How UK Roads have Changed over the Years

Posted by Simon R 26/11/2021 0 Comment(s)

Motorists in the 21st century take highspeed roads, such as motorways, for granted. They are so commonplace that most people don't consider what a huge impact they've had on our life; yet a mere 60 years ago, driving across the country at speed was new and thrilling.

The introduction and evolution of motorways opened up the country for workers and holidaymakers alike. They enabled people to make the 459-mile journey from Scotland to London in just over eight hours, compared with between four and eight days in the early 20th century.

Visitors could drive farther afield on holiday without wasting precious days on the road, while employees could commute a longer distance to work in the convenience of their own car, instead of relying on trains.

M1 Motorway

© Aniczkania /

Early 20th century

In the early 20th century, roads weren't numbered as they are today and journeys to other towns and cities were long, arduous and uncomfortable. The UK's road network had been used only for horse-drawn transport for centuries.

The first petrol driven, four-wheeled automobile in Britain was built by Frederick Bremer in Walthamstow in 1892. However, few people had cars and there was no national government body to maintain the road network.

In 1901, the motor vehicle was still a luxury item aimed at the wealthy: the census of 1901 recorded there were 623 chauffeurs working in the UK. By 1904, there were 23,000 cars on Britain's roads. The number had rocketed to more than 100,000 by 1910.

First A roads

Finally, the government had to acknowledge the road network was poorly maintained. In 1914, it set up the Road Board, which started to tax car owners, with the aim of spending the money to repair and improve the roads.

The government decided to classify roads nationwide to ascertain which should be given top priority. This was done through traffic surveys. However, World War 1 caused delays in the classification process.

After WW1 ended in 1918, there was no progress on fixing the UK's roads for several years. The government replaced the Road Board with a new Ministry for Transport in 1919. The categories of A and B roads that we know today were announced in 1922. The first official list was published a year later.

As the number of cars continued to grow, even more roads were needed for all the extra traffic. The government built some dual carriageways, with the majority around London, but still not enough to alleviate the growing traffic congestion.

The first three colour traffic lights were used in Piccadilly in 1926, although they were operated manually. The first automatic traffic lights appeared in Princes Square, Wolverhampton, in November 1927.

Motorway proposals

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu first proposed a motorway in 1922, to add to the road network in London. He suggested constructing a new style motorway on viaducts, with support structures containing offices and flats, as it wasn't possible to further widen the already overstretched roads at ground level. However, his idea was never taken up, largely due to the prospect of having flats and offices within a structure that supported a busy and noisy motorway!

Undeterred, Lord Montagu came up with the idea of a motorway to connect London with Liverpool, passing through Coventry, Wolverhampton, Birmingham, Stoke-on-Trent and Manchester. Historians consider this the predecessor of the M1 and M6.

The government was disinterested and the Commercial Motor Users' Association, rather surprisingly, didn't believe trade vehicles would be interested in using motorways!

First motorway

In 1935, the driving test was introduced in the UK, initially on a voluntary basis. The first driving test pass was awarded to Mr R Beere, of Kensington, on 16th March. The driving test became compulsory on 1st June 1935.

There was no real progress on the UK's roads network for more than 20 years. During the 1930s, storm clouds gathered across Europe as the world prepared for World War 2 in 1939. After the war, it took some years for the economy to recover.

In 1949, the government renewed its commitment to building highspeed roads when it approved the Special Roads Act, permitting the construction of roads that prohibited non-motor vehicles and pedestrians.

In 1956, work began on what was to become the UK's first motorway. Preston, in Lancashire, was chosen for the dual two-lane highspeed road that eventually became Preston Bypass, which opened on 5th December 1958.

This was the central point for people travelling for holidays to other parts of the country. It often became a bottleneck for long distance traffic going to Scotland, or to the Lancashire seaside resort of Blackpool. Constructing a motorway here helped to alleviate the heavy road congestion.

Other early motorways included the Newport bypass, now the M4; the Stevenage bypass, which became the A1(M); and the M48 around the Severn Bridge. In September 1959, 33 days before the opening of the M1, the national numbering system for motorways was agreed.

There were no speed limits in the early years. People would go out driving around the 60 miles of uninterrupted highspeed roads just to see what it was like. Some became a tourist destination, with tour buses laid on to take passengers the entire length of each motorway.

The UK's first service station, Watford Gap, became hugely popular among travellers when it opened on 2nd November 1959. The growing motorways network opened up the country to people who would normally have been limited in their travel plans.

Past 60 years

Motorway development grew rapidly in the 1960s, as the government fulfilled its pledge to build 1,000 miles of motorways within the decade. The 70-mph speed limit was introduced in 1965, as a result of a number of accidents caused by people driving too fast in fog.

Plans for many new roads in the 1970s were put on hold due to the oil crisis. During the 1980s, new road building remained stagnant, and few improvements were carried out, other than the full opening of the M25. The UK was still struggling after the economic impact of the oil crisis.

In the 21st century, road building has remained relatively slow. It is unlikely it will ever reach the peak of the 1960s. The most recent major road projects have included the final completion of the M6 to the border with Scotland on 5th December 2008.

In addition, the A1(M) has connected Newcastle Upon Tyne with the UK's motorway network; in Scotland, the M74 has been completed to extend it into Glasgow; the M80 and M90 have also been extended to link to the rest of the motorways network.

Today, the total UK road length is estimated to be 247,500 miles. There are 31,800 miles of major roads, comprising 2,300 miles of motorways and 29,500 miles of A roads. There are 215,700 miles of minor roads, consisting of 18,900 miles of B roads and 196,800 miles of C and unclassified roads, known as U roads.

CCTV cameras

The expansion of the roads network has brought with it other changes, such as CCTV and Automatic Number Plate Recognition cameras to record the details of motor vehicles that are breaking the law. The ANPR technology is used in many motorway cameras to "detect, deter and disrupt criminality".

This broad description covers everything from speeding and detecting untaxed and uninsured vehicles to locating stolen vehicles and even solving major crimes. There are around 11,000 ANPR cameras across Britain, submitting some 50 million records daily.

Sadly, in the past century, a growth in car crime has coincided with the expansion of the roads network. In 1921, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police spoke for the first time about car crime. He said "larcenies of motor cars and vans" had become more frequent.

However, with no door or ignition locks in many early cars, he blamed "the carelessness of owners" for not securing their vehicles properly. Motor insurance existed, but was not something the majority of car owners even considered.

A century later, there have been more than 89,400 car thefts in England and Wales alone in 2020/21 - an increase from 70,000 in 2013/14.

Today, motorists use modern technology to deter car crime, such as using hidden immobilisers to prevent would-be thieves from turning on the ignition. The most stolen car in Britain in 2021 is the Range Rover Sport. Also, in the top ten most stolen cars are the BMW X5, the Land Rover Discovery and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

By the end of June 2021, there were 39.2 million licensed vehicles on the UK's roads.