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On the road to efficiency

Smart motorways are helping to increase the capacity of our roads without the need to acquire more land

 If commerce is the lifeblood of the nation, then our roads are the UK’s veins and arteries. Unlike any other form of transport infrastructure, the road network is extraordinarily pervasive. Roads link the centres of our greatest cities to the fringes of our smallest villages.

Rightly, the government is focused upon positive outcomes for those who rely on the nation’s road network. This requires a strategy that meets 21st-century needs in terms of reducing congestion and improving journey reliability, while guarding the safety and quality of the road network.

Positive steps are being taken at a national level to improve our major highways. Last year the government committed to spending £15.1bn on the UK’s strategic roads by 2021. This investment will fund improvements to increase capacity on the UK’s busiest motorways and allow the completion of 52 national road projects.

There is a similar tonic in store for smaller roads. Importantly, last year’s government funding also included £6bn for local authorities to maintain and improve the condition of existing local infrastructure.

Improving the road network doesn’t necessarily require new highways across the green belt. Today, the combination of new capabilities and human ingenuity offers exciting alternatives that minimise the impact on the natural environment.

One example of strategic thinking, pragmatism and the application of clever technology is the Highways Agency’s Smart Motorways initiative. Rather than undertaking the costly and disruptive task of widening roads, the Smart Motorways programme employs the hard shoulder as an extra lane, together with variable speed limits to manage the flow of traffic at the busiest sections. This approach minimises the need to acquire land for road expansion, while the increased capacity and reduced congestion bring environmental benefits.

Similar technology is now also being applied to the Mersey Gateway Bridge Project, one of the UK’s largest planned infrastructure projects. Mersey Gateway will be a major new transport route linking the Liverpool city region, north Cheshire and the north-west to the rest of the country.

The regional economic strategy identifies Mersey Gateway as a catalyst that will effectively connect communities and lead regeneration and investment throughout the north-west.

Mersey Gateway has been made possible by unlocking private investment, aided by strong support via government commitments and in close collaboration with regional authorities. It provides a fantastic example of how the use of innovative techniques and better collaboration between the public and private sector on road infrastructure can deliver real value for money for taxpayers.

Further afield in Sweden, we can find other innovations in design and technology that hold great promise for improving the UK’s road network. Stockholm Bypass is a new motorway link that connects the north and south of the Swedish capital, relieving city centre traffic. Most of the route will be underground, contained within the most extensive road tunnels in the world, with a total length exceeding 50km. The new bypass will comprise two parallel road tunnels, carrying traffic in opposite directions. Both tunnels will be large enough to carry three lanes, increasing to four at the six interchanges along the route.

Whether or not the UK follows the example of Stockholm, there are still positive signs of long-term commitment and substantial investment from the government. The funding announced last year will give the impetus needed to revitalise a road network nearly at maximum capacity. Now, it is up to the private sector to help government fulfil its ambition to build a more resilient national roads infrastructure that can meet future capacity demands. Success will require a mix of innovative approaches and technologies that deliver quick wins in the short term, combined with the stronger public and private collaboration that will deliver value for money in the longer term.

 Paul Bracegirdle is the UK director for roads at URS

A year on from the Spending Review, the coalition's soothsayer has emerged to offer another gloomy economic prognosis. Asked by ITV News whether he could promise that there wouldn't be a double-dip recession, Vince Cable replied: "I can't do that.

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The Tinder dating app isn't just about sex – it's about friendship, too. And sex

The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, as I found out quickly while using the app.

The first time I met someone using Tinder, the free dating app that requires users to swipe left for “no” and right for “yes” before enabling new “matches” to chat, it was an unqualified success. I should probably qualify that. I was newly single after five years in a committed relationship and wasn’t looking for anything more than fun, friendship and, well, who knows. A few weeks earlier I had tried to give my number to a girl in a cinema café in Brixton. I wrote it on a postcard I’d been using as a bookmark. She said she had a boyfriend, but wanted to keep the postcard. I had no date and I lost my page.

