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Wait - there was life before motorways?
December 6, 2008 7:31 AM   Subscribe

A less glamorous anniversary passed with little fanfare yesterday: 50 years since the opening of the first stretch of the humble British motorway, the 8-mile two-lane Preston Bypass, which now forms part of the M6. The occasion was celebrated by the official opening of an 5.8 mile M6 extension, closing the "Cumberland Gap", allowing commuters to make the entire 400 mile journey between Glasgow and London by motorway. The total length of motorways in the UK totals around 2200 miles.
posted by HaloMan (34 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Oh, and have some British Road Trivia as a side-order to this FPP.
posted by HaloMan at 7:35 AM on December 6, 2008


There's a famous Cumberland Gap in the U.S. as well. It was (is) a pass to Kentucky in the Appalachian Mountains from Tennessee and Virginia. The history is quite interesting from an American Indian and pioneering perspective, as well as strategic Civil War railway gateway.
posted by netbros at 7:57 AM on December 6, 2008


2200 Miles? The total length of New York City's streets is probably 2200 miles.

Pathetic.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:01 AM on December 6, 2008


2200 miles is rather paltry, though I suppose the left-handed model is always much harder to come by, isn't it?
posted by Sys Rq at 8:08 AM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Great. Four posts in and 3/4 are already about America.
posted by dydecker at 8:21 AM on December 6, 2008 [4 favorites]


Yes, we all love transatlantic pissing contests here.

2200 miles isn't that much in absolute terms, I agree, but the UK does have universal health care.

Completely irrelevant? Yes. As are comments about New York, or pithy remarks about left-handed models.
posted by knapah at 8:26 AM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


fourcheesemac @4; maybe so, but can you drive down them at 70mph* without ever encountering a traffic light, stop sign or any other form of interruption? Or put it another way, how many miles of Interstate does NYC have?

(*Official speed limit. In practice you can drive up to 80 or so without attracting undue attention, although this may change as average speed cameras are introduced.)

Remember, the UK's total area is about that of Michigan. Michigan's got about 1200 miles of Interstate by my reckoning, so the UK isn't doing so badly in comparison.
posted by Major Clanger at 8:27 AM on December 6, 2008


And to re-rail myself, I wasn't aware the Cumberland gap was being 'closed', but it'll be a great help for that bit of road. Now they just have to improve the rest of the M6, particularly the parts near Birmingham.
posted by knapah at 8:28 AM on December 6, 2008


Major Clanger: CIA world factbook suggests the UK is "slightly smaller than Oregon", which apparently has 728 miles of Interstate. Of course, the UK does have 60 million people compared to Oregon's 3.7 million.
posted by knapah at 8:30 AM on December 6, 2008


Only one way to celebrate then.
posted by mandal at 8:47 AM on December 6, 2008


knapah: "2200 miles isn't that much in absolute terms, I agree, but the UK does have universal health care."

Yeah, but do you have deep fried Twinkies?
PISSING MATCH OVAH.
posted by Plutor at 8:48 AM on December 6, 2008


Plutor: Yeah, but do you have deep fried Twinkies?

No, but Scotland has long been notorious for the deep-fried Mars Bar.
posted by HaloMan at 8:52 AM on December 6, 2008


thanks, mandal and HaloMan. I always wondered why Cumberland Gap was a popular English song after I heard the Wedding Present version 10+ years ago. I always thought they were singing about the Davy Crockett one in Virginia, and it didn't make a lot of sense to me.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 8:52 AM on December 6, 2008


My GF used to live in Longtown, the last English town before Gretna. I used to giggle at warnings about traffic going into Carlisle ten miles away. Even at rush hour it was like fifteen minutes into the city centre, and compared to Leeds/Bradford where we're from (the adjacent M62 is the busiest stretch of motorway in Europe) it was a paltry amount of traffic. Then there was a *huge* crash on the A74(M) a few years ago just before she moved, the re-routed traffic went past her house and it took three days to clear the traffic jam. I've never seen anything like it.

2200 Miles? The total length of New York City's streets is probably 2200 miles.

How long do you suppose the combined total of London's roads is? How relevant to anything would it be if anyone knew?
posted by vbfg at 9:30 AM on December 6, 2008


It drives me crazy when online news stories like the BBC report above aren't accompanied by a useful illustration. In any case, here's a map of the area.
posted by sriracha at 9:37 AM on December 6, 2008


Big shout out to the M606!
posted by ninebelow at 10:12 AM on December 6, 2008


2200 Miles? The total length of New York City's streets is probably 2200 miles.

How long do you suppose the combined total of London's roads is? How relevant to anything would it be if anyone knew?


