Theme: Roads – Motorways, the Case Against

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.

Julian Opie. "I dreamt I was driving my car". 2002. Print on nylon.
Julian Opie. “I dreamt I was driving my car”. 2002. Print on nylon.

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?

Steen Larsen. Route Noir V, 2011. Oil on canvas.
Steen Larsen. Route Noir V, 2011. Oil on canvas.

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. The M25 and M11 interchange The M25 and M11 interchange

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.

M 25 and M4 interchange under construction.
M 25 and M4 interchange under construction.

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.

Motorists´home. Source:
Motorists´home. Source:

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.  

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

31 thoughts on “Theme: Roads – Motorways, the Case Against”

    1. Oddly, the motorway verges are not sprayed with weedkiller and pesticides like the farmland adjacent. That is not proof of the goodness of motorways but of the nuttiness of modern military agriculture. That said, if you want to see wild plants the motorway verge is a better bet and much of the UK countryside!

    2. I am currently turning a large tract of my garden over to wild flowers. Like most acts of altruism, this purely stems from self interest: I simply do not have the time to tend to the formal borders that were already set out when I bought the house. Time being money, no doubt the various authorities responsible for roadside verges in the USA are thinking on similar lines. That butterflies and other insects will be attracted to my garden for the good of nature and the entertainment of my young son is a welcome side benefit.

  1. Oh some can make pretty pictures. This lovely symmetrical one is junction 12 of the M25:

    As to driving on them: depends on what I need on the other side. Tents, kayaks, mountain bikes, caravan, trailer – or just moi and an overnight bag. All are factors at play to say yes to a train or definitely a motorway slog to get all that gear to the other end with me. So motorways have of course got their uses.

  2. Aerial photos don´t count for me as most people never have this view. I feel all drawings should be done from ground perspective, the view of a person. Then the plans need to be worked out to achieve that effect. Alas, too many designs start as overhead plans, with the assumption it will work out from the pedestrian´s viewpoint. In Denmark, among architects, plans are fetishised as aesthetic objects in themselves. One such was a housing project called the sundial with ten buildings arranege radially. Obviously the plan view dominated the ground view. Aarhus University is arranged as buildings in right-angled groups, all allgned north-south or east-west. It looks orderly on a plan but at ground level you get no sense of order, just a lot of buildings in the middle distance dumped randomly. So, no, I don´t buy the seen-from-above view as reason enough to build motorways. I do concede that Spaghetti junction and certain other motorway areas can be grand-looking and imposing but possibly because they are a bit frightening. The old idea of the sublime comes in here. It might be interesting to look at but not a place you´d like to linger. You can tell I have really been dwelling on this. I agree the photo looks nice but you could draw that and be done with the actual earth-moving and concrete pouring.
    For long distance travel where you bring a lot of equipment there is the VW Camper van or Volvo estate car – how nice to canter a long a by-road in one of those. You don´t really need to travel 600 miles to do camping. 40 miles away is usually just as uncomfortable, cold, windy and bereft of sanitation.

    1. I’m an architect by the way. So I know where you’re coming from very well. 🙂

    2. Ha! 40 miles from London there’s plenty that’s pretty enough to camp in – and I have many times – but to get to real mountains and spectacular scenery one has to drive further alas. To Snowdonia or The Lake District. And you have clearly very archaic ideas about camping sites if you think most of them are “bereft of sanitation”. I have never stayed in a campsite that didn’t have running warm water, showers and all facilities like toilets. If you don’t want those then yes the choice is there of course, but trust me, people don’t live in the 1920 anymore and 99% of sites are fully serviced. You can even get electricity and wifi in your tent these days. What a wonder eh!

  3. That’s a help. I am suspicious of helicopter views too. The public and politicians see these 200 m views and forget these are unrealistic: the street is experienced by eyes 175cm from ground level. The buildings are typically considered from a view suited to brochures.
    Back to motorways….

