Hard shoulders removed to stop half of routes becoming full by 2050
The hard shoulder will be stripped out of the main motorways in England after warnings that half of the busiest roads will be full within three decades.
Highways England said that most of the network between London and Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Bristol would be turned into “smart” motorways.
This means removing the hard shoulder to create extra capacity and using variable speed limits to keep traffic flowing. Traffic information will be relayed to cars via a broadband-style system to allow drivers to select alternative routes at busy times. It is expected to be completed by 2040.
Highways England has said that population rises and increases in car ownership are putting a heavy strain on the network. Forecasts drawn up by the government-funded company show that half of motorways and big A-roads will face M25-style levels of traffic for “significant periods of time” by 2050 despite billions of pounds spent upgrading the strategic road network.
About 50 per cent of it — more than 2,000 miles — will be under “stress”, with vehicles failing to operate at normal speeds at busy times. Traffic is forecast to grow by 27-57 per cent, driven mainly by population growth and an increase in distances covered by cars owing to falling fuel costs.
Jim O’Sullivan, the chief executive, said that the southwest corner of the M25, including the busy 12-lane stretch past Heathrow, was already taking up to 30 per cent more cars than it was designed for.
Motorists would need to drive outside peak hours to avoid being stuck in traffic, he said. A study last year showed that jams on motorways were already costing the economy £9 billion a year in lost productivity and extra fuel costs.
Ministers are promising big upgrades to address pinch-points on the 4,300-mile strategic road network. These include a new tunnel under the Thames east of Dartford to relieve the M25.
Mr O’Sullivan said: “There are sections of our network which are full. And there are sections of our network that we know are not full yet but even if we build everything that we intend to build now will still be full in the future. The southwest quadrant of the M25 is operating at 20-30 per cent above its design capacity. The Dartford crossing sees over 100,000 crossings a day and it hit maximum capacity at least five years ago, which is why we are building the lower Thames crossing.”
Mr O’Sullivan said that forecasts by Highways England showed that more than half the network would be under similar pressure by 2050. “I wouldn’t envisage it being Friday night traffic all of the time . . . but traffic would not achieve our target operating speeds on 50 per cent of the network by 2050,” he said. This includes the M25, most of the M1 and the M6.
Asked about solutions, Mr O’Sullivan said: “I think that behaviours will change considerably when people have connected vehicles and people can plan accurately their journey time in advance and people will self-select away from the peaks.”
Highways England wants to convert most of England’s main routes — the M6, M25, M1, M4, M40 and M42 — into a smart motorway “spine”. It also wants to lay broadband down the middle of the motorways to beam traffic information directly into cars, relaying warnings about jams ahead and diverting vehicles on to other roads.
The scheme is expected to start from 2023 and be completed between 2030 and 2040. Highways England is expected to ask for about £30 billion for the funding period 2020-25. A trial on the A2 and M2 between London and Kent will start this year.