Fifteen Years

Published: 3 September 2016
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CBRD was first created in August 2001, and so this month the website celebrates its fifteenth birthday. Fifteen years is a long time for a website, but not such a long time in the world of transport, where new developments can take decades to move from the drawing board to the real world.

You might think that not much has changed on Britain's roads in the last fifteen years. How far have we come since CBRD's first few pages were launched?

A changing picture

Back in 2001, Britain was a different place. A second term of New Labour government was under way and there were changes at the top. In June of that year, the ministry responsible for Britain's roads had changed from the unwieldy Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to the equally unwieldy Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. A new minister, Stephen Byers, was in control. Transport is never considered a prestigious government appointment, and another eight ministers have come and gone since then.

But the policy on transport remained the same: the New Deal for Transport, introduced in 1997, promised to create an integrated transport system for the UK. Its aim was to persuade people to "use their cars a little less and public transport a little more". In the introduction to the white paper, John Prescott indicated that building more new roads was not an option. The priorities for roads would be maintenance, not improvement, and the creation of many new bus lanes. Roads were not fashionable.

    CBRD as it appeared in 2001, complete with road sign navigation buttons. Click to enlarge

    CBRD as it appeared in 2001, complete with road sign navigation buttons. Click to enlarge

    Against that backdrop, it's no wonder that CBRD started life as a project to document the roads as they existed. There didn't seem to be much prospect of anything significant changing. That's one reason why the "D" in CBRD stands for "Directory" — the website existed to document what was already there. (The other reason is that it's just a terrible name.)

    Since then, the situation has changed significantly. Labour softened its stance on road expansion, and began approving more road improvement schemes as time went on. The Coalition government was a little bolder; now the Conservatives are happier than any government in decades to promote major road schemes. In all forms of transport, the emphasis now is on new infrastructure, justified by the promise of economic growth. Whether you approve or not, it's undeniable that we're seeing plans — such as those for a trans-Pennine tunnel and for potentially upgrading a lot more of the A1 to motorway — that were unthinkable fifteen years ago.

    If you started a website about roads today you wouldn't begin by cataloguing everything that already existed, you'd be talking about all the exciting changes that are happening. And indeed, in the future, CBRD is going to spend a lot more time keeping track of what's going on today, like with the construction of new roads. Speaking of which...

    New roads

    CBRD has been tracking road construction in Road Schemes (originally called "Futures") since the summer of 2002. Back then, there wasn't much to keep track of — roadbuilding was at a low, with no sign that there would ever be much future development again. But actually we've gained a lot of new tarmac.

    The A3 at Hindhead, just one significant new road that's opened in the last fifteen years. Click to enlarge

    The A3 at Hindhead, just one significant new road that's opened in the last fifteen years. Click to enlarge

    Among the major new road schemes that CBRD has witnessed are the M6 Toll (opened in Dec 2003), the lengthy extension to the M77 (Apr 2005), several lengths of new A1(M) in Yorkshire, the vastly upgraded A13 in East London (May 2006), the M74 into the heart of Glasgow (Jun 2011), the A3 Hindhead Tunnel (Jul 2011), and the second Tyne Tunnel (Jan 2012).

    In an era when the UK largely decided not to build roads, there have been just over 94 miles of new motorway opened, so the motorway network has grown by about six miles a year.

    Motorways that no longer exist

    It's not all expansion, of course, and some road schemes have seen the loss of motorways instead.

    Our roll of honour for fallen comrades includes the M10, which was downgraded to become part of the A414 in 2009 as part of widening works on the M1 that reconfigured its terminal junction. There's also — perhaps more famously — the A6144(M), the UK's only entirely single-carriageway motorway, which was downgraded to an A-road in May 2005 as part of a scheme to improve the nearby M60. CBRD was there for the occasion and rescued some of the road's unique signage.

    The A6144(M), once one of the UK's most bizarre motorways, seen in 2006. (Yes, this was a motorway.) Click to enlarge

    The A6144(M), once one of the UK's most bizarre motorways, seen in 2006. (Yes, this was a motorway.) Click to enlarge

    New road signs

    Thankfully some things don't change very much at all, and one of the most reliable things on the UK road network in the last fifteen years has been the signage. The document that sets out our road signs is called the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions, or TSRGD for short, and it doesn't change very often. It was revised in 2002, without making many changes, and there have been amendments in 2008 and 2011.

    In 2016 there was a major change — but only to the way the document is laid out, and not to the signs themselves. So while a sign engineer might now be working with very different guidance, the signs they are making would not be much different to those made in 2001.

    No waiting at any time sign

    Since CBRD launched, there haven't been many notable new signs. One commonly-seen new arrival is the combined speed limit and speed camera repeater, introduced in 2008, which has a speed limit sign and a camera symbol on the same sign face and can be used at regular intervals along a length of road.