  4. Wildflowers: indeed, a good idea. I also recommend people only have as much lawn as they are prepared to mow with a manual rotary mower. Let the rest go back to trees and shrubs. On an annual basis, the maintenance required is much less and it´s more ecofriendly too. I notice people are rebelling against gardening but are paving over gardens instead of letting them go wild.

    1. Hehehe… No, I don’t like to suffer. But I prefer my tent or caravan in the summer thank you very much. In the winter then yes I’d opt for the hotel of course. 🙂

    2. Johann. I confirm your point that Richard seems to have rather outmoded ideas of modern day camping. But as a one-time tenter but now motorhome owner I look forward to having a suitably acrimonious debate with you in the future concerning caravans v motorhomes!

    3. LOL… yes there’s arguments for both. I prefer to tow my caravan to where I want it and then I have my nimble car to go throw around the local roads and go sightseeing in. You might tow something behind your motorhome to do this, but it certainly won’t be as big or as powerful as a Yeti. So the fun will be substantially less. Or if you don’t tow another car you will just have a lumbering bus with bacon smells in it everywhere you go. 🙂

    4. I admit to sometimes thinking just the points you make. So instead I just throw the motorhome around with abandon – it’s surprising what rapid progress you can make in 3,400 kg of Fiat Ducato. But the clatter of a 4 cylinder commercial diesel at speed is yet another reason for finding motorways unpleasant. My motorhome (which is actually called a ‘Bus’) isn’t big enough to deserve a tender but I find the smell of bacon oddly reassuring.

    5. I think one of the best bits of a caravan is that you do not hear the noise and clatter of everything rattling in it as you tow it. It’s well behind you and you have your normal car with it’s super comfy seats (the electric driver’s seat in my Yeti is excellent) and your normal quiet diesel engine and kit. I also only have to service, fuel and tax the one car since caravans in the UK need not be taxed and of course don’t have engines to service. With a motorhome you you need to pay both road tax and service the thing.

    6. We’re not having much luck with the acrimony yet, are we? But I’m sure we’ll be able to return to the topic in the future and have the sort of decent, violent disagreements that characterise every AGM of the Camping & Caravanning Club!

    7. LOL. As I said each of these devices have their pros and cons. So I don’t think either of us will win the” argument” over the other. And I don’t see it as an argument. 🙂 I just see it as two of three ways to go camping in nature. Motorhomes, caravans and tents are about spending time in nature. So each to their own.

      And to go back on topic: I don’t mind speeding down a motorway to get to said nature. In fact I VERY much prefer to stay as long as possible on a motorway when I’m towing my caravan, as the stress levels towing a big wide plastic box down country lanes are much, much higher than just meandering the same narrow (often Roman!) lanes in a car.

  5. I appreciate the distinction between car enthusiasts and motorists.

    There’s a brilliant book that explores life on and around the motorway by artist Melle Smets and philosopher Bram Esser. It’s called Snelwegverhalen (“Motorway stories”) and it’s beautifully illustrated. It’s in Dutch, but everyone should buy it.

  6. I agree with you Richard that, personally, I wish motorways had never been invented even though, impossible to believe though it is, UK motorways are some of the safest roads in the World. I use them, but with no pleasure, particularly in the UK where they are ovecrowded and my stress levels are increased by every moronic twat I see undertaking (or sitting in the outside lane). Although in a UK that had never seen motorways things might be different, rail travel here is even more abhorrent to me. From stories of a work colleague who did a regular one hour standing commute into London, that even her visible pregnancy was unable to secure a seat for, to my own few experiences, I’m afraid I’d always rather drive

    There are some motorways, usually in Southern Europe, that have interesting scenery, but most motorways are very bland. The French were very enthusiastic for placing ‘art’ on motorways. Since this was, in my opinion, always very bad art, and since it would sit there fading away for years on end, this becomes more irritating than amusing and adds to that feeling of imprisonment.

