posted 3 years ago

Roads: Do We Need Them All?

Our latest article from guest writer, Carlton Reid.

Do we need them all? There’s a dual carriageway near Dover that is surplus to requirements. Even during peak hours the Temple Ewell dual carriageway sees very little action.

So, why is it still dualled? Why is so much precious space given over to a road that so obviously no longer needs to be this wide? Originally a prehistoric trackway and then improved by the Romans before being turnpiked in the 18th Century the Temple Ewell dual carriageway was once the trunk road between Dover and London before being bypassed in 1977 by a shiny new A2.

Metaphorical tumbleweed now rolls along this dual carriageway, and it's one of many such under-used roads across the UK. It’s about time that many of them were converted into cycleways.

Fanciful? Not so: the conversion of a major road in the Cheshire chianti-belt shows it can and will be done. The A556 trunk road near Knutsford is due to be part-converted into a separated and protected “non-motorised user” track for cyclists, pedestrians and equestrians.

A556 Improvement Scheme

This will be four metres wide, part of a “roadspace reallocation” scheme that will work in tandem with the £221m five-mile between-motorways link road due to open in 2017. The old A556 four-lane dual carriageway will be “de-trunked” and divided into three.

There will be two lanes for motorised use, a central grass berm with a wooden barrier, and a wide route, in transport-wonk-speak, for NMUs. It will become possible to cycle, in comparative safety, four or so miles from the Little Chef at the M6 roundabout to the Swan at Bucklow Hill (this Brewer’s Fayre pub is a former 17th century coaching inn built for the travellers on the newly turnpiked road).

While this is a route largely from nowhere to nowhere it links in with the area’s country-lane network, including the waymarked on-road 176-mile Cheshire Cycleway.

For motorists to lose one carriageway on a four-mile stretch of bypassed road is hardly a major loss but the detrunked-A556 will become a useful example of how the provision of a new road can, and should, result in the provision of infrastructure for those not in motorised vehicles.

But even when a road isn’t being created from scratch there are many sound reasons for removing or repurposing roads. For instance, many cities around the world are demolishing urban motorways and replacing them with linear parks and people-friendly boulevards.

Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon elevated highway is the poster child of “freeway removal.” Built in 1976, the eight-mile South Korean multilane flyover was demolished in 2005, replaced with a country park and a bus route. What happened to the motorists and their cars?

They dispersed, with no noticeable impact on congestion. Benefits have included the reduction of carcinogenic airborne particulate matter by 21 percent and lowering the city’s summer temperature by 3.6 degrees Celsius. With many elevated arterials now past their use-by date, urban authorities are weighing up the costs for renovation, replacement or removal. Remodelling is often the cheapest option, and certainly the greenest.

In Liverpool, the “Friends of the Flyover” received crowd-funding in 2014 to proceed with a design to remodel the city’s “brutal” Churchill Way flyover into a “pedestrian and cycle-friendly promenade in the sky.” In 2000, the Harbor Drive Freeway in Portland, Oregon, was replaced by the Tom McCall Waterfront Park.

A556 Improvement Scheme

Toronto knocked down part of the double-decker Gardiner Expressway, and replaced it with a ground-level, multi-use boulevard with an adjacent cycleway. When, in 1989, a one-mile elevated section of San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway was felled by the Loma Prieta earthquake the original plan was to rebuild like-for-like.

This was eventually scrapped, and the end result was a traffic-calmed, multi-use waterfront road. Each time it’s proposed that a city is to decommission a highway, there are apocalyptic predictions of gridlock: in reality, when roads are ripped out, traffic planners find, to their surprise and delight, that congestion tends to drop. Seventy-five percent of the motor traffic re-routes, while the other 25 percent disappears.

The “Highways to Boulevards” movement – “reclaiming urbanism, revitalising cities” – is gaining momentum, and world cities planning to dismantle more motorways include Auckland, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Montreal and Tokyo.

Roads are viewed as vital to economic prosperity, even though they are sometimes the exact opposite: in 1993, in an article for Geographical, author Oliver Tickell wrote: “If access by road is the key to economic prosperity then Birmingham should be the wealthiest city in Britain. It is not.” Birmingham, like my home city of Newcastle on Tyne, could easily rip out some roads and – after a while – nobody would notice.

That is, there would be little knock-on effect on traffic congestion. One of the main reasons for congestion is the fact we tend to use the same roads at the exact same time. At 3am there are no mile-long traffic queues on even Britain’s busiest motorways. There’s plenty of roadspace at night, it’s how we use it in the daytime that creates the bottlenecks.

We don’t need more roads, we need intelligent use of the existing and over-generous road network, and part of that intelligent use will be to evaluate which dual carriageways ought to be de-trunked and made into routes for cyclists, walkers and equestrians. Controversial? The chancellor of the exchequer doesn't think so – the detrunking of the A556 is taking place in George Osborne's Tatton constituency. 



Carlton Reid is the executive editor of He drives a Nissan Note "but not very often." He is the author of a book on motoring's cycling beginnings, Roads Were Not Built For Cars. On Wednesday 13th January he’s giving a talk on “Who Owns the Roads” to the Skeptics in the Pub in Newcastle upon Tyne.