How Britain fell in and out of love with roads

January 4, 2023

I noticed Joe Moran’s 2010 book On Roads in the local library, and I’m interested in roads and like Moran’s work. (I’ve also read his books on failure and on writing.) He doesn’t mean roads in general. This is a cultural history of British roads in the sixty years between the heady excitement of the first motorway openings to the road protests of the 1990s and 2000s, even if tracing that story has deeper roots.

Moran describes the book, published in 2009, as “a study in the living memory of roads”. It goes back three generations, to the moment in the 1950s when first the Preston bypass—the first instalment of the M6–and then the first section of the M1 were opened, to quite a lot of collective excitement.

This also means that it is

“a study of how our thoughts and feelings change imperceptibly over time while seeming as natural and inevitable to us as breathing.”

It is, therefore, also a study in how values change.

Psychological change

This explains how the geographer Peter Hall can write an excitable book in 1963 imagining the year 2000—there was a lot of this kind of thing around back then—-in which huge elevated expressways stretched from the centre of London outwards through the suburbs. And, 40 years on, he can say that the way in which Britain fell out of love with the roads is “one of the biggest and most sudden psychological changes of the 20th century “.

Moran’s account is thematic rather than chronological. It ranges across road design, numbering schemes. motorway catering, road rage, speed limits, tarmac, and the politics and protests that marked the end of high-profile road building programmes in the 1990s and 2000s.

I am focussing here on the signs that tell the story of Peter Hall’s “sudden psychological change”, but there is much more here: J.G. Ballard, G.K. Chesterton, The Smiths, Marc Auge’s ‘no-places’, the progressive band Hatfield and the North, the architect Will Alsop, Heathcote Williams, George Orwell, John Betjeman, Stonehenge, and, of course, the Roman road-builders all pop up, among a far larger cast list.


Moran captures well the excitement of the opening of the first part of the M1. It had four different press openings, all of which generated gushing headlines. When motorists got onto it they drove their cars beyond their capabilities: tyres blew out, big ends were wrecked. The AA was called out every six minutes.

As the French theorist Paul Virilio said, the invention of the car also means the invention of the car crash. Wolfgang Sachs has noted that the car arrived, culturally, at the same time as the celebration of measured speed—with the invention of the modern Olympics and the cycling time trial.

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It took a decade before Barbara Castle, as Transport Minister, imposed speed limits on motorways, along with a slew of other traffic laws, and she was met with a fair amount of hostility. But it seems that imposing limits increased the average driving speed; before the 70 mph (110 kph), drivers tended to drive in the 50s (80s kph).


From a futures perspective, it’s worth noting the aspirations of roads advocates in the 1950s and 1960s, even their utopianism. The shadow of Le Corbusier strides across them.

Gordon Jellicoe published plans for “Motopia“, sponsored by the Pilkington Glass Company, in 1959, in which a town of 30,000 inhabitants would be built around an elevated grid of roads raised 50 feet (15m) into the air. The ground would be reserved for public parks and canals. Jellicoe claimed that the sound and smell of the cars would disappear upwards.

Jellicoe did have an actual town in mind for this project – Staines, in the shadow of Heathrow, which is best described as “nondescript”. Moran notes that Jellicoe’s account of separating the people from the cars is close to the way in which the new town in Milton Keynes was designed, more or less at the same time.


The normalisation of roads also happened in other ways. The nature writer Robert McFarlane has observed that the road atlas makes it appear that Britain has become nothing but roads. This makes it easier to read, of course. But if the roads as they appear in the atlas were built a scale, they would be hundreds of metres wide. The railways, meanwhile, are thin wisps.

There was a complex cultural battle over motorway signage: the lead designer, Richard Kinnear, had already cut his teeth on the signage for the new Gatwick airport. His designs, with sans serif typeface, using both upper and lowercase fonts, were controversial. A counter-movement proposed a serif alternative.

(Image: Mikey Ashworth/flickr. CC BY 2.0)

Moran suggests that there was a class element to this opposition. Sans serif had “plebeian” connotations. Oxfordshire’s county surveyor had tried out something similar in the 1950s, and was instructed by the DFT to remove the signs.

‘Hopeful era’

Kinnear and his colleague Margaret Calvert went on to redesign non-motorway signage as well—and pioneered a huge shift to lowercase lettering in British public life and indeed, the ascendancy of sans serif typefaces.

Moran argues that these roadsigns belong to “hopeful era of postwar reconstruction”. The art historian Joe Kerr called them “the corporate identity of the welfare state”. In theory they were universal signs that were intended to give quotes clear and legible directions to everyone.” Or, at least, to everyone who drove. In his book The Psychology of Everyday Things (although Moran doesn’t pick this up), the designer Donald Norman celebrates the British motorway sign, and its conventions, as a model of visual and conceptual clarity.

The signs were contested in other ways. The Welsh campaign for dual language signs was—eventually—successful, and it was followed by a similar campaign by Gaelic speakers. The first Gaelic signs, on Skye, were a condition imposed by the Edinburgh merchant banker Ian Noble on a sale of land for a new road.