  7. Bad trains are a uniquely British phenomenon. I use trains regularly in Denmark and Germany and while sometimes imperfect are usually as nice as the car and seldom frightful as a serious traffic jam or near death experience can be. But in Britiain you can´t use German trains and the choice is the car or public transport. What a Hobson´s choice. I took the family from Coventry to Glasgow one time and found that the trains were not numbered so we did not know where to sit. Such incompetence is breathtaking as their is nothing as easy to regulate as a train system. It´s a closed system with no variables.
    I have been reading an English author called David Pye who writes about design. It has affected the way I write.

    1. This is painting with a VERY wide brush here. It’s the same as saying everyone in Italy only eats pizza. Eh?! The commuter trains into London during rush hour on certain routes are hell, but 95% of the trains and the journeys are fine. Unless you are seriously sensitive to public travel the trains are the same as anywhere in Europe to be honest – albeit slower due to the UK’s original and tiny Victorian bridges and tunnels. So no TGVs like in France that only started building those many moons after the UK.

      As to motorways they do a job and I really don’t mind a mindless 3 to 6 hours on them to get to a lovely little road at the other end to do the last bit of a trip. Means to an end.

  8. As much as I love cars, I do like travelling by train for the reasons Richard mentioned earlier. Knowing Richard’s commute very well myself I have to agree that it is a joy to travel by train there as compared to the boring E45 motorway. The view from the train is amazing, especially on very cold and sunny mornings! The old IC3 trains are great, the new IC4s are noisy and stink though… Regarding UK trains: I think Kenneth Grange’s HST125 is a stunning piece of design and I love to be in one. I travelled a lot by train in the UK when I lived in Scotland and now do so occasionally and I have to say most intercity lines are fairly OK to me. It’s possible to travel first class rather cheaply when booking early, even standard is very expensive if you’re late. But what is really disastrous is the cacophony of companies that have taken over after British Rail was killed (including its amazing corporate identity by the Design Research Unit). There is no choice, it’s local monopolies rather than competition and quality doesn’t seem to play a role in this neo-liberal nightmare.

    Thanks for pointing me towards David Pye. I’ve heard his name before but never read any of his work. I just googled him and what he says on functionalism being a fantasy is what I wrote by bachelor thesis about in a dim past. I’ll definitely catch up soon. Jan Michl from Norway has equally interesting ideas about design and functionalism, to find out read for example this: (he refers to Pye in this article).

    1. I read Jan Michl. It ought to be compulsory reading along with Pye. And Pye is a lesson in clarity. Academics need to see how to write on design: Pye shows how it can be done.

  9. Oh, and what I hate about UK/ Irish motorways is that there’s no decent place to take a break, like in Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands or even France. In Sweden they have complete parks in some places! I’m sure decent breaks in calming environments contribute to road safety. Petrol stations or lay-bys aren’t calming environments.

    1. Oh there’s a 1960s motorway services every now and then. With a lovely decaying bridge that spans the motorway normally. But yes they are not calming. And certainly the 60s ones are anything but calming.

    1. It’s certainly odd. The degree of dissociation you get from the real world playing video games (or posting comments on motoring websites) is hardly the state of mind you need when you get back in your car for another 2 hour bumper-to-bumper slog.

      Maybe instead of the usual fare they should offer a relaxing alternative. ‘Centre Lane’ where you amble along a deserted motorway at 55 mph listening to Classic FM.

  10. I too really like train journeys but, although you can have a civilised train journey in the UK, it always seems a bit of a lottery. I remember a smooth relaxed trip up to Manchester a few years ago during which I got very enthusiastic fantasising about future train journeys. However, the overcrowded, faltering return trip completely reversed my opinion.

    Of course, when asked what my problem is, I’ll start typing something like ” …. train journeys are fine if you have a compelling need to become intimately acqainted with your fellow passengers opinions and body odours”, which makes me sound like a fearful snob. Which I’m not. Really. Honestly.

    And, in a lukewarm defence of UK Service Areas, I’ll point out that the baguette sandwiches sold on most French Autoroutes are usually disgustingly flaccid.

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