Super Derail: My brit BF likes to say the English have no sense of distance and U.Sians have no sense of time. Like, he's still having trouble grasping the sheer size of the country (Can't we just pop down to San Fransisco to San Diego from Seattle?) and I can't totally wrap my head around the fact that I've eaten in tea shops older than my nation-state

Super Derail over. Please collect the bodies.
posted by The Whelk at 10:17 AM on December 6, 2008


Expressways were a fucking horrible idea.

If you want a visceral sense of this, poke around the sides, underbellies, and peripheries of one on foot. Get the perspective you don't get while isolated in the car traveling on it. The things are just aberrations. They are huge, disrespectful constructions that scar the geography in ways and degrees that a regular road or a railroad just don't. The key is the isolation. The point of the expressway is to isolate the drivers even further from the world. No more having to stop, or slow down, or deal with terrain.

Then the benefit of this, that people and things can be moved in a hurry, has been perverted into the idea that people and things should always be moved in a hurry. And then everyone and everything's in such a damn hurry that the thing is packed and you can't get anywhere quickly anyway.

It's impossible to imagine the wheels of commerce rolling without motorways.

I hate this sort of expression of limited imagination, saying, "This is the way things are now, so clearly there is no other way they could be." Seriously, you don't even have to imagine anything, man, just go find some contemporary accounts of 1957 Britain. I assure you the wheels of commerce were rolling, and I bet some time before that someone wrote "It's impossible to imagine the wheels of commerce rolling without horses."
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 10:21 AM on December 6, 2008 [5 favorites]


I meant to say that the cbrd site linked as an afterthought is FPP worthy in its own right. In particular, the extraordinary story of the London ringways is well worth a read:
This is the story of a plan. It was a plan created by successive governments in London from the 1940s through to the 1970s. It would have affected life in the capital in every conceivable way, changing the way London looked and functioned. It would have changed the development of the city forever. It was far-reaching and visionary; planning on a scale rarely seen in this country. It was a transport scheme to end all transport schemes. And it was utterly unacceptable to the general public.
posted by ninebelow at 10:31 AM on December 6, 2008


TheonlyCoolTim:

Milton Keynes is the best, worst expression of this idea in the U.K. It's like Brasilia without the charm.
posted by The Whelk at 10:33 AM on December 6, 2008


The point of the expressway is to isolate the drivers even further from the world. No more having to stop, or slow down, or deal with terrain.

My opinion is that the reason most motorways were built in the UK was to do the opposite - to isolate the world from the motorway and vastly reduce the traffic through highly populated areas. Living outside a congested main road gets old quickly for all involved, and not just in terms of trying to get somewhere in a hurry.
posted by HaloMan at 10:34 AM on December 6, 2008


Big shout out to the M606!

More than you ever wanted to know about the M606.
posted by vbfg at 10:46 AM on December 6, 2008


Oops, I see you've already posted the same site. Doh.
posted by vbfg at 10:47 AM on December 6, 2008


HaloMan, I think you're right, but it's the same ass-about-tit justification that TheOnlyCoolTim rightly berates.
Problem: I don't want other people's cars outside my house.
Solution: Build a huge fucking road through the countryside elsewhere.

We're ignoring the working solutions of the past in our endless quest for the self-contained faux self-reliance the automobile engenders. We're missing:
Solution: No-one wants shitloads of cars outside. We should stop throwing cash at vehicle, oil, road, ford and shell subsidies and profiteering, and restore public transport infrastructure, efficient rail links, and planning processes with a little more insight than suiting the planners and pushing a problem elsewhere.
posted by davemee at 11:38 AM on December 6, 2008


We should have kept the branch lines and fucked off the motorways. And made private car ownership illegal without approval from a Kafkaesque bureaucracy.
posted by Abiezer at 12:14 PM on December 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


I agree there has been a history of remarkably poor decisions in terms of transport. The short-sighted destruction of local train services by Beeching during the 1960s and 1970s is widely seem as a disaster today, and the removal of trams in hindsight was almost certainly a bad thing. The chronic underinvestment in transport, especially public transport, during the 1980s and much of the 1990s is still seeing its effects today.