1,000 miles

The development of the motorway network was surprisingly rapid. In 1962, the Transport Minister Ernest Marples announced plans to build 1,000 miles of motorway in a decade at a rate of more than a mile a week. Surprisingly this was achieved—perhaps a marker of what states can do when they have capacity—when the “Midlands link” of the M6 opened in 1972. This was transformational. It meant that from the so called Midlands ‘golden triangle’ you could reach 92% of the U.K.’s population and return in a single working day.

It opened up the new age of just-in-time deliveries and “the big shed”:

by centralising the warehouse’s stock and keeping goods moving, firms could release cash flow, perhaps even sell things before they had to pay for them.… “Logistics” was this new art of moving stuff around, and the system’s beating heart was the big shed. (149)

Or, as the architectural critic Martin Pawley wrote:

Like strips of shredded truck tyre, you can find Shedland anywhere there is a motorway.

Welcome to the modern world. Just at the point in history when we needed to manage our consumption, we had installed all the conditions for a fossil-fuel driven boom in consumerism.

High water mark

Even as the motorways passed the 1,000 mile mark, the public mood and the political mood was starting to shift. Protests against London’s Westway in the ‘60s and ‘70s – one part of a long planned “motorway box” around the centre of London — drew on 1960s counterculture. In 1970 the London pressure group Homes Before Roads contested the Greater London council elections, and gained 100,000 votes, if no seats. By 1972, the Department of the Environment said “the day of the supremacy of the motorcar and the road builder has come to an end.”

It is another sign, perhaps, that 1972 does indeed represent “the high water mark of modernity”, which I wrote about here recently.

Although this was the end of the idea of the big urban motorway, the roadbuilders did keep going. The Labour government that came to power in the 1970s hadn’t got the memo. The Environment Minister Anthony Crosland, now in charge of transport, believed that the car was a force for social mobility, and approved the building of the M25. London’s orbital motorway was opened enthusiastically by Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1986.

Bitter protests

The end of the motorway age was marked by increasingly complex and bitter protests at Twyford Down on the M3, at the Newbury bypass in Berkshire, and in East London, where the M11 Link Road was being built. Tactics became increasingly sophisticated: lock-ons, tunnels, and treehouses all evolved during this time. As Moran observes, it was astounding that no one died.

There was also some wit: East London declared the independence of ‘Wanstonia’ and applied to join the United Nations, as anti-Westway protesters had done 15 years before with ‘Frestonia’ in Notting Hill.

In East London as houses were cleared to build the link road they would be squatted by protesters, and the police response became increasingly aggressive. The protests did not prevent any of the roads from being built, but they changed the way that road building was perceived. When the Conservative government was looking for budget cuts, the capital spending on the roads program was an easy target.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that images of roads appeared in the British art of the 1990s. Jonathan Parson’s ‘Carcass’—part of the Young British Artists ‘Sensation’ exhibition’—severed the roads from the map, and a hung them up. Julian Opie’s sequence ‘Imagine You Are Driving’, harks back to the early excitement of driving on almost empty roads. Graeme Miller’s ‘Linked’, which I’ll come back to, is the direct result of his being swept up, wrongly, in the East London roads protests.

Cost benefit numbers

When the new Labour government came to power at the end of the 1990s, the political noise was all about improving and increasing the use of public transport. In 1998 a government White Paper, “A New Deal for Transport”, cancelled many road schemes. Roads would, it said, be built only as a last resort. 2000 was the first year since the 1960s when there was no motorway building of any kind in Britain.

But even so, road building schemes and road “upgrading” schemes continued, hidden behind the apparently neutral, and apparently technical, language of the new Labour “New Approach to Appraisal” (NATA), underpinned by some conveniently calculated cost-benefit numbers:

Every minute a new road saved a driver was worth 44p – and all of those 44ps added together over the road is projected 60-year lifespan could be offset against the cost of building it. But a minute saved for a bus user was only were 33p, and for a cyclist 28p. (243)


Moran draws on Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us to describe what happens when you stop using roads. They disappear surprisingly quickly. Freezing and thawing breaks up the asphalt, and the water runs through the cracks.

After a decade, the road would be overgrown with vegetation; a decade later it would be impassible except in the sturdiest off-roader. (250)

There are ghosts in the roads that have been built as well. Graeme Miller, whose house was ransacked by police during the M11 protests, got his revenge by creating an audio work, ‘Linked’, built around the voices of those who had been displaced by it.

The work is embedded in the landscape around three miles of the motorway, with recordings played by transmitters and lampposts on the nearby roads. The transmitters are under guarantee for 100 years. The stories about the M11, and the people that it displaced, might outlive the road that uprooted them.

A version of this article was also published on my Just Two Things Newsletter.

Teaser photo credit: M25 orbital. By Photo: Andreas Praefcke – Self-photographed, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15603432

Andrew Curry

The Next Wave is my personal blog. I use it from time to time to write about drivers of change, trends, emerging issues, and other futures and scenarios topics. I work for the the School of International Futures in London. (Its blog is here). I started as a financial journalist for BBC Radio 4’s Financial World Tonight, before moving to Channel 4 News during the 1980s. I still maintain an interest in digital media and in the notion of the creative economy.

Tags: car culture, road building, Transport