    More significant was the removal, in 2002, of the requirement for "no waiting at any time" signs. These little yellow rectangles were once required at frequent intervals along every length of double yellow line, and were one of the commonest signs in town centres all over the UK. When they were deleted from the guidance, highway authorities were instructed that they all had to be taken down, and they are virtually impossible to find.

    New technology

    The biggest changes of the last fifteen years have almost certainly been about technology.

    When CBRD first began, online mapping was in its infancy. You could look up a small square of a map on Streetmap, and click slowly left, right, up or down to see some more, but the scrollable, zoomable maps we now take for granted were yet to be developed. If you wanted driving directions, a few sites — like ViaMichelin — could give you a list of written instructions, or produce an overview map with a line drawn on it. For most people, route planning meant examining a road atlas before setting off, and live traffic meant picking up travel news on the car radio.

    Satellite navigation was, in 2001, still largely in development, and CBRD was three years old when, in 2004, the first commercially successful model, the TomTom Go, was launched. So it was that, fifteen years ago, CBRD dabbled briefly in providing information to help people get around, including a list of traffic "hotspots" that were best avoided. The need for that sort of thing didn't last long. Since then, the sat nav has become almost ubiquitous, and now is declining in popularity as people switch to using navigation apps on their smartphones.

    Smart Motorway technology on the M25. Motorways have become a lot more complicated in the last few years. Click to enlarge

    Smart Motorway technology on the M25. Motorways have become a lot more complicated in the last few years. Click to enlarge

    It's not just inside people's cars that technology has changed. Fifteen years ago, a typical motorway had three lanes each way and a pair of hard shoulders. Nowadays it's just as likely to be a Smart Motorway, with signal gantries and computer-controlled speed limits in an effort to maximise the capacity of existing roads. Large parts of the M1, M6 and M25 would today look rather alien to the motoring public of 2001.

    Computers have also found their way into free-flow tolling: systems that register vehicles' number plates and charge motorists for use of the roads. One of the earliest examples in the UK was the London Congestion Charge. CBRD marked the launch of the scheme in 2002 with a special page explaining the charges and what was then considered a very novel way of collecting vehicle details. Now the same technology is quite unremarkable, and when it was launched on the Dartford Crossing last year the technology wasn't considered very interesting at all.

    Things we have learned

    So while the last fifteen years haven't quite seen a revolution on the UK road network, CBRD has witnessed and reported on a fair amount of change. Aside from the number of miles of new motorway, and the way the congestion charge works, what have we learned?

    Here are ten of the most unusual things that none of us would know if it wasn't for CBRD diligently digging them up and publishing them.

    1

    If it hadn't been for a conversation between two old school friends, we would have been driving on T-roads in place of major A-roads since 1937.

    The proposed T15 takes over the A47

    2

    The first road with legislation to restrict its use to motor traffic — a motorway by any other name — opened in 1925 and leads to a holiday resort in Dorset.

    A toll motorway in Dorset

    3

    In 1964, the Ministry of Transport installed 1,000 temporary "Motorwarn" signals on the motorway network, made from parts available in any hardware shop. The Minister couldn't demonstrate the new signals to the press because those on the M4 were stolen the night before the launch.

    The lamp of a Motorwarn signal, not yet stolen

    4

    The first signalised pedestrian crossings were installed in 1929, but the Metropolitan Police thought the technology was too difficult for foreigners to use.

    Too clever for foreigners?

    5

    The colossal M8 through Glasgow city centre — one of the UK's most elaborate urban motorways — was designed to form part of a ring road. If it had been finished, the M8 would have been the narrower, quieter side.

    The M8 aglow at night

    6

    The 30mph limit was introduced in 1934 not because it was thought drivers were driving too fast, but because pedestrians and cyclists couldn't be trusted to stay out of their way.

    30mph for the sake of thoughtless pedestrians

    7

    A detailed and historic mosaic commemorating the construction of the Queensway Tunnel under the Mersey was moved to the front garden of a house in the Wirral before being broken up and sent to landfill in 1982.

    A replica of the Queensway Tunnel mosaic

    8

    The prime minister, Harold Macmillan, put on a Scottish accent to perform the opening ceremony for the M6 Preston Bypass.

    A plaque, unveiled with a fake accent

    9

    The 1920s and 30s Arterial Roads Programme in London included two short lengths of spur road from new bypasses towards existing streets. Both are called Spur Road.

    One Spur Road. There's others

    10

    In 1967, as the Ministry of Transport planned a vast network of urban motorways all over London, the Minister of Transport and her husband unwittingly bought a flat that would end up next to one of them. (Or possibly they didn't — they certainly denied it.)

    The proposed North Cross Route, not far from the Minister's flat

    Thank you

    If you've been reading CBRD for any length of time — but especially if you've been here for a number of years — thank you for taking the time to drop in and for all the feedback, corrections and useful new information you've contributed.

    The site may be fifteen years old but it's by no means finished — there's plenty of history still to dig up and plenty of interesting new developments to document. I hope you're looking forward to the next fifteen years as much as I am...!

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