However, I think motorways are largely a necessary evil, they are remarkably effective for something that hasn't been significantly expanded since the 60s and 70s, has been relatively cheap to maintain and without them the modern transport infrastructure just wouldn't work. It makes me shudder to think of living in a place where bypasses were not built.

There has been a slow return to building large-scale public transport solutions (e.g. trams in Nottingham, the occasional park and ride, Overground extensions). But the existing ones are relatively poor, and it's not immediately obvious how they can be improved. The train system has improved but is painfully overloaded with little room for expansion, as spending an hour in Birmingham New Street will attest, and that's without going into the cost issue. Buses are expensive, slow, unreliable and infrequent. No-one in Westminster really sees transport outside of central London as their problem or worth investing in. At least the roads do work.

It's sad that it looks like the government is seeing the solution to impose congestion charges rather than try rather than fixing the remarkable ill-thought-out transport infrastructure where there's no real alternative to the car...
posted by HaloMan at 12:37 PM on December 6, 2008


Aren't we a bit stuffed with freight infrastructure now though even if we built more tram systems and made the rural buses free and frequent? Everything moves by lorry from those couple of big distribution centres now. Would have been great if we'd kept the rail as a nationalised loss leader and had more local hubs with shorter road trips to final destinations for goods. I presume the underlying logic was the promotion of the car manufacturers as a core industry. Was it ever more cost effective in national terms to opt for road over rail? My impression was always the numbers were skewed by consequences that didn't get calculated into the price of reliance on roads.
Maybe the current crisis is the ideal time to argue for a Keynesian infrastructure splurge on public transport projects! We should be so lucky.
posted by Abiezer at 12:51 PM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


As a born and bred New Yorker who now resides in Northumberland, I'll offer a small example of a critical difference regarding the "transatlantic pissing contest" about roads.

A few months ago I was back home, and driving along the BQE ( brooklyn, queens expressway ) which was about as corrugated as the surface of the moon. This unavoidable urban artery has been like this as long as I've been alive ( 35 years ) and seems to get worse every year.

Last week, on my daily drive to work in Newcastle I passed a huge pothole on the A69. I only noticed because they are quite rare.

Imagine my sheer amazement when some 8 hours later on the drive home the very same pothole was completely filled and repaired.

Whatever the mutual benefits and deficiencies on either side of the Atlantic, I don't know any New Yorker who wouldn't be taken aback by that.
posted by Hickeystudio at 3:28 PM on December 6, 2008


Aren't we a bit stuffed with freight infrastructure now though even if we built more tram systems and made the rural buses free and frequent?

Canals.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 4:01 PM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


The Whelk: Milton Keynes is the best, worst expression of this idea in the U.K. It's like Brasilia without the charm.

Or as Bill Bailey describes it, "Milton Keynes: Satan's lay-by". [Youtube, around 1:30-1:34]
posted by knapah at 4:47 PM on December 6, 2008


"The English motorway system can be quite hypnotising.
You achieve a zen-like state, as someone else's driving.
It becomes detached observing, colours and straight lights...
distant town and exit signs. (Do you really want to break up?)"

The British motorway system isn't like the interstates: it has an essential consistency (speed limits, exits) even though it doesn't really extend to the far corners of the nation (I never went on a motorway until I was in my teens) and that it basically covers the spaces between places, rather than connecting them. For that you take the A roads.

(And Dr Beeching has his nadgers caught in a railway junction for eternity.)
posted by holgate at 11:11 PM on December 6, 2008


Also, The Secret Life of the Motorway is another reason why I wish I could pay to watch BBC FOUR.
posted by holgate at 11:20 PM on December 6, 2008


Would have been great if we'd kept the rail as a nationalised loss leader and had more local hubs with shorter road trips to final destinations for goods

Network Rail is as good as nationalised and a lot of the infrastructure (especially upgrades) is funded by Department for Transport grants. The problem is most companies don't want to bother with rail (which in part can be blamed on road hauliers not paying enough road tax to cover their share of construction/repair costs, which means they're effectively subsidies).

commuters to make the entire 400 mile journey between Glasgow and London

That's quite a commute.
posted by cillit bang at 2:15 AM on December 7, 2008


For reference, 400 miles is about the distance from NYC to Cleveland, OH. 7.3 hours with no traffic.

Quite a commute.
posted by The Whelk at 1:04 PM on December 7, 2008


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