Gridlock in Great Britain

Roads and car ownership

Full print version, including charts and tables

The mass production of the Model-T Ford from 1908 is often viewed as the dawn of the motorised society.

However, the beginning of mass motoring in Britain was perhaps best signalled by the opening of the M1, the first full-length motorway, 50 years later.

The road network in 1914 was only 28% shorter than it is today, but no official attention was paid to the state of roads in Britain until after WWI. The first dedicated Roads Department of the Ministry of Transport was created in 1919, and over the next decade, roads were systematically surveyed and a ‘Road Fund’ established to provide finance for the repair of particularly bad stretches.

Private car ownership grew slowly until after WWII, but accelerated following the end of petrol rationing. By the late 1950s car travel had become the preferred mode of transportation. Congestion was a recognised issue by the early 1960s, but the widely accepted solution was to build more roads.

This changed in 1963 with the publication of the Buchanan Report, Traffic in Towns. For the first time, the fact of unrestrained growth in car ownership was factored into town planning and urban design. The radial design of roads around towns, without heavily restricting access to town centres, has been the norm since then and is perhaps best symbolised by the M25, completed in 1986.

Various subtle modifications have been made to the model of congestion control in Britain since Buchanan, including the introduction of parking charges in cities in the early 1970s and the pedestrianisation of some town centres. Congestion charging was introduced in London in the 2003, but this has not been widely adopted.

The open road: in 1923, there were five cars for every kilometre of major road; today, the figure is 500, though the quality of the road network is vastly improved
The chart shows the number of licensed private cars and the length of major roads (motorways plus A and B-roads) in Great Britain.
Note: A minor revision was made to the length of major roads from 1992 onwards.

 The chart shows the number of licensed private cars and the length of major roads (motorways plus A and B-roads) in Great Britain

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