scenarios.”  -- Highways England in New Civil Engineer 29 March 2021.  What could better demonstrate the battlefield logic of all this?


John Hayes reminds us that the manufacturers of cars spend much effort to ensure that their products are perceived as enjoyable components of beauty in transport.  This is an apt reminder, and prompts recollection of Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at any Speed , 1965, which condemned some examples of incremental cost/benefit analysis in the American motor industry during the 1960s.  In the examples given by Nader, some known deficiencies of design had been subjected to an assessment in which the manufacturer condoned some potentially lethal design flaws if a micro- cost/benefit analysis was favourable to the company:  Predictable compensation awards were set against the incremental costs of better design to avoid them.  Nader’s campaign to outlaw this cynical approach to product liability is sometimes said to have laid the foundations for the consumer protection movement.  (Although the founders of the Consumers’ Association in the UK, 1957, might disagree with that assertion.)


Are we now seeing a motorway design assessment echoing the process condemned by Nader in the motor industry?  Have the relevant and timely lessons for road designers been lost, or never recognised, since 1965? Has the striving for more capacity at constrained cost drawn us to consider a brutally unpleasant design?  In short, maximising the danger to minimise the cost?


Indeed, it is apparent that the more general field of design education in Britain had soon taken notice of Nader’s workMuch of what existed of our motorway network in the early 1970s was still gaining its early years’ experience when the Open University’s T100 Technology Foundation Course included material on design failures, in which Nader’s book was quoted: “Even more insidious (than defects of manufacture) are hazards that are the products of design. Born of deliberate knowledge, these hazards are far less likely to be admitted by car makers when they are confronted with substantial evidence of their danger . . .“ The T100 writer observes also that in many of Nader’s examples, accidents are shown to be the direct effects of poor design, and that this suggests that perhaps many ‘unfortunate side-effects’ which we are currently expected to tolerate in our everyday lives* are, in fact, design failures which could have been avoided (*my emphasis).  The principal illustration accompanying the T100 design failures material is a photograph of a massive multi-vehicle disaster which caused complete closure of the M1 and presumably also great disruption of journeys on the nearby main roads.


No type of road is immune from accidents, and motorways have always had their tragedies while it is not proven that the statistical record of so-called smart motorways is worse than the long-familiar type.  On the other hand, it might be expected that a motorway with ‘smart’ control characteristics, as well as a reasonably consistent hardshoulder, could work equally well or better.


The conventional wisdom holds that there is of course an apparent need to increase network capacity and reduce congestion.  Even before the smart motorways became publicly controversial, some engineers had wondered whether sufficient thought had been given to value-for-money in enhancing road network capacity in other ways than by widening motorways.  The potentially much less costly process of modernising other parts of the network may instead offer ‘network effects’, and although such roads may in principle have inferior accident rates, the network effect can yield a reduction in journey distance for certain journeys by erstwhile motorway users, together with intrinsic user benefits for undiverted users of the modernised non-motorway route.  The optimum route choice by drivers within such a context may well depend on a willingness to be guided by sat-nav advice, sometimes contradicting a long-favoured choice.


As well as network effects achievable by modernising existing roads, there may be opportunities to form new ‘corridors’ of heightened economic activity possibly easing the growth pressure on long-established routes.  The Cambridge-Oxford corridor is currently receiving attention, although a suggested development corridor between Cambridge and Humberside has fallen from prominence, having been much discussed around thirty years ago.  (‘The East Coast Motorway.’)


In my evidence to Roads for the future, I mentioned the A30/A303 corridor, an attractive direct route for London to Exeter holiday traffic if fully modernised, but even now it is still an inconsistent ‘watch this space’.


How did we get here?


It is not widely appreciated that the planners and designers of garden cities in the early 20th century were alert to the challenges and opportunities to be faced in accommodating the anticipated road traffic, arguably not sufficiently anticipated though.


For example, Sir Raymond Unwin wrote in 1909:  “Much greater variation in the width and character of roads is desirable than it has been usual to provide for in England . . .[including that] even for roads for which traffic considerations may be regarded as the most important, very great variation in widths should be provided for and roads of different types and characters arranged.  His colleague Barry Parker made important efforts to promote the parkway philosophy in inter-war Britain, as seen in his 1929 Presidential Address to the (Royal) Town Planning Institute.


Parker, when working as consultant to the Manchester expansion at Wythenshawe, included Princess Parkway as a principal formative feature.  When the post-war motorway era reached Manchester, this parkway corridor afforded a spacious ‘soft line’ of approach from the south, gratefully adopted by the motorway planners!


In the earliest years of British motorways, landscape architects such as Furneaux Jordan had urged a more landscape-based approach to design, borrowing some of the more spacious ideas from what Jordan called ‘the big American highways’.  In a prominent debate which commenced with a major article in The Observer on 2 April 1961, hardly more than one full year into the working experience of the first instalment of the M1, he argued that “great motor roads are not, after all, only a painful necessity.  . . . they can, in a big way, be a very lovely thing.”


The parkway concept was re-stated in 1967 by the eminent conservationist Sir Max Nicholson in the report Parkways in Principle and Practice, prompted by land-rehabilitation proposals for the NCB in the north east:  “. .the problems of recreation, traffic, environmental quality and conservation should be studied together with a view to devising a new, nationally recognised . . . . ‘Parkway’”.


It has been said that our M1 was the first six-lane inter-urban motorway in Europe.  This provision became, for some decades, the almost-uniform character for our motorway network, but some intriguing changes of mind are evidenced along the way.  A short article which I have saved from the Daily Express, 21 November 1959, is headed Motorways face 2-lane Squeeze and includes the assertion that Future motorways may be limited to only two lanes on either side – instead of the M1’s three-a-side – to save farmland.  Mr John Hay, Parliamentary Secretary, is quoted:  “ . . .the Birmingham-Bristol motorway, which is just about to start, will have two-lane carriageways and these take about 25 acres to the mile. I hope this makes it clear that we cannot adopt the more spacious layout.”




April 2021