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