My Tinder date was a master’s student from Valencia called Anna (her name wasn’t really Anna, of course, I’m not a sociopath). When I arrived at the appointed meeting place, she told me I was far more handsome IRL (“in real life”) than my pictures suggested. I was flattered and full of praise for the directness of continental Europeans but also thought sadly to myself: “If only the same could be said about you.”

Anna and I became friends, at least for a while. The date wasn’t a success in the traditional sense of leading us into a contract based on exclusivity, an accumulating cache of resentments and a mortgage, but it had put me back in the game (an appropriate metaphor – people speak regularly of “playing” with the app).

According to Sean Rad, the co-founder who launched Tinder in late 2012, the service was invented for people like me. “It was really a way to overcome my own problems,” he told the editor of Cosmopolitan at an event in London last month. “It was weird to me, to start a conversation [with a stranger]. Once I had an introduction I was fine, but it’s that first step. It’s difficult for a lot of people.” After just one outing, I’d learned two fundamental lessons about the world of online dating: pretty much everyone has at least one decent picture of themselves, and meeting women using a so-called hook-up app is seldom straightforwardly about sex.

Although sometimes it is. My second Tinder date took place in Vienna. I met Louisa (ditto, name) outside some notable church or other one evening while visiting on holiday (Tinder tourism being, in my view, a far more compelling way to get to know a place than a cumbersome Lonely Planet guide). We drank cocktails by the Danube and rambled across the city before making the romantic decision to stay awake all night, as she had to leave early the next day to go hiking with friends. It was just like the Richard Linklater movie Before Sunrise – something I said out loud more than a few times as the Aperol Spritzes took their toll.

When we met up in London a few months later, Louisa and I decided to skip the second part of Linklater’s beautiful triptych and fast-track our relationship straight to the third, Before Midnight, which takes place 18 years after the protagonists’ first meet in Vienna, and have begun to discover that they hate each others’ guts.

Which is one of the many hazards of the swiping life: unlike with older, web-based platforms such as Match.com or OkCupid, which require a substantial written profile, Tinder users know relatively little about their prospective mates. All that’s necessary is a Facebook account and a single photograph. University, occupation, a short bio and mutual Facebook “likes” are optional (my bio is made up entirely of emojis: the pizza slice, the dancing lady, the stack of books).

Worse still, you will see people you know on Tinder – that includes colleagues, neighbours and exes – and they will see you. Far more people swipe out of boredom or curiosity than are ever likely to want to meet up, in part because swiping is so brain-corrosively addictive.

While the company is cagey about its user data, we know that Tinder has been downloaded over 100 million times and has produced upwards of 11 billion matches – though the number of people who have made contact will be far lower. It may sound like a lot but the Tinder user-base remains stuck at around the 50 million mark: a self-selecting coterie of mainly urban, reasonably affluent, generally white men and women, mostly aged between 18 and 34.

A new generation of apps – such as Hey! Vina and Skout – is seeking to capitalise on Tinder’s reputation as a portal for sleaze, a charge Sean Rad was keen to deny at the London event. Tinder is working on a new iteration, Tinder Social, for groups of friends who want to hang out with other groups on a night out, rather than dating. This makes sense for a relatively fresh business determined to keep on growing: more people are in relationships than out of them, after all.

After two years of using Tinder, off and on, last weekend I deleted the app. I had been visiting a friend in Sweden, and took it pretty badly when a Tinder date invited me to a terrible nightclub, only to take a few looks at me and bolt without even bothering to fabricate an excuse. But on the plane back to London the next day, a strange thing happened. Before takeoff, the woman sitting beside me started crying. I assumed something bad had happened but she explained that she was terrified of flying. Almost as terrified, it turned out, as I am. We wound up holding hands through a horrific patch of mid-air turbulence, exchanged anecdotes to distract ourselves and even, when we were safely in sight of the ground, a kiss.

She’s in my phone, but as a contact on Facebook rather than an avatar on a dating app. I’ll probably never see her again but who knows. People connect in strange new ways all the time. The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, but you can be sure that if you look closely at the lines, you’ll almost certainly notice the pixels.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad