James May* wrote that if you find yourself driving on a motorway you are probably in the wrong vehicle. You should be on a train.
I tend to agree and having begun a twice weekly commute of 100 km, I have not once considered driving. I have done so in order to avoid the E45 motorway. On the train I can read, sleep, write or even meet people. A dislike of motorways is something that car enthusiasts and ecologists can agree on. Motorists, on the other hand think motorways are excellent. I will get back to motorists in a moment.
Car enthusiasts enjoy the business of driving which is a kind of manageably difficult activity. You need to control a 1500 kg mass under quite highly variable conditions. The road’s elevation, camber, radius, rate of radius change and grip alter continuously while speed is to be kept to the maximum. Motorways are a determined effort by civil engineers to remove as many variables as possible so as to create a controlled environment for the car. This eliminates all the interest barring what little can be wrung from outright speed or listening to the radio. Where is the pleasure in that?
Part of the dreariness of motorways is that the surrounding areas are so uniform. All motorway cuttings look the same: slopes at or near 30 degrees depending on the soil porosity of the area. They stay that way too as specially designed machines periodically shave down all vegetation within a prescribed distance from the hard shoulder.
Country roads, in comparison, have quite lively margins and even have buildings within a few metres of the road. That keeps you alert. On the motorway one has little to do other than maintain a high speed and nudge the wheel a bit. Nothing outside the car warrants a look because the uniform verges have been sterilised and trimmed to death. Only road signs thrive on motorway banks, those and plastic waste.
On this basis, the ecologically-minded can also deplore motorways. They assault the natural landscape, levelling it to an averaged strip of asphalt. At motorway intersections huge lumps of countryside are encircled by slip roads and loops. Much of this is not even the natural terrain surrounded but is a landscape shaped by bull-dozers. The disturbed soil is usually not much good for the local plants.
The pre-existing top-soil has been lost or intermixed with the much worse material underneath. It remains bare for years until pedegenesis slowly resumes. Once the motorway is finished then come the retail boxes and office parks which further disrupt the rural landscape. Motorways are never truly finished; they attract constructions.
In case you are not clear on this motorways are not merely a means to cut journey times. They are considered ends in themselves as they are thought to encourage growth. They only distribute it. While planning policies vary from country to country to country, I can say that in Denmark motorways and motorway junctions are viewed as nodes for development sucking commercial life from town centres.
The local municipalities lean over backwards to expropriate and re-sell land along motorways for anyone who wants it. The end result is that not only is the motorway landscape boring it can often be deliberately ugly: huge steel warehouses, flagpoles and acres of dead lawns and carparks. The local road and dense town are being replaced by motorways and re-ruralised development. The Danes are fine with this. They are practical. They are motorists at heart.
Turning back to the motorway and its effect on cars themselves. A car designed for motorway use is usually a car that is not such a pleasure to drive anywhere else. The motorway encourages speed. Speed requires a large engine. The speed also creates vibration and noise which need to be muffled by thicker steel and soundproofing. This adds weight and that requires more engine power. All of this adds up to vehicles that are perhaps eventually cossetting and quiet but which are anaesthetic and energy intensive. The motorway is an enemy of driving for pleasure. Inside and out, there is nothing much to see or think about.
What is or was the alternative? Ever the idealist, I propose we ought never to have built motorways. They are, after all, the preferred transport infrastructure of dictators and the closed-minded shop-keepers of the right wing. Le Corbusier liked motorways, another reason to despise this evil little monster. All that the motorway can do is done better by train. A railway track is seldom an attack on nature and they are mostly silent. Motorways roar all day long, creating an endless tube of noise.
The irony is that building roads to suit cars is the enemy of the car itself – motorway cars are unlinked train carriages, after all. And the places made to suit cars are not worth going to or being in. Nobody wants to picnic within earshot of cars doing 140 kmph. And the suburbia designed for cars is an abhorrence.
My idea is that we ought to have let people figure out for themselves that the car is not suited to routine driving or fast intercity travel. Instead we ruined our cities and our countryside to chase the impossible goal of satisfying the motor car.
Had we left the urban landscape and transport network as it was in 1945 people would have simply learned to take trains and planes for long distance trips, just as they learned not to try walking from Madrid to Bordeaux. And cities would have remained dense enough for bikes and busses and a few cars here and there. This would have left Europe a place for pleasant car driving in pleasant cars. I am thinking here of those advertisements of the 1950s showing cars slowly creeping through a landscape as yet unchanged for hundreds of years. That looked good.
The motorway is attractive only to motorists. Motorists do not consider the lovely or the delightful. They want convenience above all. But when the god of convenience is sated there is nothing convivial or beautiful left. Every increase in convenience is met by an even sharper decrease in quality. Motorways are one such manifestation of this principle.
*May, J (2007) “A bad case of motorway madness” in May, J. “May on Motors”. Virgin, London.